Rebirth of hope

Published : Apr 20, 2012 00:00 IST

In Sana'a, Yemen, a commemoration rally on March 18, one year after government snipers opened fire on a crowd of anti-government protesters. The slogan in Arabic reads, "Overthrow the family dictatorial regime." When protests broke out against the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, he crushed the movement.-HANI MOHAMMED/AP

In Sana'a, Yemen, a commemoration rally on March 18, one year after government snipers opened fire on a crowd of anti-government protesters. The slogan in Arabic reads, "Overthrow the family dictatorial regime." When protests broke out against the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, he crushed the movement.-HANI MOHAMMED/AP

The period in Arab history which inaugurated the uprisings of the 1950s has now come full circle with the Arab Spring.

The 2011-12 Arab uprisings, which succeeded in toppling tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and a genuinely popular leader in Libya, are still in a state of flux. However, what cannot be doubted is the importance of this seminal event in the history of a still-young 21st century, both for the internal dynamics of these countries and for the Western (read United States) imperial influence there. This is not the first time that popular mobilisations have occurred in the Arab world: in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Egypt, it was the nationalist military which emancipated each country from foreign domination and its local supporters, while popular mobilisations happened later; the pattern was to be repeated across the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria, (North) Yemen and Libya, and given impetus and support by the success of the Algerian resistance against the French and the victory of the communists in South Yemen against the British. The key difference between the events of the 1950s and 1960s and now in the Arab world is that now people are liberating themselves from the model of militarised one-party states that had come to dominate the Arab world in the last four decades. So these uprisings are as much the result of the failed nationalist uprisings in the Arab world in the middle of the 20th century as a reaction to dictatorship and the Western support that buttressed it for decades.

In my opinion, the Arab uprisings are more reminiscent of the revolutions of 1848 that struck fear in the hearts of every European monarch from the Bourbons to the Austro-Hungarian empire. This comparison is more apt than the preferred comparison, in the mainstream Western media, with the anti-communist uprisings of Eastern Europe in 1989. The reason is that the 1848 revolts, like the Arab revolts, occurred in long cycles over decades; in the case of the former, the longue duree from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 to 1848 adopted liberty, equality and fraternity as its slogans, while in the case of the latter, the period in Arab history which inaugurated the uprisings of the 1950s has now come full circle with the Arab Spring uprisings.

Also, like their European counterparts, the Arab Spring uprisings are also about liberty, equality and fraternity: the Arab masses want freedom from decades of oppressive dictatorships and social and economic justice from the immiserising policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (E.U.) imposed on them by these dictatorships, and they want these for all the Arab people beyond national frontiers. The last one is exemplified by the rapidity and spontaneity with which the revolutionary infection spread from Tunisia to Egypt and across the Arab east, including the Gulf states.

The uprisings of 1989, on the other hand, reversed many of the progressive achievements of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe to institute the dictatorship of capital, which, though allowing for multiparty elections, opened up these countries to the mercy of the neoliberal market system. Also, like in the European revolts of 1848, the first round of the Arab Spring has gone to the people: and like the former, the counter-revolution has asserted itself in the shape of the imperialist invasion of Libya, the brutal crushing of the uprising in Bahrain and the continuing control of the military in Egypt.

Origins of Arab Spring

So, when and how did the Arab Spring begin? It began in Tunisia, which for most of the 20th century remained largely on the periphery of the Arab world.1 In 1989, the founding father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, was pushed aside by his Interior Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with the support of the French and Italian secret services. He proceeded to set up a police state in the country, banning all opposition and dissenting media, and opened up the country to the World Bank and the E.U., and in so doing became the poster child of the neoliberal Washington Consensus. While tourists saw only the tranquillity of the country's Mediterranean beaches and liberated women, Ben Ali's policies destroyed the self-sufficiency of the Tunisian peasant and made the country a sort of empty shell where more and more Western and Arab elites poured in money, which ended up benefiting a tiny elite surrounding the extended Ben Ali family. As a result, and especially in the wake of the worldwide recession following the Wall Street crash of 2008-10, Tunisia became more dependent on international loans. 2

The tragedy of the vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who burnt himself to death protesting against the drastic conditions of unemployment, was a case in point.3 Following his death, people came out spontaneously in major towns and cities to protest, and it soon became an anti-regime uprising. Despite an offer of French mercenary help, the despot fled to Saudi Arabia. What helped was the fact that the post-independence Tunisian nationalist elite had managed to educate a big layer of the population, which led to the emergence of a sizable middle class.4

Also, Ben Ali had deliberately kept the size of the army small for fear of a military coup against him.5 This eventually worked to the benefit of the protesters. Since the ouster of the despot, elections have been won by the Islamist Al Nahda party, which has had a different evolution in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its variants across the Arab world. So far the party has been making all the right noises to the Western media about its democratic credentials, but its recent pronouncements on the banning of alcohol have been making the emancipated women and the middle class very uncomfortable. However, apart from its conservative social vision, it remains to be seen whether the party has an enlightened economic and political programme to redress the excesses of the Ben Ali regime.

The stakes in Egypt

The stakes are higher in Egypt, which has historically been one of the lynchpins of Western foreign policy in the region.6 In contrast to Bourguiba's Tunisia, Egypt has always been central to the Arab cause for most of the 20th century, more so during the long period of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war spelled the end of Arab nationalism as a progressive mobilising force for Arabs and led to the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the region as a whole and Egypt's signing of a peace treaty with Israel and abandoning of the most progressive aspects of Nasser's regime.

First, Anwar Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak slowly dismantled the welfare state which had existed in the country in Nasser's time; their embracing of Israel was rewarded generously by their Western patrons with military and economic aid.7 As a result of Mubarak's infitah policies, the majority became progressively poorer and the chief beneficiary of their support became the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has a history of collaborating with the Egyptian regime against leftist and communist groups, with Western patronage. When the uprising finally broke out, Mubarak and his coterie were assured of another rigged election victory and the succession of Mubarak's son, Gamal. An ineffectual opposition movement called Kefaya and a more powerful labour movement had been active since 2006 to challenge the status quo, but it was only when the army withdrew its support from one of its own that Mubarak was toppled. So what made it possible?

The week Ben Ali was toppled in Tunisia, a national conversation sparked off in Egypt: How did Tunisians do it? Surely if they could do it, Egyptians can also do it! 8 Mubarak was swiftly replaced with a hastily appointed Vice-President, General Omar Suleiman, by most respectable accounts a torturer. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood was not part of the initial protest wave against Mubarak; it joined in reluctantly at the prodding of some of its younger members. It also benefited from having opened a secret channel of diplomacy with the U.S. State Department a decade ago and with the military-led Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which replaced Suleiman. As expected, the Brotherhood won the elections amid an increasingly insecure atmosphere dominated by the SCAF, with thousands of people being arrested and the Coptic minority being deliberately targeted. 9

So far the Brotherhood has not come up with an economic and social programme to alleviate Egypt's problems although the military regime has applied to the IMF for another loan. The former has also assured Israel and the West that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty would not be altered.10 However, the model which several top leaders of the Brotherhood have advocated is the Turkish one, not just because an Islamist government is in power in Turkey, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and does mostly what Washington tells it to do and where the army is still a dominant presence in national affairs. So Thomas Friedman and his like need not worry too much.

Reporting on Yemen

While the mainstream media in the West continue to take an interest in the fate of the Arab Spring, in big states such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, reporting on the uprising and the oppression inflicted on the protesters has totally vanished in at least two cases. One of these is Yemen.11 The poorest Arab state, it is sometimes unfairly mentioned as the birthplace of Al Qaeda.12 Until recently the country was ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been little more than a Saudi-American client in his entire tenure. When protests broke out spontaneously against his regime following the victorious uprising in Tunisia, the dictator responded by crushing the movement brutally and at the same time dilly-dallying over the handing of power to a successor. He had by then become so unpopular that Yemen quickly became the only Arab country where protests had become a daily occurrence. However, most of the mainstream media whitewashed the history of the country and painted it as a land of beards, burqas and tribes.

Yemen was two countries before its reunification in 1990. The north was Ottoman territory before its collapse, which gave way to a medieval imamate that ruled with an iron hand claiming divine sanction. The south was a British colony. In both parts of Yemen, democratic uprisings attempted to overthrow the imam and the British respectively, in the 1940s and 1950s.13 Both the struggles came to fruition, first in 1962 in the north, when the imam was overthrown by Nasserist army officers, and in 1967, when communists took over the leadership of the nationalist struggle, threw out the British, and proclaimed a Marxist republic.

While the north soon descended into being a tribalist republic, in the south serious reforms such as female emancipation, land reform and free provision of health care, education and housing were carried out. However, partly as a result of factional struggles and partly as a result of Saudi Arabian interference, no serious alternative to the status quo took place in Yemen, and a hasty reunification of the country was brought about with Saudi Arabian and American blessings to counter the plucky little godless people's republic in the south. Saleh came with the package deal.

I decided to visit Yemen in 2010 after reading frequent reports in the mainstream Western media about a massive Al Qaeda presence in the country. Before my visit I had warned against the ahistoric and grossly generalised depictions of the country that were a staple of mainstream media in the West following the arrest of a Nigerian bomber who wanted to bomb a flight to Detroit and who had spent time in Yemen.14

I got a chance to visit the country in May that year, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the country's reunification. I was warned by several friends not to travel to the south for security reasons, but I chose to disregard it and went to Aden, the south's biggest city. I was not prepared for what I saw upon my arrival. There were hardly any women to be found on the streets, except the ones in burqas. I later questioned the leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) about the scale of this retreat, and they confessed their helplessness in defending even their own legacy in the south in the face of Saudi clerics sent from across the border, with Saleh's encouragement. In fact, there is now an open secessionist mood in the south owing to the fact that reunification simply meant the importation of northerners into the south and their subsequent takeover of land, property and colonial villas belonging to southerners. This scepticism extends to the uprising against Saleh in the north, which has not really addressed the plight of the south so far.

I then asked around about the alleged Al Qaeda presence and was told off politely. However, when I persisted in my inquiry, a deputy to the YSP leader beckoned me and whispered in my ear: The office of Al Qaeda in Yemen is located in a tiny building next to the presidential compound. In other words, Saleh blackmailed the West mentioning Al Qaeda in return for money; the Al Qaeda presence in the country is no more than a few hundred people. In fact, during the last days of his dictatorship, the army deliberately laid down arms in many southern areas to let this exaggerated Al Qaeda presence capture whole towns in order to create an image of chaos.

Despite reneging on earlier promises to step down, Saleh agreed to allow elections to be held in mid-February 2012 to pave the way for a successor in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. This was the preferred Saudi-American solution to ensure that a real structural transformation did not take place. And there is considerable distrust on the streets of Sana'a, especially among the youth, regarding both the Saudi Arabian and American roles in destabilising democracy in Yemen. At the time of writing this, the Islamist Islah party constituted the largest opposition party and looked set to win the largest number of seats in the upcoming elections, like its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it is unclear what else the elections will achieve apart from electing an incumbent Vice-President as the country's next leader, someone who had been part of the dictator's coterie. An interesting footnote to this situation was provided late last year when the Nobel Foundation recognised the efforts of one of Yemen's leading protesters, Tawakkol Karman, and made her a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.15

Whoever wins power in Yemen as a result of the Arab Spring has an urgent task of healing the country. As I have warned before, Yemen has a history of uprisings and revolutions, both in the north and in the south, and the agendas of both the republican (in the north) and the socialist revolutions (in the south) remained unfulfilled; it is the only way the promise of unity can be realised short of pandering to the Saudi-U.S. plans of continuing with its protectorate status under Saleh. The people of the country will not be content for a very long time, and it is this promise that gives hope that the country may not yet turn into another Saudi vassal state.

Events in the Arab world, therefore, are in a state of flux but what cannot be denied is the fact that Arabs have a long and deep historical consciousness; they may be oppressed, jailed, beaten, tortured and humiliated, but they will always eventually rise up against those who do so. To paraphrase the great Syrian poet Adonis:

A time between ashes and roses is coming When everything shall be extinguished When everything shall begin.

Raza Naeem is an independent writer living in Lahore, Pakistan, and is currently at work on a political and cultural history of post-Arab Spring Yemen.

* * *

1. The way in which the founding father of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, cut deals with the French and threw in his lot with the Israelis and Saudis rather than Nasserist in the 1950s and 1960s largely contributed to that reputation.

2. According to WikiLeaks, Ben Ali's family owned 50 per cent of Tunisia's productive economic assets.

3. Sidi Bouzid, where Bouazizi died, is a small town of about 50,000 people of which up to 50 per cent between the ages of 15 and 21 were unemployed. Two more suicides had occurred in Tunisia before Bouazizi's, but these were not reported in the media.

4. The literacy rate in Ben Ali's Tunisia was 75 per cent, and the middle class was estimated to be about 80 per cent of the population.

5. The army's size is about 30,000-40,000.

6. The other three states are Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, not strictly in that order.

7. Egypt has been receiving $1.5 billion annually in military aid from the U.S., the largest such aid for any country.

8. The Tunisians have always been regarded in the Arab world as soft Arabs and lotus-eaters, while Egyptians have a proud history of insurrection: 10 major uprisings in the past 130 years, contrary to the image presented in the mainstream media as Egyptians being very patient people.

9. Some 13,000 people have been detained by SCAF since the toppling of Mubarak, which is more than the number detained during the Mubarak dictatorship.

10. This humiliating treaty forbids Egyptian soldiers from moving inside Egyptian territory without Israeli permission.

11. The other case being the gas station of Bahrain.

12. It could be counter-argued with equal fairness that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, having renounced his Yemeni ancestry long ago.

13. In 1948, a constitutionalist uprising in the north led to the assassination of the imam, followed by other uprisings in the 1960s; in the south massive strikes were led by a strong trade union movement against the British in Aden.

14. The article Yemen's Memories of Revolution and Resistance, was published in January 2010 in the U.S., India, Pakistan, Yemen and South Africa, and merited two radio interviews on alternative media in the U.S.

15. Karman is an ex-member of the Islah party and while her social vision remains conservative, the Nobel Prize helped to shatter for the time being the stereotypes of the country in the mainstream Western media. Before being honoured, Karman had been camping out in Sana'a's main square in opposition to Saleh and had not seen her family for the previous nine months.

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