Five years ago this month, a 26-year old Tunisian street vendor known only to his family and friends died after he set himself on fire. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, who snapped after another humiliating encounter with local police, also set ablaze the cruel and unforgiven world that millions of angry and desperate Tunisians and Arabs inhabited. Bouazizi’s fiery end sparked the Arab uprisings that are still smoldering with varying degrees of intensity. Few days later, the mostly peaceful demonstrations inspired by Bouazizi’s ultimate protest swept away Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who became the first Arab tyrant to be overthrown by his own people in modern Arab history.
The powerful political winds from Tunisia moved the fires eastward and consumed Egypt and Libya, then moved to another continent, to engulf Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. And the rest as the saying goes is history. In the early days of unbridled enthusiasm, there was a sense that the people were shaping their own future, without the intervention of an outside powerful Deus ex Machina, but time will show that the actions and inactions by outside forces were crucial determinants in the unfolding of these tales of promises and woes. Five years later, most of The Arab world is more firmly than ever in the grip of the Arab patriarchs, who defy time and who live in splendid solitude in a never ending autumn.
The Tunisian exception
Five long years have passed, and the early hopes and promises of the uprisings for democracy, empowerment, inclusive government, personal dignity and economic opportunities have been dashed. The autocrats, who were removed, were replaced either by civil strife or all out civil wars, or by new vengeful autocrats. The only exception is Tunisia, whose transition from autocracy to democracy was not without considerable pain and even violence. Tunisia today has earned the status as the only democratic Arab country according to Freedom House; a U.S. based non-governmental Human rights organization.
There was never a ‘fierce urgency of now’ when it came to reform and democracy in the Arab world, regardless of the eloquent speeches of Obama, and there is no ‘new beginning’ with anyone in sightHisham Melhem
Democracy in Tunisia is still fragile, but the country has the necessary attributes for a full democratic transformation, attributes other Arab states lacks. Tunisia is largely a homogenous state with a clear national identity and a relatively developed civil society. Tunisia has been experimenting with modernization and political reforms since the reign of the enlightened modernizer Khayr al-Din Pasha al-Tunisi in the middle of the 19th century. Tunisia was a trailblazer when it became the first Arab country to outlaw slavery in 1846, a year before Sweden and 17 years before the United States. Tunisia’s first president after independence from France. Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy, and enacted laws allowing for women’s suffrage and education. Modern Tunisia developed a secular tradition, with a polity that was more open than its neighbors, and a more prosperous economy not shackled by oppressive centralized control. Political violence has been rare, and the country’s small armed forces were not designed as a praetorian guard and were never used to suppress domestic dissent.
The despot is gone but his despotism lingers
None of the other uprisings came to a happy interlude. Libya’s implosion created rebellions that led, with international military intervention to the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, and Yemen’s implosion led to spasms of bloodshed until Saudi Arabia and other GCC state mediated the end of the Ali Abdallah Saleh’s reign, but only temporarily, before Yemen resumed its descent to the abyss. Egypt’s tale is a classic version of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, from Mubarak, to the faceless Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to the paranoid Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally to the military patriarch Sisi. In Bahrain, more of the same, but in Syria all the imaginable horrors have materialized and metathesized.
In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, the uprisings removed the tip of the old despotic pyramid, but the leaders of the uprisings soon realized that the pyramid itself had thick immovable parts; the political, economic, security and cultural structures, that supported the Pharaohs and enabled them to deeply scar and even pulverize their societies, and that these structures are still in place. Undermining these structures will require time, strategic patience, and legitimate, accountable leadership. The counterrevolution began, the moment the peoples in the streets were toppling their former tormentors. Years after the despots have gone, their despotism still lingers.
What the Obama administration did or did not do in the countries swept by the uprisings and Iraq, is very crucial to their current trajectories, and is only partially responsible for the horrific agonies being experienced by most people in the region. The despotism, autocracy, that was at the heart of Arab governance and infected majority Arab societies, and left their indelible mark on Arab culture since WWII, is in the main responsible for the political and societal dysfunction in most Arab states.
Iraq’s unraveling began with Saddam Hussein’s breathtakingly reckless decision to invade Iran, an ancient land three times the size of Iraq. Moreover, Iran was in the grip of a revolutionary moment of enthusiasm. And countries in such revolutionary rapture don’t react like states living in normal conditions.
But Iraq’s current upheavals were set in motion by President George W. Bush’s inexplicable almost religious calling to invade Mesopotamia to erect on the banks of the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers a mythical Arab Jeffersonian democracy. The invasion unleashed the pent up violent shock waves of sectarianism, political repression and sectarian cleansings. Iraq’s unraveling will continue to reverberate for years, if not decades to come.
The uprisings and their discontents
Initially, President Obama instinctively welcomed the demands of the Arab uprisings for dignity, justice and economic opportunities, and he saw in these spontaneous mass movements a rebuke of the dark violent vision of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He was relatively quick to call on Egyptian President Mubarak to prepare for a "transition to democracy," and began to prepare for the post-Mubarak phase. In the following months, Obama asserted that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy”. In a seminal speech he delivered on May 19, 2011 at the State Department, Obama put the United States firmly on the side of those seeking to topple the oppressive status quo, and who are seeking “a chance to pursue the world as it should be”.
During the brief rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from February 2011 to June 2012, and the short term of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was overthrown by a military coup in July 2013, many acts of violence against civilians occurred along with other violations of human rights. Following the violent crackdown on Islamists after the overthrow of the deeply flawed but legally elected Morsi, which was the worst in modern Egyptian history, the Obama administration’s reaction was tellingly timid.
In Libya, a war Obama owns fully, his concept of “Leading from behind” was disastrous and in part explains his failure to follow up on the political challenges after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Here at least Obama admitted that the lack of political follow up was his failure.
From the beginning of the Syrian uprising President Obama tried to avoid involvement in what he called ‘somebody else’s civil war’ even when the conflict was not at that stage. All of Obama’s decisions on Syria were tentative, and even when he authorized military support to the opposition, his heart was not in it. In September 2014, one month after the modern day hordes of ISIS occupied Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Obama admitted that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat ISIS. Almost a year later, Obama said in a press conference in Germany that the Pentagon has not presented him with a “finalized plan” to combat ISIS, hence “ we don’t yet have a complete strategy“. Russia’s recent military rampages on behalf of the Syrian regime are in part the result of President Obama’s dithering and inaction in Syria. Indecision means supporting or tolerating the status quo.
But beyond the specifics and the various struggles unleashed by the uprisings and their humbling discontents, it seems that President Obama, when he looked at the enormity of the challenges posed by the Arab uprisings, particularly when they became more violent, that he simply flinched, and gradually lost the emotional and intellectual interest needed to shape the course of the region. Asia is beckoning and who could ignore the new economic hub of this century, and Obama’s domestic agenda is not fully realized. Obama’s supporters say that he has invested too much time and energy in the Middle East trying to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and both sides are ungrateful, and besides, the President who from day one kept his eyes fixed on the real prize (the nuclear deal with Iran) has clinched his Middle Eastern win. The limited war against ISIS will continue but will not be decisively settled, and along with the two longest wars in American history all will be bequeathed to his successor. There was never a ‘fierce urgency of now’ when it came to reform and democracy in the Arab world, regardless of the eloquent speeches of Obama, and there is no ‘new beginning’ with anyone in sight. Obama is leaving those Arabs he wowed in Cairo and beyond in 2009 to their own devices and to the tender mercies of their rulers.
This is indeed the long unending autumn of the Arab Patriarchs.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem