By Zafar Ahmad
The idea of changing the perceived system of oppression and injustice has always been fascinating. Throughout history, such fascinations to replacing the system of exploitation with Utopian ones have led to revolutions. Revolutions like the American Revolution, 1776, French Revolution, 1789, Russian Revolution, 1917 and Chinese Revolution, 1948, all changed the face of modern world in ways beyond imaginations. But, it is also true that every revolution has come with widespread violence except the relatively peaceful Velvet Revolution, 1989. The story is equally true in case of the Arab Spring, 2011, which instigated more violence instead of peaceful transition.
The question as why do revolutions (like the Arab Spring) lead to further violence could better be elaborated by identifying the common patterns argued to be the characteristics of revolutions and by comparisons of revolutions with each other. Revolutions usually arise in response to intense social oppression or conflict, economic hardships, exacerbated inequalities and high dissatisfaction from the existing system. Such adverse conditions prompt intellectuals to criticizing the systems, develop ideologies, devise an alternative system, mobilize the masses and start social movements which in extreme cases lead to revolutions. This was true in case of major revolutions led by intellectual leaders such as Robespieree, Nikolai Lenin and Mao who after severe reign of terror were eventually able to over throw the existing systems and implement the aspired ones. On the other hand, the Arab Spring was more of a series of uprisings against the tyrant dictators which lacked proper ideology, uncertainty of the alternatives except demands for justice and free elections in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. It was more a leaderless revolt proceeding in undefined directions which due to the government’s violent respond instigated further violence.
However, the comparison of Arab Spring with the Velvet Revolution of 1989 will be more relevant as both of these mainly aspired for regime changes yet the Arab Spring did not proceed the way the Velvet Revolution did. There are a number of reasons which hindered the transition in Middle East in a smooth way. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia as a protest in sympathies to the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a local vendor outraged over harassment by the local police. The violent protest overthrowing the decades long regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali eventually inspired the same in neighboring countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and Bahrain, who too demanded either regime change or reforms. The harsh responses by the regimes resulted to wide spread violence throughout the countries under the inspiration of the Arab Spring. On the contrary, the non-violent protests in the Communist Eastern Europe came after successful and non-violent transition of governments in countries like Poland and Hungary.
Moreover, the political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and its satellite states was more relaxed in the second half of 1980s. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev aimed greater transparency, openness to debate, political and economic reforms are argued to have paved the ways for smooth and nonviolent transitions. While, such pre-requisites were lacking in the Middle East, the policies of the regimes were continuously oppressive. The attempts to crush the protests with force further led to violence.
Furthermore, the Velvet Revolution aspiring for democracy was led by Vaclav Havel, a writer, playwright, and poet, who utilized his potentials to craft the movement’s messaging, challenging the government in a way that captured the public’s confidence and imagination. “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions,” he continued to said. On the other hand, the Arab Spring was mainly a leaderless revolt led by activists and students which kept spreading like uncontrolled flood of violence. The role which an intellectual leader could play during a movement was lacking in case of the Arab Spring.
Similarly, foreign interference in countries like Libya further exacerbated. After the killing of Col. Qadafi emerged militant groups like the so-called Islamic States who seized territories in Libya. While Saudi Interference in Yemen created space for AlQaeda. This was not the case in Eastern Europe where the arch-rival the US tended not to interfere which led the government not to respond too violently.
The protests under Arab Spring though demanded regime change or reform and called for justice yet they had little idea as what next. There was little consensus on the alternative system. There were factions each aspiring for different agenda. The Islamists strived for repressive norms; the liberals for more market economy and further privation while the leftists for undoing the privations and increased wages.
The protests managed to over throw dictators in four countries like Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia while posed threats to others. Yet, the alternatives were not better either. In Libya, the central government is too weak giving space to militias, in Yemen the Expresident Abdullah Saleh still carries influence, the country led to civil war among the militias like the Houthis, the Al-Qaeda, the forces loyal to Saleh, with the Saudi air striking. In Egypt the military removed the elected President Moorsi and the new military backed regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may be even worse than that of Husni Mubarak. The only relative success is Tunisia which enabled to settle disputes after initial turbulence and Secularists and the Islamists eventually developed new constitution and two elections were conducted after the fall of the regime. However, this relative success is only in comparison with the worst conditions in other countries under the Arab Spring.
Thus, due to a number of reasons and lack of necessary pre-conditions, discussed above, the Arab Spring created further violence instead of smooth transitions making it hard to declare victory for any side. The uprisings could be labelled as failure if taken as an attempt for transition to democracy. The uprisings led to the rise of many players each committing war crimes and making the Arab Spring even more complex than the French Revolution.
The Arab Spring has a deep message for the both the rulers as well as for the people of Pakistan. The way of ruling of rulers is not much different than the former Arab Dictators. Despite being in politics for long time, these have delivered too little for the public. The only thing changed under them is their own fortune at the cost of further miseries for the masses. It is time that our rulers learn lessons from the ill fates of the former Arab Dictators before it is too late and the dormant public rise for against their miseries. With the entry of Imran Khan in politics a specific portion is already on the streets and it will not be beyond speculations that angry mobs may take justice in their own hands and lynch the rulers like the former dictator Qadafi was lynched by his own people. The failed Arab Spring has much to learn for our rulers.
By Zafar Ahmad