Arab Illusions

Boštjan Videmšek

A year and a half after the Tunisian greengrocer Mohamed Bouazizi set set himself aflame and thereby triggered the Arab spring, the democratic change in the Middle East and in Northern Africa has ground to a dramatic halt.


Two weeks ago, the Egyptian judicial system sentenced Hosni Mubarak and his former Interior Minister Habib al Adly to life imprisonment. In last January, in those dangerous days when police-employed snipers were picking off protesters in the middle of Cairo while professional thugs brutally tortured hundreds of Mubarak’s opponents, such news would have been greeted as downright miraculous. But today, precisely sixteen months after Omar Suleiman, the deus ex machina of the Egyptian military coup, addressed his people and told them that the last pharaoh was stepping down, the protesters know very well that their revolution had been stolen. This had already been decided during the first days of the uprising. Everything that followed was a matter of mere mechanics. It is now clear that, if anything, the army had used the revolution to strengthen its grip on the reins of power. The young protesters, ‘the digital generation’ that braved the analogue streets to risk their lives, were becoming outvoted by the silent majority. Very quickly, Egypt was split into two solid, absoultely undemocratic blocs that are much more compatible with each other than it may seem. The spoils of the revolution had been usurped by the greedy generals and the Islamic preachers with all-consuming political ambition. The country – and its fate – fell hostage to the Supreme Militray Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two power structures that are poised to construct the land’s official political hierarchy in the weeks after the second round of the presidential elections.


In more ways than one, Egypt got rid of its dictator only to strengthen the dictatorship – and, ironically, mostly through democratic means. To verify this, one need only recall the official acquital of Mubarak’s sons and numerous other key figures within the former security hierarchy.


In contrast, the Syrian president Bashar al Assad didn’t even have to stage a glorified puppet show. To get his opponents in check, he sent tanks, heavy artillery and Alawite paramilitary units led by his brother Maher to fight his opponents. In this bloodthirsty rampage he modelled himself after his father Hafeez. Asad junior knew in advance that the so-called international community would be neither willing nor able to cross his plans. As ever, the UN monitors are there to meekly monitor an evil regime’s mass murder of its civilian population. Purposefully, Asad prodded his country over the brink of civil war. Skillfully, he then repainted the conflict between his people and his government into ‘sectarian strife’ with certain Balkan-type or Iraqi overtones. The conflict is now spreading over the border into Lebanon, the region’s most combustible state. In Syria, too, the young and well-educated protesters who set off an insurrection were left speechless. Many of them were left without their heads or limbs as well.


On June 19, Lybia was set to experience the first parliamentary election in its entire history. But it was not to be. National Transitional Council (NTC), the official body that took over governance after Moammer Gaddafi’s demise, claims it has been forced to postpone the election for a few weeks. The reasons cited were total chaos, lack of security and logistical problems. Today, eight months after the public lynching of the colonel who turned the country into his own private sandbox, Lybia is a failed state. True, the NATO bombers played a crucial role in the toppling of the butcher. But after the regime was overpowered, the foreigners cared only about the Lybian oil wells and were happy to leave the politics and the security entirely to the rampaging paramilitary units. Since not nearly all the spoils of war are claimed for, and since many heads are still ringing with the heady tune of victory, the paramilitary units are not likely to lay down their arms anytime soon. The deserts are filled with secret prisons where torture and executions are taking place. The Lybian conflict is also spilling over toward the south,  into the Sahel. As in Egypt and Syria, the Lybian insurrection’s true heroes are now all but forgotten. Or dead.


From Bahrain – where the authorities, with the silent US blessing, bloodily suppressed the rebellion of the Shi’ite majority – almost no news is allowed to escape. Yemen has become a theme park of anti-terrorist warfare. Israel keeps belting out threats to Iran who keeps developing its own nuclear capability. It turns out that the Arab Spring, brought about by the dreams of the younger generations who had been stripped of their future by the tyranny of evil old men, has been most beneficial to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These two countries are the undisputable winners of the Middle East cold war. The irony couldn’t be greater. Or more painful.