Mirage and Reality in the Arab Spring

This story was originally published on Al Jazeera’s website on April 22.

Reading the chronicle of the violence and death that have blanketed the western Libyan port city of Misurata during the last week, I couldn’t help thinking of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 classic, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it… adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

King understood the continued urgency of the struggle for equality. Similar to the situation today across the Arab world, promised reforms had yet to produce significant social change in 1967 – indeed, they were being undermined by the country’s rapid descent into the darkness of the Vietnam War.

But the expectations they raised did inflame the passions of those whose lives they’d failed to improve. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” King declared. “This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”

Victory through violence?

Among King’s arguments was that violence inevitably rends the bonds of community, sowing chaos that weakens the ability of oppressed people to develop the “substance and program” necessary to achieve large scale structural changes in their societies.

Except under the most favourable circumstances, the move to violence produces a mirage of victory and freedom that disappears soon enough down the road of armed insurrection.

It was, in part, this argument that led my last column to question whether the turn towards violence by nascent Libyan democracy movement, however understandable, did not make inevitable precisely the scenes the world is now witnessing.

Of course, the fierce urgency of the now, the feeling that tomorrow would never arrive unless the existing system was torn down, was palpably felt as Gaddafi threatened merciless violence against pro-democracy activists. Indeed, this feeling helped spark the revolutionary fires across the Arab world.

The region’s youth-led protests have been inspired by the writings of King. But they have also been influenced by Lenin, whose seminal 1901 tract What is to be Done? forcefully argued that revolutions are won and lost in good measure on the depth and coherence of the strategies and tactics they develop, which were crucial to winning the support of a critical mass of the population to overthrow the system.

Revolution or refo-lution?

Lenin’s tract argued for a total revolution; but in Tunisia and Egypt the pro-democracy forces succeeded because, as Asef Bayat described in the journal Jadaliyya, the aims during the protests were much closer to refo-lutions, which “want to push for reforms in, and through the institutions of the incumbent states,” rather than revolutions that seek completely to topple the system.

The advantage of such a potentially paradoxical process is that they increase the chance for an orderly transition that is relatively free of violence, destruction, terror and chaos. The problem is that they demand constant and long term pressure from below – “the grassroots, civil society associations, labour unions, and social movements” – to succeed.

Once the tap of violence is opened fully, as has happened in Libya, even more problems arise that harm the prospect for successful political transformation across the region.

First, inevitably (it seems), international law becomes reduced to a tool of war-craft rather than being the measuring stick against which all sides must be held accountable. In this case, as the UN approved no-fly zone failed to stop the violence, the Western and Arab “allies” enforcing it have moved to calling for regime change and arming the rebels, both of which clearly exceed the actions authorised by UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

If Security Council resolutions can be ignored or exceeded in Libya, why should other countries, such as Israel, Iran or any other number of states, consider themselves bound by them? And so a noble humanitarian impulse to rein in a brutal dictator, can seriously weaken the institution primarily responsible for maintaining peace, security and stability globally.

The second problem, as King warned, is that violence too easily begets even greater violence. wThis is not only clear in the horrific sieges Gaddafi’s forces have placed on rebel-held cities, but also in the news that some rebels are considering engaging in suicide bombings to even the playing field, a move which would be used by Gaddafi to “prove” his argument that rebels are little better than al-Qaeda. What would happen if rebels use weapons supplied by UN-sponsored forces to engage in suicide bombings?

This dynamic is in no way limited to Libya. The tragic murder of two pro-Palestinian activists in the last week – Italian journalist and peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni and the celebrated Israeli Palestinian actor-activist Juliano Mer-Khamis – offer more evidence of how the culture of violence cultivated by Hamas and other more mainstream militant Palestinian groups ultimately escapes their control, leading to the murder of Palestinian “friends” as well as (and even more than) enemies.

While protesters in Yemen have remained remarkably disciplined, the violence that pervades Yemeni society could easily swallow the pro-democracy movement if only a small minority of the protesters lose faith in the process and take up arms. A similar fate would befall the Bahraini democracy movement if the ever intensifying crackdown against it led even a small number of the protesters to resort to violence in response.

Hypocrisy and doublespeak

Even if the moral calculi of violence could be squared by the “allies” in Libya, the larger political equation of countries arming Libyan rebels while supporting the intensifying repression in Bahrain (or Palestine, or Saudi Arabia, or other vital strategic partners) creates a level of hypocrisy and doublespeak that sows confusion among governments and protesters alike across the region.

Such hypocrisy was once again on display as Secretary of State Clinton spoke to the US-Islamic World forum last week and, returning to the desert theme she first used in January in Doha, argued that the present revolution could soon be remembered as little more than a “mirage in the desert” if leaders didn’t make good on their pledges of reform.

Clinton spoke of the hypocrisy of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and al-Qaeda in their denunciations of violence in one country while endorsing it in their own situations.

She seemed not to notice that the crimes which she found so objectionable – beating, detaining, and even killing protesters and innocent civilians – are routinely committed by American allies, from Bahrain to Israel. Even more brazenly, Clinton declared that “violence is and cannot be the answer” at the same time that her government is bombing Libya and arming its rebels.

Equally important, Clinton lamented that the region is “overly dependent on oil exports and stunted by corruption,” that its countries are less industrialised in 2007 than in 1970 and are bedevilled by “growing poverty, slums without sanitation, safe water, or reliable electricity, [while] a small elite has increasingly concentrated control of the region’s land and wealth in their hands”.

What she doesn’t acknowledge is that this situation is in good measure the natural outcome of decades of US and European imposed neoliberal policies. Indeed, the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were in good measure against precisely this system, whose most recent crisis impacted the Middle East and North Africa as much as it has the US and Europe.

What’s more, Clinton tried to remove her own government from any responsibility if the reform movement “fades” into a mirage in the coming years. As one of her deputies later said, the administration is actually reassuring rulers in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that it won’t insist on immediate change. “It doesn’t have to come fast,” the official explained.

The doublespeak and hypocrisy could very soon come to haunt the Syrian democracy movement. Reports that the US has given aid to pro-democracy protesters could easily be used to justify even harsher government repression against pro-democracy activists. Bashar al-Assad could reason that if the West – and its Arab allies – are arming Libyans without legal authorisation, there is little to stop them from arming Syrian anti-government protesters.

More broadly, the hypocrisy and linguistic contortions in which Western leaders are forced to engage cheapens their discourse and weakens not merely its rhetorical power, but the positive impact it could and should be having at this crucial moment. Who can take Clinton or Obama seriously when there is such a glaring disparity between their words and deeds?

No mirage, just a messy reality

The mirage allusion utilised by Clinton is grossly inaccurate. The changes that are occurring are at the moment quite real. If they fail it will not be because, like a mirage, they were never there. Rather, it will be because local leaders and their external allies worked successfully to frustrate their realisation.

Perhaps most upsetting, the Secretary of State congratulated herself on supporting women; yet she was silent about the case of Zainab al-Khawaja, the wife and daughter of prominent Bahraini human rights activists jailed by the government, who is now hospitalised with a low pulse and acute pain after days of a hunger strike which has left her so weak she could no longer breast-feed her baby.

The Obama administration was willing to declare war against Sarah Palin and Michelle Malkin over subsidising breast pumps for working women. But it hasn’t lifted a finger to ensure that a breast-feeding woman doesn’t have to risk death to get her husband out of jail only a few miles from one of the United States’ biggest naval bases?

If there is a mirage hovering over the Arab Spring, it is the Obama administration’s belief that all the countries of the Arab world are so fundamentally different that “a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense”.

Actually it does, as long as it is an approach that benefits the peoples of the region equally and doesn’t sacrifice them to purported geostrategic interests which are ultimately the far larger and more dangerous mirage facing the Arab world, and the West together.

As Michael Corleone would have said it: “We’re all part of the same hypocrisy.” And the only chance to escape it is together.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

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