The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East

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The 2011 eruptions of popular discontent across the Arab world, popularly dubbed the Arab Spring, were local manifestations of a regional mass movement for democracy, freedom, and human dignity. Authoritarian regimes were either overthrown or put on notice that the old ways of oppressing their subjects would no longer be tolerated. These essays from Middle East Report-the leading source of timely reporting and insightful analysis of the region-cover events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Written for a broad audience of students, policymakers, media analysts, and general readers, the collection reveals the underlying causes of the revolts by identifying key trends during the last two decades leading up to the recent insurrections.

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1. Tunisia’s Wall Has Fallen

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NADIA MARZOUKI

For the first time in decades, Tunisia is free of one-man rule. The extraordinary events of December 2010 and January 2011 were nothing less than a political revolution: The consistent pressure of popular fury forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali first to make an unprecedented promise to relinquish power; then pushed him to step down; and finally halted an attempt at unconstitutional transfer of power, setting the stage for a transition to electoral democracy.

In the early months of 2011, the nature of this political transition was still in question. Three days after Ben Ali’s January 14 departure to exile in Saudi Arabia, the caretaker head of government Mohammed al-Ghannouchi announced a “national unity” cabinet composed heavily of members of the long-time ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD), who initially retained the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs, and finance. Opposition parties classified as “legal” under Ben Ali also acquired posts. The announcement came after a night of gunfights reported around the presidential palace, opposition party headquarters, and major banks, as well as drive-by shootings elsewhere in the capital of Tunis. The Guardian, citing human rights activists, attributed the attacks to militias made up of security men loyal to Ben Ali, while Ghannouchi said on state television that “the coming days will show who is behind them.”

 

2. Tunisia’s Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer

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AMY AISEN KALLANDER

The January 14 departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amidst popular protests was a long overdue demonstration of the possibility for genuine democratization in the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, tapped a deep vein of anger in Tunisian society at police harassment and the general arbitrariness of the state, but also at severe, endemic economic inequality sharpened now by rising global food prices. It remains to be determined, however, to what degree the toppling of Ben Ali will transform Tunisia into a representative democracy whose citizens enjoy greater economic opportunities. Ben Ali was the head of a system of one-party rule, and that system did not board a private plane along with him and his immediate entourage as they headed into exile.

As Ben Ali’s personal grip weakened, the international headlines blared news of the deep corruption and extravagant privilege associated with the former dictator’s clan. His family’s extensive control of the economy, reaching into banking, telecommunications, import-export, cars, agriculture and food distribution, petroleum, tourism, real estate, and nearly every other sector, had long been an open secret in Tunisia. Two of the family heavyweights, Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher al-Materi and his brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi, also fled the country in mid-January, and Tunisian authorities claimed to have rounded up others within days. Yet dismantling the structures that facilitated the concentration of political-economic power in the hands of Ben Ali will be a difficult task. In fact, while Ben Ali exploited the system to unprecedented personal and family benefit, the consolidation of one-party rule dates to the tenure of the first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987).

 

3. Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia

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CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER

A disturbing rumor made the rounds during the summer of 1997 at the Cafe de Paris, the Hotel Africa and the other haunts of Tunisia’s classe politique. Word had it that a constitutional commission was considering legislation allowing the government to revoke the citizenship rights of some political opponents. True or not, the rumor’s existence-and the widespread belief that the government started it—said much about political life on the tenth anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s “tranquil revolution.”

Ben Ali’s November 7, 1987 coup inaugurated the heady period of political reform that swept across the Middle East and North Africa in the late 1980s. The new president promised to establish the rule of law, to respect human rights and to implement the kind of democratic political reforms that Habib Bourguiba had steadfastly refused. Along with Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, Tunisia rode the leading edge of what many hoped would be a wave of democratic transitions in the region. Ten years later, it would be difficult to find another country that has moved so far in the opposite direction.

 

4. Structural Adjustment and Rural Poverty in Tunisia

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STEPHEN JUAN KING

World Bank and IMF sponsored neoliberal reforms can have different effects on the political and social structure of receiving nations. Reforms may fortify a status quo unfavorable to the poor, or may even make a bad situation considerably worse, or they may undermine the existing economic system, empowering the poor to participate more actively in new market arrangements. Officially, World Bank policy supports rural projects leading to greater equality, including land reform, and denies aid to countries that have not instituted such policies. In Tunisia, however, the World Bank supported projects that concentrated land holdings and favored large landowners. Neoliberal reforms, in general, rendered Tunisia’s peasantry less secure and more impoverished.

Conventional structural adjustment theory locates the greatest equity gains from economic reform in the countryside, primarily the privatization of communal and state-owned land, mechanization, and export-oriented crop production. Yet several factors contribute to growing inequalities within rural areas during agricultural economic liberalization. Land policies frequently increase the disparity of asset distribution. Agricultural policies fail to sufficiently integrate the landless and land-poor into export-led growth. Economic and political power figure strongly in the resolution of conflicts created by new tenure and other market arrangements. National government officials and local bureaucrats implementing reforms may place political considerations and rent seeking opportunities ahead of economic efficiency and equity. Truly representative farmers’ organizations and other parts of civil society rarely participate in the process of determining economic reform policy, which transforms the lives of rural dwellers. Taken together, in many countries, these factors culminate in policies that favor rural elites, increase rural asset disparities, and make no serious efforts to alleviate rural poverty.

 

5. The Making of North Africa’s Intifada

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LARYSSA CHOMIAK AND JOHN P. ENTELIS

As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia rolled across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts were puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed, and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution.

The back-door story is one focused on those who made the revolution, not those dealing with its consequences. In Tunisia, the nature of autocratic rule and its relationship to citizens created the environment in which challenges to regime incumbency would lead to protest, resistance or revolution. The deeper and more robust the authoritarian structure, and the fewer the opportunities for legal political opposition and participation, the more likely citizens are to rebel. The virtual absence of viable opposition social movements in Tunisia in the two and half decades of Ben Ali’s rule smothered participatory politics to near extinction. When the autocratic state collapsed, it left a void in which demands for systemic reform were quickly transformed into revolution.

 

6. Beyond Ghannouchi: Islamism and Social Change in Tunisia

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RIKKE HOSTRUP HAUGBØLLE AND FRANCESCO CAVATORTA

On October 23, 2011, for the first time since independence in 1956, Tunisians were called to the polls in free and transparent elections. They were to choose 217 members of a Constituent Assembly that for a year would play a double role: drafting a new constitution and governing the country.

For many Tunisians, as well as foreigners, the results were something of a surprise. First, the turnout was lower than expected, hovering just over 53 percent, despite serious efforts by the Electoral Commission to get out the vote. Many ordinary Tunisians, it appears, are skeptical of the political transformation in the country since the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Second, the victory of the Islamist party al-Nahda was much larger than anticipated. Opinion surveys taken beforehand had predicted the party’s first-place finish, but with a vote oscillating between 20 and 28 percent of the total. In the end, al-Nahda obtained 41.7 percent of the vote and, more significantly, won eighty-nine seats in the Constituent Assembly, by far the largest bloc. Third, secular, and leftist parties put in a solid performance (though not up to expectations), but their divisions split the secular electorate. No party except al-Nahda, therefore, garnered more than 8 percent of the ballot.

 

7. The Praxis of the Egyptian Revolution

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MONA EL-GHOBASHY

If there was ever to be a popular uprising against autocratic rule, it should not have come in Egypt. The regime of President Husni Mubarak was the quintessential case of durable authoritarianism. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 25, 2011.1 With these words, Clinton gave voice to a common understanding of Egypt under Mubarak. Government officials, pundits, and academics, foreign and domestic, thought the regime was resilient—not because it used brute force or Orwellian propaganda, but because it had shrewdly constructed a simulacrum of politics. Parties, elections, and civic associations were allowed but carefully controlled, providing space for just enough participatory politics to keep people busy without threatening regime dominance.

Mubarak’s own party was a cohesive machine, organizing intramural competition among elites. The media was relatively free, giving vent to popular frustrations. And even the wave of protest that began to swell in 2000 was interpreted as another index of the regime’s skill in managing, rather than suppressing, dissent. Fundamentally, Egypt’s rulers were smart authoritarians who had their house in order. Yet they were toppled by an eighteen-day popular revolt.

 

8. Worlds Apart: An Egyptian Village and the International Tourism Industry

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TIMOTHY MITCHELL

Ayman wanted a job in tourism. But he did badly on his high-school language exams and spent two years at a school in Luxor, across the river from his village, struggling to master enough rudimentary English and German to get into the hotel school at Qina. His most vivid memory from his two years in Qina was the night when he and the other front-desk trainees played the role of guests in a restaurant for the final exam of the student waiters and cooks.

The meal began with soup. He burned his mouth on the first spoonful and it was cleared away before it had cooled enough for him to eat it. Next was “Russian salad,” containing raw egg which made him choke on the first mouthful. Silverware was brought and taken away faster than he could figure out how to use it. The main course was veal too tough to cut with a knife but which they were not allowed to pick up with their hands. The desserts looked appealing but there were not enough to go around. The meal ended without him having eaten a thing. Back at his parents’ house in the village, without a job or a future, he told and retold this story. Life was a meal you never got to eat.

 

9. Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center of Gravity

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JOEL BEININ AND HOSSAM EL-HAMALAWY

In the last decade of President Husni Mubarak’s rule, the longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the 1940s rolled through Egypt. In March of 2007, the liberal daily al-Misri al-Yawm estimated that no fewer than 222 sit-in strikes, work stoppages, hunger strikes, and demonstrations had occurred during 2006. In the first five months of 2007, the paper reported a new labor action nearly every day. The citizen group Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch documented fifty-six incidents during the month of April, and another fifteen during the first week of May alone.1

From their center of gravity in the textile sector, the strikes spread to mobilize makers of building materials, Cairo subway workers, garbage collectors, bakers, food processing workers, and many others. Like almost all strikes in Egypt in the preceding forty years, these work stoppages were “illegal”—unauthorized by the state-sponsored Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and its subsidiary bodies in factories and other workplaces. But unlike upsurges of working-class collective action in the 1980s and 1990s, which were confined to state-owned industries, the wave that began in late 2004 also pushed along employees in the private sector.

 

10. Striking Back at Egyptian Workers

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HESHAM SALLAM

The earliest mainstream narratives of the 2011 Egyptian revolution centered around a “crisis of the state.” Among the elements of the crisis were the utter failure of top-down political reform, as shown in the shamelessly rigged 2010 legislative elections; mounting corruption and repression; emerging opportunities for collective action offered by networking sites like Facebook and Twitter; and the advent of neoliberal economic policies and the resulting constraints on the state’s capacity to deliver on its traditional obligations, such as social services, subsidies, price controls, and guaranteed employment for college graduates. There was considerable consensus that the revolution was—at least in part—a backlash against the exclusionary economic order that the deposed president’s son Gamal Mubarak and his associates helped to erect over the preceding decade. Yet over a year later it remains unclear if post-Mubarak Egypt can succeed in addressing the socio-economic grievances that helped to spark the January 25 uprising.

 

11. Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State

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ISSANDR EL AMRANI

The turbulence that hit Egypt starting in November 2011 seemed, at first glance, mostly a testament to the poor performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in handling the transition away from the rule of Husni Mubarak. Having assumed power on February 10, 2011, the SCAF moved quickly to attain the stamp of popular legitimacy through a March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments. In the following months, however, the conclave of generals stumbled over the flawed logic of its own plan for the transition, as well as ad hoc decision making and a high-handed, dismissive attitude toward the new politics of the country. The SCAF’s plan, in brief, was to engineer a restoration of civilian rule that shielded the army’s political and economic prerogatives from civilian oversight, and perhaps bolstered those roles, yielding a system not unlike the “deep state” that prevailed for decades in Turkey. Such was the system in Egypt, in fact, under Mubarak.

 

12. Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital

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SHANA MARSHALL AND JOSHUA STACHER

Before and after the ejection of Husni Mubarak from office, the size of the Egyptian army’s share in the economy has been a subject of great debate. The army is known to manufacture everything from olive oil and shoe polish to the voting booths used in Egypt’s 2011 parliamentary elections, but no one knows for sure how much of the country’s economy the military industries control. News reports have cited “expert” estimates that are all over the map, from 5 percent to 40 percent or more. Pushed by the New York Times to venture a guess, the former minister of trade, Rashid Muhammad Rashid, now in exile, offered “less than 10 percent.”1 The broad range of figures drives home the impossibility of measuring the footprint of what scholar Robert Springborg calls “Military, Inc.”2 Not only are army holdings classified as state secrets—reporting on them can land a journalist in jail—but they are also too vast and dispersed to estimate with any confidence.

 

13. No Exit: Yemen’s Existential Crisis

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SHEILA CARAPICO

A venal dictatorship three decades old, mutinous army officers, dissident tribal sheikhs, a parliamentary opposition coalition, youthful pro-democracy activists, gray-haired Socialists, gun-toting cowboys, veiled women protesters, northern carpetbaggers, Shi‘i insurgents, tear gas canisters, leaked State Department cables, foreign-born jihadis—Yemen’s demi-revolutionary spring had it all. The mass uprising in southern Arabia blended features of the peaceful popular revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia with elements of the state repression in Libya and Syria in a gaudy, fast-paced, multi-layered theater of revolt verging on the absurd.

President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih stalled and contrived to avoid signing a late April 2011 deal brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors desperate to restore a semblance of stability in the most populous corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The GCC extracted a verbal promise from Salih to resign the presidency after a period of thirty days. But convincing him to make good on his pledge under conditions satisfactory to Yemeni elites, the pro-democracy movement and interested foreign parties was a gargantuan task, requiring more diplomatic legerdemain than had been brought to bear. On April 30, instead of signing onto the proposed agreement, Salih sent tanks firing live ammunition to clear some fifteen hundred campers from a central square in the Mansoura district of the southern port city of Aden. ‘Abd al-Latif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the six-nation GCC, who had flown to the Yemeni capital of Sanaa to meet with Salih, returned to Saudi Arabia red-faced and empty-handed.

 

14. The Economic Dimension of Yemeni Unity

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SHEILA CARAPICO

To the outside world, the unification of the two Yemens in 1990 resembled the German experience in miniature. North Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic, YAR) was considered a laissez faire market economy, whereas the South (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, PDRY) was “the communist one.” When, weeks ahead of Bonn and Berlin, Sanaa and Aden announced their union, Western commentary assumed that in Yemen, as in Germany, capitalist (Northern) firms would buy out the moribund (Southern) state sector and provide the basis for future economic growth.

In theory, and in Germany, capitalism and socialism are distinguished by patterns of private and public ownership of the means of production. In North and South Yemen, however, differences in ownership patterns were largely evened out by comparable access (and lack thereof) to investment capital. Disparities in the relative weight of private and public enterprise were far more subtle than the designations “capitalist” and “socialist” indicate. Indeed, available data on private and public participation revealed common patterns of spending. The North’s state sector invested more than did the private sector, while the South’s socialist policy statements belied the increasing role of domestic and foreign private firms.

 

15. Tracing the Cracks in the Yemeni System

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SARAH PHILLIPS

The sudden announcement in July 2005 by Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih that he would step down in 2006 in favor of “young blood” set the country and the region abuzz. Having led the northern Yemen Arab Republic from 1978, and then assumed the presidency of the whole of Yemen following the country’s unification in 1990, Salih had enjoyed one of the longest reigns in the Arab world, behind only Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. As speculation raged that either the “young blood” was his son Ahmad, or that Salih’s announcement was only a ploy to maintain power, one thing was certain: Yemen was in the midst of a prolonged security and economic crisis that had exposed the fragility of the state and widened cracks in the country’s political system.

Two days after the president’s announcement on July 17, the government lifted a set of popular state subsidies of fuel. The resulting riots, which the regime quashed with soldiers and tanks, killed 22 people and wounded 375, according to government figures. Unofficial estimates put the number of fatalities at 39 or more. These disturbances highlighted Yemen’s dire economic straits and the deep suspicions of the public about uncontrolled regime corruption. They also took place against the backdrop of the government’s then year-long fight against a Zaydi (Shi‘i) insurgency, the leaders of which the regime once supported but who began raising once dormant questions about the right of Salih’s regime to rule Yemen.

 

16. The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen

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SUSANNE DAHLGREN

In the summer of 2007, a lively and non-violent movement sprang up in the southern provinces of Yemen to protest the south’s marginalization by the north. The movement was sparked by demonstrations held that spring by forcibly retired members of the army, soon to be accompanied by retired state officials and unemployed youth. The deeper roots of the uprising lay in grievances dating to the 1994 civil war that consolidated the north’s grip over the state and, southerners would say, the resources of the country.1 Southerners soon took to calling their protests al-Harak, a coordinated campaign against a northern “occupation.”

The ethos of the national revolutionary movement that began in January 2011 was prefigured by al-Harak: it met brutal violence with peaceful resistance and relied on flexible organisation instead of hierarchies. As Yemenis from across the country came together to demand the end of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s regime, it almost seemed as if the call for reestablishment of the independent southern state would be put on hold. When Salih finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for political transition in November 2011, there was a brief celebration before protests resumed in “Change Squares” across the country and a “parallel revolution” fought to oust corrupted functionaries in state bureaucracy and the army. In post-Salih Yemen, al-Harak continues to struggle for the rights of southern Yemenis.

 

17. Tawakkul Karman as Cause and Effect

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STACEY PHILBRICK YADAV

Political activist Tawakkul Karman brought Yemen’s revolution to New York in October 2011, speaking directly with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and organizing rallies at the United Nations headquarters in lower Manhattan. The purpose of her visit was to keep pressure on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that reflected the aspirations of the overwhelming numbers of Yemenis who had sustained peaceful calls for change for the nine long months since protests had begun in late January. Arriving newly anointed by the Nobel Committee, which named her as one of three recipients of the 2011 Peace Prize, Karman feared—as did much of the Yemeni opposition, in its many forms—that the UN would merely reiterate the approximate parameters of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative put forth in April. That plan, which enjoyed support from the United States, as well as Yemen’s GCC neighbors, gave legal immunity to President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, whose crimes against Yemeni protesters had multiplied in the months since the spring. Her fears were well founded: The UN resolution announced on October 21 demanded that Salih sign the GCC resolution immediately. Karman thus ended her week in New York as she had ended so many weeks in Sanaa in previous months—at the head of a protest.

 

18. Asad’s Lost Chances

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CARSTEN WIELAND

On January 31, 2011 the Wall Street Journal printed words that Bashar al-Asad must have winced to recall. In an interview with the newspaper, the Syrian president said that Arab rulers would need to move faster to accommodate the rising political and economic aspirations of Arab peoples. “If you didn’t see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s too late to do any reform,” he chided his fellow leaders. But Asad went on to assure the interviewer (and perhaps himself): “Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence…you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”

Not even two months later, confrontations between protesters and security forces across Syria shook the Baathist regime harder than any challenge since the 1980s. No matter what the course of the upheavals, the Syria that many knew for decades will never be the same. The protests tore asunder the delicate fabric of rules, explicit and implicit, that for decades determined the relations between the regime and the citizenry. By Syrian standards, the political concessions promised by regime representatives to quiet the early months of unrest were far-reaching; long years of civil society activism were unable to achieve them. By the yardstick of the times, however, the moves were inadequate. Following a presidential speech to Parliament on March 30, it looked like sweeping reform was an empty promise. And a rising number of Syrians did not swallow their disappointment. The pervasive fear for which this police state is infamous gave way to unpredictable bursts of popular anger, as well as hope for a better future.

 

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