November 3, 2011
One of the most remarkable things about the "Arab Spring," besides that it happened at all, is the unique ways in which it happened, country by country. Spontaneously generated and developing more organically than systematically, each of these revolutions will be analyzed by historians and social scientists as models of the dynamics of power and their ultimate results. Such analysis is exceedingly complex, involving a host of factors, including the extent and depth of popular and political grievances, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposed government and its successors, the role of the military and police, the cohesion or fragmentation of the society, the level of education and the grip of indoctrination, the tactics of resistance, and the intervention by foreign powers.
A distinguishing feature of the Arab Spring is the use or rejection of violence as a tool of revolution. On one end of the spectrum is Tunisia, whose protests remained largely peaceful despite police crackdowns and the deaths of over 200 protesters. Less than a month after the demonstrations began, the aged president Ben Ali abdicated. Several interim governments rose and fell until the vestiges of Ben Ali's political apparatus were purged and the secret police force was dissolved. Last week, ten months into the revolution, elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to frame a new constitution, with 90 percent voter turnout. The Nahdah party, considered "moderate Islamist," won a plurality of the seats. The social and political situation seems to have stabilized, but questions remain about the ongoing freedom of the country under Nahdah rule.
In the middle of the spectrum of violence is Egypt, whose protests also remained predominantly nonviolent and resulted in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, also within a month. Unlike in Tunisia, however, the cronies of the deposed dictator have held on to power, postponing elections and reimposing limits on free speech and assembly. Insidiously, they are attempting to undermine the effectiveness of the protesters by diversion and division along religious fault-lines. On October 9, a peaceful march for the civil rights of the Coptic Christian minority, formerly protected by Mubarak but now assailed by Islamist elements, was attacked by a mob possibly summoned by the police; it took the army, once considered sympathetic to the protest movement, six hours to respond and restore order. By then, 27 were dead, both Copts and supporting Muslims. Will the goals of the revolution be subverted by infiltration?
At the other end of the spectrum of violence is Libya. In this case, peaceful protests lasted but a few weeks before being supplanted by disaffected soldiers in remote areas who commandeered stockpiles of government weapons. This action not only played into the hand of dictator Muamar Qaddafi, flush with weapons supplied by the arms merchants of Europe, but drew the Western powers into the conflict like a magnet. Nonviolent opposition is a mystery to the military mind, which is why if resistance to Qaddafi had remained peaceful, the United States and Europe might have refrained from intervention and let the internal dynamic take its own course, as they did with Tunisia and Egypt and are now doing with Syria and Yemen. Once the revolution had become a war, it was easy for military powers to understand and thus to intervene under the pretext of protecting civilians (having made no effort to protect civilians in the other revolutions) and forestalling "genocide" (of which there was in fact no evidence). The NATO mission was a nice live-fire exercise for an organization that for decades has had virtually nothing to do. For reasons still unclear — brainwashing? fear? Qaddafi's total control of all institutions? genuine support? — loyalty to the dictator perdured; his was not the house of cards they had expected. It took seven months, 9,600 bombing sorties, and a cost of $2 billion for the U.S. alone and billions more for the other participating nations to dislodge him.
The barbaric assassination of Qaddafi, along with the claim of the interim government that he was "caught in the crossfire" (a prevarication lifted directly from the CIA playbook for the assassination of Osama bin Laden) continued the cycle of violence and lies. Despite the wanton expenditure of firepower between Qaddafi and the rebels, the cache of armaments and munitions amassed by the dictator was so enormous that there still are plenty left to fuel factional wars and/or terrorist insurgencies. The present government's rhetoric of liberation and promises of free elections and a stable society, even if honest, may be vaporized in the atmosphere of arms.
Still moving fluidly along the spectrum of violence are the protests in Syria and Yemen. What their ultimate model of revolution will be remains to be seen.