Arab revolts

The Western world has watched with wonder the revolt in the Arab countries, the fearless youth and population asking for freedom, basic rights and democracy. The revolts have also caused confusion about the future in the countries where the regimes have fallen, to say nothing of the consequences for the whole world. But what has come out clearly is the inconsistency in the policies of most “outsider” governments. While defending democracy in words, they have dealt with corrupt and dictatorial regimes and, what is worse, they have sold them quantities of sophisticated weapons that are being used to attack the peaceful populations, causing death and suffering. Now, those governments and defence industries say they are worried about the impact on those arms.


This article surveys the spirit of the Arab revolts, the root causes of these revolts and possibilities for a better future. The sale of weapons to these countries is currently having tragic consequences for those participating in the revolts and for the population in general, as in the case of Libya. Details are given of the money spent by the Arab countries on weapons, of the exporter countries that have benefited from this trade and of the weak response and support of the so called “international community”


A tsunami invades the Arab countries


The wave of civil unrest against dictatorships in the Arab world is like an “anti-cluster bomb” that exploded in millions of strong protests, overwhelming the police state, and the military, and succeeding in displacing the Tunisian and Egyptian dictator-presidents that ruled them. A disillusioned new generation is taking the initiative to live in a real democracy. The uprisings are supported by the whole spectrum of society have spread to other towns and countries: Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and, to a lesser extent, to Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Iran… leading to numerous deaths and injuries. 


The new social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and others have played a decisive role, providing space for young people and adults to talk, organize, send information around and prevent any attempt to shut down public political forums. For many of this young generation, the social media provide ways of connecting and giving information that the previous generation could find only in the mosque.


In Tunisia and Egypt, after attacking the protestors and killing a number of them, the police disappeared. The Army refused to shoot at the citizens and sided with the protestors, maintaining public order, and protecting state and private property. In both cases, it became obvious that the Army would not allow police brutality or mob anarchy. In Bahrain, the army first attacked them but then disappeared, probably under pressure from the USA.


The situation before the revolts


As the regimes persisted, their legitimacy ebbed away and the power of Arab dictators rested increasingly on a strong police state that crushed all political dissent.  The army, though very influential - as most political leaders emerged from its ranks- has been politically neutralized.


In that situation, the only space that could escape the police was the mosque. Thus in the last decades mosques became centres of political activism.


In recent years, the political power of the mosque has declined. The weakening of Islamism has opened up the space for the democracy movements. What seems to be clear in the revolts is the willingness of the protestors to separate personal religious beliefs from collective political demands. If this secular trend continues, it may be a turning point for the future of Islamist movements who for almost three decades have dominated the opposition to the established Arab order and foreign domination. Regardless of the outcome of the revolts, they reveal how the Arab political and religious landscape has irrevocably changed and their lasting political and cultural impact.


The revolts are challenging many assumptions about Muslims. The demand of the Arab people for democracy puts down the belief that democracy was not appropriate for Arab culture. The demands of the people refute the principle that Arab countries were opposed to secularism and that any political change in Muslim-majority nations would inevitably provide a platform for Islamists.


The reason for the revolts


Unemployment and the rise of food prices was the trigger of Tunisia’s revolts. In Egypt the refusal of Mubarak to follow the court decision in November 2010 to raise the minimum wage from $70 a month to $207 a month lead to trade unions protests and worker and activist demonstrations.


Neo-liberal policies have in recent years transformed the economy of Arab states. The result has been economic growth but also growing unemployment, low salaries, and an increasing gap between rich and poor. These reforms fuelled great resentment among the middle and lower classes. The corruption of the regime and the huge fortunes built up by the dictators contributed to the impoverishment of the population. Many Arab countries have diversified their economy, but it relies heavily upon rent income (remittances from migrants, oil and gas exports, tourism revenues, payment for privatisation). The brutal response to the revolts of some rulers shows the desperation of old tyrants clinging to power.


The future


What happens in the coming months and years in the region is crucial for the whole world. Not only is the organization of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections important – and this will surely will occur in many countries -  but it is imperative to put in place a fair constitution, democratic institutions and a security establishment (police and army) that will be subordinate to the state. The revolts have irreversibly transformed the political landscape of the Arab world.  


Foreign powers are heavily involved in the Arab region. The main one is the United States, followed by Iran. The others - Turkey, France, Great Britain, Russia, China - are less important but nonetheless relevant. Their excuse for supporting dictatorships and dealing with corrupt regimes was and still is “the search for stability” in the region. They chose to ignore that this was done at the cost of the freedom and basic rights of the population.


The response of outside governments


The position of foreign powers in the face of the revolts has evolved but doubts persist in the mind of the population in the Maghreb and Middle East. The United States tried to be on the side of the winner, vacillating a long time before siding with the protestors, in the case of Egypt, although lately it has called publicly for more "democracy," no violence, and negotiations. Behind the scenes, they press the regime to limit their response and to listen to some of the demands of the protestors. In Bahrain, the USA is not ready to let go of a regime that supports US policy and allows the presence of the 5th fleet in its waters.  A Shi’a government would certainly not allow this presence. Saudi Arabia a repressive regime has the unconditional support of the USA. The last sale of weapons, the greatest ever USA weapons deal confirms this. 


Even faced with the hard reality of Gadaffi’s attacks on his people, the UN struggles to take robust action to establish an Air Exclusion Zone in order to stop the aerial bombardment of civilians. 


Begoña Iñarra

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