Tides of the Arab revolutions


As calls for intervention increase, ask not who will replace dictators and when, ask what replaces the regimes and how
Marwan Bishara

Some in Syria’s opposition  have begun to call for military intervention, and the implementation of a ‘no-fly zone’ similar to that enforced by NATO in Libya [EPA]

The ebb and flow of the Arab revolutions is revealing political storms that could flood the Arab world with chaos. The people and their organised opposition groups mustn’t fall prey to the dictators’ ultimatums of “me or the flood”.
It is a false choice. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have shown a third way forward; one that no longer considers dictatorships as a fait accomplis, nor a spiralling descent into civil war, nor to become dependent on international protection.
This is not to say that all situations and challenges are one and the same, and revolutions must evolve like carbon copies of each other. Circumstances are, of course, different among Arab states.
But behind the specifics of each Arab society and polity there are also commonalities worth considering, without generalisation.
Three dimensions or general guidelines should, in particular, be examined.
Numbers speak louder than words

Some of the regimes, as in Libya or Syria, have had bloody records during the years, and their violent crackdown in recent months has pushed people to arm themselves or to ask for international intervention or protection.

But the militarisation of the Libyan revolution and the international intervention in Libya has proven costly. Before the intervention started, the estimated deaths stood at one to two thousand people.

By the time it ended several months later, tens of thousands were dead. Some put the figure at 20,000, others more than double that.

The huge difference in the estimates underlines just how bad and messy things have become.

Those Syrians asking for international intervention must consider the terrible cost paid by the Libyans.

Moreover, the oil-rich North African nation might be able to pay for reconstruction, but it won’t recover the terrible “collateral damage” in human losses and injuries.

Syria, meanwhile, is not only poor, it’s also a complicated society with growing ethnic tensions and deep societal polarisation. It’s not clear how imposing a no-fly-zone in Syria could ease the regime’s crackdown. The Syrian military is heavily deployed among the population centres and would be hard to hit without terrible cost to citizens.

Short of costly foreign military intervention with boots on the ground that would also cripple Syria’s national security capabilities for decades to come, with dangerous regional and international ramifications, it’s not clear how any foreign military intervention could help.

Furthermore, NATO, the only international military alliance capable of such operation as in Libya or the Balkans, has made clear they have no appetite for another mission. They also emphasised they wouldn’t act in any way without a UN Security Council mandate.

In addition, Russia and China have already made clear their rejection of any such military scenario in Syria or a repeat of Libya.

Short history, shorter memory

People have every right to defend themselves – and I am in no position to ask people to suffer at the hands of their oppressors. However, those advocating the militarisation of the Arab revolutions as a strategy and asking for international intervention to support the growing insurgency have either lapsed or selective memory.

In the not so distant past, a generation of young officers between the ages of 26-36 took the reins of power and went on to rule for decades with iron fist – in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Algeria.

No domestic military answer succeeded in resolving any Arab or Middle Eastern problems in recent decades – except in terms of ridding people of colonialism. And even that has come with a very heavy price – as in the case of Algeria.

Certainly, the international corollary is also correct. No international military intervention/adventure in the region has succeeded in resolving central issues of governance, development and freedom either.

Western and other interference over the past century has not only failed to resolve any problem, foreign powers have mostly complicated the national and political situations and compounded the region’s problems.

The seeds of the current ethnic and sectarian divisions facing the likes of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine/Israel were planted by European colonialism in the hope of dividing and ruling the area.

Syrians asking for international intervention need to reflect calmly, not only upon NATO’s intervention in Libya, but also over the intervention in Iraq – where hundreds of thousands have been killed, and where the sectarian tensions continue to cripple the nation, leaving it at the mercy of the US and Iran.

In short, the likes of Syria and Yemen cannot afford to be dragged into civil wars by dictators or into total dependency on Western/international protection.

For their own

It’s quite ironic that Moscow and Beijing that have long claimed to speak on behalf of the people are now transparently siding with the autocracies, and those who long stood with dictators are now claiming to stand with the people.

At the heart of their disagreement lies a far more sinister calculus than peoples’ rights.

BRICS powers such as China and Russia insist on the stability of an inter-state system that respects national sovereignties that secures their interests – regardless of what happens inside these states.

Meanwhile, western powers – speaking in the name of “the international community” – are advancing a more globalised international system that gives them greater access to independent nations on economic, security and humanitarian grounds.

The Arabs need to remember that regional and international powers have “interests” – not “friends” – in this region.

On their own

For their part, Egyptians have returned to the streets and public squares of their major cities in recent days, forcing the military to apologise for its policies, to appoint a new government with full authority and to promise to vacate its executive role after presidential elections by the middle of next year.

And even that has fallen short of peoples’ demands – after tens have died in the protests at the hands of vengeful security forces. Yet the revolution has made important strides.

The week’s balance sheet, like the year’s in total, has been in favour of the revolution that continues to show a restless and vibrant public eager to open a new page in the history of their country.

As I wrote in February, the question for Egypt is not who replaces Mubarak – rather what replaces the Mubarak regime.

The generals’ backing of the revolution against Mubarak and company might have quickened his downfall and eventual imprisonment, but it also delayed a serious change in the country’s operating system.

This meant that change would be slow and short of the expectations of the people – who feel there hasn’t been a sufficient enough political and institutional break with the past.

True, the revolution did help dissolve the former ruling national democratic party and put its leaders on trial, but the system that incubated the party and military remained intact.

But as the Egyptians and the Tunisians successfully pursue their revolutionary goals peacefully – albeit slowly breaking with the past, the complications stemming from militarising the revolutions in Libya, and potentially in Yemen and Syria, would not only slow down those revolutions, but would also backfire.

Attaining their goals through peaceful means is far more productive and constructive for the Arabs in both the short and long term than pursuing military solutions with outside military help, campaigns that, in all likelihood, would take even longer and be more destructive.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. His latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, hits bookstores in January.

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