Some commentators have designated 2012 as the Arab version of 1848 in Europe. The idea is that the movement labelled the “Arab Spring” resembles the revolutionary upheaval of 1848 that led to regime change in several European nations.
If 2012 is the Arab 1848, might 2013 turn out to be the 1852 of Arabs? In 1852 the European nations that had experienced revolution were struck by coups d’etat that established autocratic reactionary regimes.
Though useful at times, historic comparisons can also be misleading.
Leaving aside the particular case of Syria, the events that led to change in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, were not the fruit of revolutionary action in its classical definition. What we saw was popular revolts largely confined to major cities and led by spontaneously created groups with no coherent revolutionary agenda. Although organised forces, notably Islamist and leftist outfits, later joined the uprising they did not succeed in seizing leadership. If some of those outfits ended up with the lion’s share of power they did so thanks to elections supervised by the ancien regime‘s military, and largely ignored by the mass of the electorate.
In those countries regimes fell for a variety of reasons.
Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia fell victim of its own success in the field of economy and education plus its failure to curb corruption and open the political space. Tunisia had become an emerging nation with a robust economy and a well-educated middle class. What it lacked was the political freedom corresponding to its socio-economic level of development.
The Tunisia of 2010 resembled South Korea in the 1970s where a new socio-economic reality had outgrown the framework of a police state trying to contain it. In South Korea, the military and their corrupt police state had to go. Tunisia experienced a similar development. In both cases, the military decided they could not fight for a moribund regime.
In Egypt, by 2010, the contradictions of the Nasserist model prevented the regime from devising a coherent strategy.
Politically, President Mubarak suffered from split personality.
On the one hand he headed a regime created by force and largely sustained by violence for decades. On the other, he postured as an elected president in a democratic system. As a result he could not employ the resources of either personality to contain the crisis. I might also add that Mubarak, whom I have known since the 1970s, would never have thought of hanging on to power by massacring his people as Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria.
In Yemen, the events that led to the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh were prompted by rivalries rooted in sectarian and tribal animosities not by any revolutionary agenda.
In every case, the so-called Arab Spring has produced changes within the regimes in place rather than revolutionary regime change.
Well, will 2013 become the Arab version of 1851 in Europe?
On the surface the safest answer would be a qualified yes. As already noted, in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, Islamist parties with reactionary agendas now dominate the government, often in objective though uneasy alliance with the military and police. In every case the military may well seize control, using social disorder and/or economic decline as an excuse.
Nevertheless, I don’t think Arabs are heading towards an 1852.
Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen are politically too fragile and economically too vulnerable to sustain a radical Islamist agenda.
In Iran that became possible because the Shah left behind a strong economy with one of the highest foreign currency reserves in the world. Oil revenues helped cover the follies of mullahs and their associates. More importantly, Iranian armed forces had never been political and, unlike their Arab, Turkish and Pakistani counterparts, had no tradition of seeking let alone exercising power.
Libya, of course, is a case apart. There, we have witnessed systemic collapse and the disintegration of the few state structures left behind by Gaddafi. Libya’s problem is not who exercises power but how the structures of power are erected.
Also a case apart is Syria. What started as a revolt for freedom has been transformed into a civil war and a humanitarian disaster. Every day that passes the possibility of a negotiated transition becomes more remote. The country could split across ethnic and sectarian lines. It could also morph into a stateless zone, a Somalia on the Mediterranean.
Only one thing is certain: the Assad regime is doomed.
In all of the Arab Spring countries the challenge is to create and/or recreate new state structures without which whoever is in nominal control will not be able to govern in any meaningful manner.
Those who depict President Mohamed Mursi as a new Pharaoh transgress the boundaries of exaggeration. Egypt today will not tolerate even the ghost of a Pharaoh and Mursi does not enjoy the ghost of pharaohnic power.
If Arab Spring countries are not heading for an 1852 it is partly because, unlike the European nations of the mid-19th century, they lack the structures that could enable new autocrats to impose control and exercise power. Khairat al-Shater, supposed to be the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s evil genius, might dream of imposing a new dictatorship in the name of religion. Having seen things from the inside, Mursi knows that such a dream would be shattered by reality.
In Arab Spring countries people power has asserted itself. The power game can no longer be confined to the military, the security services, the Islamist outfits and the business clans associated with them.
People power is the elephant that has to be brought into the china shop without shattering everything in its path. Some Arab leaders understand this and, each in their own way, are trying to find ways to accommodate this new reality.
As we enter 2013 a measure of cautious optimism may be in order.