Pro-democracy warriors in Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia push through barriers of fear only to find a constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
By Scott Peterson, / Staff Writer
posted March 5, 2011 at
The night the dictator fell, the euphoric scenes in Cairo’s “Liberation” Square encapsulated like nothing else the promise of democratic change sweeping across the Arab world.
For those sweating amid the crush of the crowd during that moment of history in Egypt on Feb. 11, the monumental challenges that await were briefly subsumed by the full-blooded joy on the streets. Egyptians were in shock, as their courageous upheaval against the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak also toppled longstanding conventional wisdom of Arab politics marked by apathy and incompatible with democracy. But those blessings are not welcomed by all, as the question of “What next?” looms.
For Umm Karim – a poor mother of four whose family has been reduced to one meal a day – the unrest has meant misfortune, so far at least. Her two breadwinning sons have been jobless since the paper factory where they worked was burned down during protests, making it impossible for the family to pay for regular food, much less rent.
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“I wish this revolution never happened,” Umm Karim tells the Monitor, as a young neighbor boy clings to her knee, chewing on a door key. Businesses across her town of Al-Maraziq, 25 miles north of the epicenter of the uprising at Tahrir Square, have been disrupted. Confined to the family’s one-room apartment, her sons now argue and fight. Even Umm Karim’s small state pension of about $21 hasn’t been paid.
But a neighbor takes issue with Umm Karim’s pessimism: “You don’t understand,” says Maghdi Said, who farms and has factories. “The revolution is not for me. It’s for you. In the future there will be more jobs. It’s only a matter of time before it improves.”
“But how long can we wait?” asks Umm Karim, her black-and-white veil fastened tightly around her face.
“No matter how long we wait, it’s going to be worth it,” says Mr. Said. “You will be able to raise your kids to be engineers, not mechanics. We just have to unite.”
As change sweeps the Middle East, the difficulties of converting revolution into a stable and fulfilling democracy are now clearer – and more daunting. The Arab world’s so-called “pro-democracy” warriors that are toppling decrepit leaders every few weeks are faced with the same uncertainties that afflicted post-Soviet nations in eastern Europe in the 1990s, and the vibrant “color” revolutions of the following decade in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and beyond.
Born in history’s crucible of high expectations and unexpected popular empowerment, those examples have had mixed results – and were less afflicted by the huge income and education gaps and sectarian differences that help fuel the Middle East turmoil. The instruments of civil society, such as political parties, are weak at best, and transitional authorities are battling to grasp legitimacy.
The unprecedented demand for change here is further complicated by the lack of any previous narrative of Arab democracy.
“Arabs are not going to accept a return to authoritarianism,” says Shadi Hamid, a Qatar-based analyst with the Brookings Doha Center who witnessed the peak of elation in Cairo, where he said Egyptians experienced “true, unfettered freedom for the first time in their lives.”
He describes a “new protest ethic” in the Arab world. “If the Egyptian military doesn’t respect their demands, or a future government doesn’t respect their demands, they are going to come out onto the streets again and again and again,” says Mr. Hamid. “We used to talk about Arab exceptionalism in the sense that [Arabs] are anti-democratic, but now I think we can talk about another kind of Arab exceptionalism, where Arabs seem to have really unified … behind the vision of a democratic Arab world.”
Achieving that vision may prove harder than toppling calcified sultans. Though protests are rocking regimes from Libya to Bahrain to Yemen – with the media perhaps too loosely encapsulating an array of grievances and motivations in the label “pro-democracy” – there is no one-size-fits-all template for a democratic outcome.
On top of that is a growing sense that, despite eye-catching gains, the transformation is far from complete in the countries that have brought down their rulers – never mind those remaining chieftains who, in a bid to preempt people power, have rushed to make reforms, pay off citizens with cash handouts, or promise not to seek yet one more term in office.
In Tunisia, a new surge of violent protests in late February – six weeks after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled – left five dead and prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. Protesters had demanded that he, as one of the last high-profile remnants of the old guard, step down, or their break with the past would not be complete.
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“I am not ready to be the person who takes decisions that would end up causing casualties,” said Mr. Ghannouchi, who had been prime minister for 11 years under Mr. Ben Ali. Yet a senior trade union leader complained that the immediate appointment of Ghannouchi’s replacement – the 84-year-old former Foreign Minister Beji Caid Essebsi – was antidemocratic. How could Tunisia pull out of crisis, he asked, “if the president does not take at least 24 hours for consultations.”
In Egypt, likewise, there have been moments of prerevolution déjà vu. Security forces tried to break up an overnight reform rally in Tahrir Square, truncheons flailing as if the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak weeks earlier had never occurred. A military council has taken interim control – despite some calls for a predominantly civilian five-member presidential council – but has yet to say exactly when it will end Egypt’s 30-year-long state of emergency, nor offer a precise timetable for making a new constitution and electing a new parliament and president.
“Part of this moving forward is, ‘Where are we, really, now?'” asks James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI) and author of “Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why It Matters.” “If all that happened was Ben Ali is gone, the party is dissolved, and the military is in control of Tunisia; or Mubarak is gone, his party is hollowed out a bit, but the military is still in control – then maybe nothing happened at all.”
The “Shoe-Thrower’s Index” of Arab unrest, published by The Economist in February, suggests that the spread of such upheavals may have been inevitable. It weighted several factors such as prevalence of youth, years of unchanged government, and corruption and lack of democracy indices. Top of the list for “potential for unrest” was Yemen – which scored almost 90 out of 100. Libya was next with 70, Egypt slightly lower in a tie with Syria and Iraq.
People have taken to the streets to demand a say in government, for an end to state repression, and for jobs and improved living conditions that have left jobless up to one-quarter of the region’s youth – a bubble of 15-to-29-year-olds that, by one count, at 100 million strong, makes up a third of the Arab population.
Those youths have been at the forefront of the fight for change, battling Egyptian police, forcing the fall of Libya’s second city, Benghazi – even providing the spark for all these protests when a Tunisian college graduate set himself ablaze in mid-December after being harassed by the police over his vegetable cart.
But faced now with the most significant and abrupt transformation since Arab borders were drawn by victorious European powers after World War I, the new revolutionaries of the Middle East are pushing through the barrier of fear only to find a diverse constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
For example, episodes of continued unrest in Tunisia, the very nation that inspired the chain reaction of protests, show the enormity of what still needs to be done, says Sadok Belaid, a veteran law professor in Tunis, the capital.
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“These young people are demanding things that are very simple, and I think very reasonable,” says Mr. Belaid. Declaring that the interim government “will accede to the will of the people” in all matters, and speed toward an assembly, may ease opposition.
The election of a general assembly representing the whole country – not just a few political parties – to draft a new constitution is the top priority, he adds, followed by the overhaul of economic policy to address “urgent needs.”
But applying such changes in Tunisia is already proving difficult.
Egypt might have an easier time forging democratic success, with its history of an organized opposition – despite tough crackdowns against the largest, the Muslim Brotherhood, among others – and an active civil society and institutions.
In Libya, by contrast, Muammar Qaddafi’s repressive rule has erased any vestige of public opposition and blocked the formation of civil society groups or institutions. And yet popular committees and even military officers that defected to the antiregime side in eastern Libya very quickly set about preventing a power vacuum by engaging in self-rule.
In Bahrain, sectarian issues play a role amid the complaints against the monarchy, as the majority Shiites demand more rights from minority Sunni rulers.
The equation is different yet again in grindingly poor Yemen, where key demands center on jobs and better living conditions.
And those challenges aren’t limited to the newly “free,” either. In Iraq, where a US military invasion ended the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the experiment with democracy has been messy and tangled since the early years of the American presence. An inconclusive election one year ago only yielded a coalition government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after nine months of political horse-trading. And poor services have continued to bedevil Iraqis even while their elected politicians draw salaries of tens of thousands of dollars a month and live in the fortified Green Zone.
Thousands have turned out for protests across the country, including for a proclaimed “day of rage” on Feb. 25, when several died in clashes with police.
The solution is simple – and authoritarian – for Ayad Ali, an Iraqi Ministry of Interior worker. He told the Monitor in Baghdad before those clashes: “When the Americans occupied Iraq, they should have come with someone who could rule Iraq!”
It is that regional power vacuum that frightens Wided, a college graduate in the southeastern Tunisian town of Zarzis. Flush with the optimism of youth, she is pleased with the result of fallen dictators, who had ruled since long before she was born. She has never known anything – or anyone – else at the top. She is just starting a career in the tourism industry, though the hotel where she works, with its $7-per-night charge, is a modest place to start.
“We are happy they are gone, this is good,” she says, as she asks for extra hot sauce on her sandwich in a local shop. “But everyone is scared. They don’t know what will come next, or what will happen.”
Partly that is because dictatorial rulers imposed from outside – with policies aimed at winning US or European support in exchange for stability – is precisely the grating template now being broken underfoot.
“When these [Arab] countries were created, the people – the citizens – never really had a chance to define their countries or their ideologies,” says Rami Khouri, the Lebanon-based director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “These decisions were made by retreating, half-drunk colonial powers with handpicked local emirs or colonels or notables that they just picked and said: ‘You’re going to run Iraq,’ ‘You’re going to run Jordan,’ ” he says about the West’s partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. “There was no consent of the governed.”
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Nearly a century later, shifting to more democratic systems will require finding a careful balance between proclaimed ideals like freedom and dignity, and concrete demands for jobs and better services – a tall order for street opposition movements that have largely been leaderless and disparate.
“There are two kinds of demands people have: One is material and practical, like jobs and higher incomes, more water, electricity, telephones, schools. The other is more intangible: being treated with dignity, with equality, being respected as a citizen with rights by your own government,” says Mr. Khouri.
“The biggest challenge is … to make sufficient progress on two fronts simultaneously that keep people satisfied.”
The result, he concludes, could be diverse government systems: “Some [will be] more explicitly democratic, pluralist and electoral. Others will be more designed according to traditional tribal, Arab, collective-identity type institutions, and less Jeffersonian/Westminster parliamentary [styles].”
Few expert observers expect instant gratification. Creating jobs and a culture of accountable government while bureaucratic systems often remain will not be easy. Who – in the opposition, or any other sector – can take or provide effective leadership in such uncertain times is not clear.
“Political space has been pried open to a degree unprecedented in the lifetimes of those who took to the streets,” concludes a late-February analysis by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
“Should Egypt experience a difficult, painful or unstable phase, or the socioeconomic grievances that fueled much discontent remain unaddressed, many in the region could take a second – far less favorable – look at what just occurred,” notes ICG. “Disillusionment, too, can be infectious.”
For those who embrace participation, expectations can spiral out of control. Any collapse of hope was the last thing on the mind of Iraqi voter Vian Othman, who in February 2005 showed the visceral power of casting her ballot in Iraq’s first post-Saddam election, under the careful watch of the US military and an American-engineered transitional authority.
“We want to live,” Ms. Othman told the Monitor after emerging from a polling station with tears rolling down her face. She said she avenged the death of her father at the hands of the former regime by casting her single ballot. The act was so important that she – like millions of Iraqis – braved suicide bombings, mortar attacks, and insurgent threats to kill every voter.
“Freedom and happiness and victory,” Othman sobbed. “We were a little bit afraid [before coming], but we put courage in our hearts.”
And yet there are cautionary tales of such enthusiasm and the risks of popular revolt that emerged from such places as post-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia.
In November 2003, Georgians protesting a rigged election took to the streets in their “Rose Revolution,” and – while hoisting a model of the Statue of Liberty and holding American flags – brought to power the US-educated opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. Despite his democratic credentials and economic reforms, by 2007 Mr. Saakashvili was declaring a state of emergency and closing down independent media to stamp out opposition protests.
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The “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, likewise, swept opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko into power, when tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a rigged election victory of the despised Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Bitter infighting among opposition leaders, though, disgusted Ukrainians to the point where they dumped the opposition in February 2010, electing Mr. Yanukovich president.
“This is what happens in all revolutions: Great expectations are followed by disappointment and disillusion,” says the Qatar-based analyst Hamid. Democratic euphoria can have authoritarian reversals, he warns: “Egyptians and Tunisians have to be vigilant … that the military … respects the demands of the people.”
But who is to be entrusted by “the people” with accurately reading and satisfying every demand? Leadership, and who has the right to assume such a role, is wide open in the Arab revolts. In Egypt, for example, is it the well-known global bureaucrat Mohamed ElBaradei, who led the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency for years, but who was filmed during the protests being interviewed in plush gardens while antiregime activists were being killed in the streets during clashes? Could it be popular former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who says he will run for president? Or the Google executive imprisoned by the regime who, upon his release, galvanized the protesters at a critical time? Or is leadership to be found in the “Coalition of Young Revolutionaries” which gave a list of demands to Egypt’s military council in late February – several of them acted upon?
Democratic episodes are not unheard-of in the Arab world, and have generated their share of heart-stopping, tear-jerking excitement.
While Iraq has had the most recent experiences (despite unsatisfactory results for many), similar enthusiasm could be found in Algeria during the 1991 elections – the first multiparty vote since independence in 1962. The Islamic Salvation Front swept the first round, prompting a military coup supported by Western nations, which resulted in a radicalization of Islamists and vicious civil war.
In 2006, Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections fair and square, only to have the United States and European nations – along with Israel – refuse to accept the result, and impose sanctions to prevent Hamas from ruling.
“It’s funny to hear senior Western officials wax rhetorical about [today’s] emerging democratic movement in the region, when in fact they were the ones working against it for so long,” says Hamid from Brookings.
Algeria “could have been a promising model” for the region, and American dismissal of the Hamas victory was “another example of the US wanting democracy, but not wanting its outcomes,” adds Hamid. “This has been America’s dilemma in the region for decades. And I think we are finally getting to a point that we can solve it.”
But there’s anger in the Arab street about US policies still in the way – such as blanket support for Israel, the Iraq invasion, and support for undemocratic regimes.
President Obama said during a landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009 that he wanted to transform that anger and seek a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” between the US and Muslims around the world.
The foundation of that respect he described this way: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed … the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Indeed, polling over the past decade, says Mr. Zogby of the AAI, consistently finds that “[Arabs] like America, the American people and culture.” But what hasn’t changed on the ground is that “they hate [US] policy and they hate the fact that their governments are supporting these policies.”
The result has been greater distance between rulers seen to support US policy, and the ruled who resent it. In 1979 for example, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace accord with Israel, the subsequent protests and crackdown against it eventually led to some 24,000 arrests, says Zogby. And militant anger eventually led to the assassination of Mr. Sadat – the event that brought then-Vice President Mubarak to power in 1981.
Current protests have changed US fortunes yet again.
“I think it’s a different game out there. Leaders are going to get closer to the people, because they realize that, frankly, it hasn’t paid – the security that they sought from the US has only made them less secure,” says Zogby.
The demands on the streets could not be more insistent, nor the expectations greater among the angry legions who have seen fit – after decades of subservience to authoritarian leadership – to collectively reach for a new and democratic future. What is meant by the word “democracy” will be grappled with – because after all the buildup of slogans, for some it will mean a roads-paved-with-gold sense that every desire will now to be fulfilled.
Despite the inevitable comedown, these changes are probably the most significant development in the Arab world in nearly a century, though the outcome remains uncertain – and the timeline will extend for many years.
“It’s a process. Remember it took the Europeans 500 years to get from the Magna Carta to the French Revolution. These things don’t happen overnight,” says Khouri.
And there are unexpected signs of hope. After decades under the suffocating one-man rule of Saddam Hussein, for example, Iraqis quite easily found the ability to conduct elections – even if their elected politicians couldn’t keep from bickering over the results.
In Egypt, even during the uprising, when police disappeared from the streets, volunteer Egyptians directed traffic, formed ad hoc neighborhood protection committees, and sought to keep essential services running.
In Libya, despite four decades under Mr. Qaddafi, when the east of the country fell to antiregime forces, volunteers stepped up to do everything from scrubbing courthouse toilets to protecting banks.
Former Libyan officials and military officers who defected early to the opposition had, by the end of February, declared an interim government to rule until Qaddafi’s remaining strongholds and the capital Tripoli might fall.
“I’m very optimistic. These Arab societies have somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 years of history governing themselves and their societies,” notes Khouri. “So it’s not as if we are teaching them new skills. We’re just trying to give them the opportunity to show us what they know.”
• Sarah Lynch contributed to this report from Al Maraziq, Egypt.
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