Arab Uprisings as a War on Error

Protest in EgyptZine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, along with their ilk in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Jordan, are not the only victims of the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The flame lit by Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation that fateful morning of December 17 has also engulfed some myths about the region and beyond. Half-truths and untruths that have long masqueraded as reality have been laid bare. Once the smoke begins to clear up, this will have a profound impact on the domestic and foreign policies of the new governments that emerge from the ongoing upheaval and the old regimes that survive the upheaval as well as the rest of the world when it deals with the region.

Myth 1: Arab Nationalism Is Dead

For nearly a century, Arabs have been divided into artificial nation-states. They’re artificial because there is little historical, cultural, or linguistic basis for today’s Arab countries to exist individually — they do so only because local chieftains entered into military pacts with Western powers that accorded them security and external legitimacy in exchange for oil contracts. The secular Arab nationalist movement of the mid-20th century, which sought to destroy these false boundaries, was crushed after its purveyors were defeated in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. As disenchantment with the West and its local stooges began to take an Islamist turn toward the end of the century, Arab nationalism was proclaimed dead.

But the ongoing unrest belies that claim. Arabs across the region have been inspired by each other to rise in revolt against autocrats. They have been able to do so because — despite attempts to impose divisive religious and sectarian identities on them for all these years — their innate sense of being Arab remains strong. Christians stood guard while fellow Muslim protesters prayed in Egypt; the Shias of Bahrain and the Ibadis of Oman were stirred by the victories of the Sunnis in Tunisia and Egypt to start protests in their own countries. People across the region rejoiced in the streets when Ben Ali and Mubarak stepped down. They did so because they felt not Muslim, Christian, Sunni, Shia, or Coptic — but Arab.

To be sure, no protester is demanding a unified Arab nation. They are mostly asking for the right to govern themselves in their separate countries. This isn’t Arab nationalism in the old sense of the term — at least not yet. But the domino effect in the region shows that the Arab political community is not dead. Nationalism, which cuts across religious, sectarian, and state boundaries, survives. Indeed, it has grown stronger as a “collective sense of self-esteem” sweeps the region.

Myth 2: Allying with the United States Guarantees Regime Security

Both Ben Ali and Mubarak were close allies of the United States. Although Ben Ali’s departure was rather sudden, the United States was desperate to keep Mubarak in power and tried for days to help him weather the storm of protests. Not too long ago, President Barack Obama had called Mubarak a force for “stability” — a synonym in diplomatic parlance for a favorable status quo. And yet, Obama couldn’t possibly mobilize his troops to suppress the protests. The Egyptian leader eventually had to go. Meanwhile, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi fights on.

The success of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests shows that being a “friendly” and having U.S. troops stationed nearby does not guarantee regime security. The relationship can help rally diplomatic support — as it is doing for Bahrain and Yemen — and limit media coverage of the democratic protests as well as the crackdown that follows. But the United States sending its troops to crush an uprising for democracy is too much to ask. Even in Bahrain, it is the Saudi and Emirati armies that have come to do the dirty work, despite the U.S. Fifth Fleet being based right there.

The world’s most powerful country, commanding the most powerful military in history, can’t use it to save friends in need. This shows the limits of hard power and will play on the minds of the regimes that survive the ongoing upheaval, particularly in the Gulf. Ironically, it may eventually lead to large-scale weapons purchases by the surviving regimes as they realize that they need to become self-dependent to prolong their rule.

More significantly, a new race for acquiring nuclear weapons could begin in the region and around the world. Eight years ago, Gaddafi gave up Libya’s nuclear weapons program in the hopes of improving relations with the West. Had he not done so, Obama would have thought twice before initiating launching strikes on him today. The military action against Libya has buttressed the belief that the nuclear option is the only guarantee against all contingencies — for Washington’s enemies as well as its friends.

Myth 3: A Clash of Civilizations Is On

The Arab groundswell negates both of the essential tenets of Samuel P. Huntington’s celebrated thesis — that religion forms the primary identity of people in the post-Cold War world and that these identities create the basis of civilizations that will clash with each other. Muslims, according to this theory, were not supposed to be concerned with democracy and human rights, the two cornerstones of the Christian Western civilization.

But lo and behold: Muslims are clashing, not with the West, but with their own rulers, demanding democracy and their basic rights as human beings — and they are doing so with Christians standing by their side.

The clash of civilizations theory had helped create a metaframe that violence mongers on all sides could exploit to sell wars to the public or recruit foot soldiers for terrorism. Osama bin Laden could find young Muslims willing to sacrifice their lives in what they believed was a battle sanctioned by religion against a “Great Satan,” while President George W. Bush could invade Muslim lands in the name of bringing democracy to the wretched of the earth. That metaframe has now developed cracks, and may crash if genuine democracies emerge from the upheaval, making it difficult for both state and non-state actors to manufacture and sell grand conflicts. – at least until a new metaframe can be created to divide the world into Good and Evil.

Myth 4: The Free Market Cares about Democracy

For many, capitalism, free market economics, and democracy are synonymous, with each reinforcing the other. Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, that Western “liberal democracy” had trumped communism to emerge as the zenith of human ideological evolution. His conception of liberal democracy married economic liberalism and political democracy. More recently, Thomas Friedman has written in The World is Flat that globalization has created a level playing field worldwide and that economic equality begets political equality.

The so-called free market’s reaction to the Arab unrest reveals the fallacy of this assumption. Instead of jumping with joy at the imminent fall of the last bastion of autocracy, the free market is lying flat on its face. Democratic upsurge has upended consumer and investor sentiment worldwide. Stock markets are slipping, commodity prices are on the rise, and financial advisors fear the upheaval might upset the recovery from the economic crisis of two years ago.

No, capitalism and free market economics don’t necessarily love democracy. In fact, they can be extremely afraid of it. “Assuming the West fails to heed the warnings and lessons being served up by the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, the predictions are easy enough to make,” writes Chris Martenson, an economy and personal preparedness fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. “Fiscal and monetary crises will sweep inwards from the weaker regions towards the center. Markets will violently gyrate but ultimately destroy wealth.”

Myth 5: Democracies Care About Democracy

Tens of thousands of supposedly extremist and undemocratic Arabs have thrown caution to the wind and put their lives in danger to join the campaign for democracy. But curiously, the champions of people’s rule across the globe don’t seem all that eager to support them. U.S. double standards couldn’t be clearer. Although it backed Mubarak and continues to turn a blind eye to the brutal suppression of peaceful protesters by friendly regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, Washington has launched military action because “the people… must be protected” in Libya — one country in the region where the oil has largely remained out of the reach of U.S. energy corporations.

But why single out the United States? Then French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was vacationing in Tunisia when the revolt happened; she later even offered Ben Ali support to quell the uprising as it spread. Both France and Britain are equal partners in U.S. hypocrisy on democratic transition — joining the attack on Libya while overlooking protest movements in friendly countries. Most other countries that routinely swear by democracy have maintained close ties with many Middle Eastern and North African despots; today, they can hardly issue a word of encouragement in favor of the protest movements.

But this also raises a larger question. If this is how democracies behave, then what is the future of the Arab democratic movements themselves? How will they behave if they succeed and form governments? Some of the regimes that are facing protests today, as well as the two ousted dictatorships, themselves started out as popular revolts against erstwhile autocracies. Mubarak was the third president from the Free Officers Movement, which overthrew Egypt’s King Farouk in an army coup in 1952 that was widely supported by the people. Ben Ali brought down Habib Bourguiba’s 30-year rule in Tunisia in 1987 in what was then a very popular change, while Bourguiba himself had once been a popular independence leader who had helped bring down the French-backed Tunisian monarchy.

Only time will tell if the regimes wrought by Bouazizi’s self-immolation will fare any better.

Saif Shahin is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a doctoral candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.