Choking the Arab Spring

There has been lots of euphoric language concerning the last 6 months of unrest in the Middle East. We hear of rolling revolutions, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and of impending genocide in Libya. Are these descriptions accurate? Have we really seen even one revolution? Is genocide a remotely satisfactory term to describe Gaddafi's reprisals?

There has been lots of euphoric language concerning the last 6 months of unrest in the Middle East. We hear of rolling revolutions, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. More recently we were told of impending genocide in the latter case that would have been the inevitable result of Western inaction. Are these descriptions accurate? Have we really seen even one revolution? Is genocide a remotely satisfactory term to describe Gaddafi's reprisals?

In the first case a revolution comparable to historic benchmarks such as the American, French, Russian, Cuban or Chinese has not yet taken place. Indeed in the case of Egypt we have seen widespread revolt against a repressive and long lived dictatorship. Mubarak came from the military, and he has been replaced by the same military. The Egyptian military was lauded for its restraint, for backing the people. This same military could be argued to have been very much hedging its bets. It was not simply the security forces that killed protestors, the military too played a part, and until the last weeks of unrest was still operating very closely with the Mubarak regime. It allowed pro-Mubarak armed supporters to have their fun. Since the coup - by any standards that is what the removal of Mubarak amounted to - the military has been rather cagey about its intentions. It has not released all political prisoners, it has opened but then promptly closed - and kept closed - the crossing to Gaza . It has brought a number of key members of the dictatorship before the courts, but this is hardly revolutionary.

The US had sent its special envoy to Egypt just prior to the removal of Mubarak, so the question is how much is the US involved in backing this venerable 'peoples' military?

In Tunisia much the same has taken place, people are still on the streets for very good reason. Likewise international interference is visible, perhaps more visible than in Egypt. With particular cynicism the French government has on several occasions prevented Tunisian citizens accessing documentation concerning Ben Ali and French governmental ties at the Tunisian embassy in Paris. This has been done in support of an interim government in Tunisia that hardly has any democratic basis, and is - as the protests have shown - not necessarily responsive to the people's demands.

What is revolutionary in these cases is the widespread proliferation of protest and dissent by ordinary people, marked by the savvy use of technology to openly defy states which 20 years ago would have had a free hand to murder their citizens in thousands. Whilst this behaviour perhaps denotes revolutionary times, we have not yet seen revolutions.

The situation in Libya is much more contentious. The term genocide to describe the fate of the peoples in Benghazi and Misrata, if left to Gadaffi's vengeance is not just hyperbole. There were reports of mass rape as a practice advocated by the regime, mass killing, mercenaries and such, nearly all of which appears to not to have been supported by much in the way of evidence. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have failed to locate any evidence of a practice of mass rape, let alone genocide, and the accusations concerning African Mercenaries look increasingly like a western misinterpretation of communal violence directed at migrant workers.

To be sure there has been government repression and considerable violence, but genocide? An organized practice of mass killing based on some ethnic distinction? This was not taking place. There are tribal loyalties that can be seen in some parts of the country and not in others, but to represent this as an ethnic conflict with next to no analysis of the ethnic composition of the country, is a gross distortion of reality.

What is taking place is a revolt against a dictator and his violent response; this is not the same as genocide, of which there is no evidence. What is happening in Libya is not particularly distinct when compared to that in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, yet not once have these cases been referred to as genocide.

In Bahrain and Iraq -where, alternatively, violence has often drawn down on ethnic lines- the absence of condemnation and coverage is conspicuous. In Bahrain, activists and those who sought to offer them medical treatment have been arrested, subjected to show trials, ending with torture and imprisonment. Yet there is hardly a wink from the international community. The US has paid lip service to the struggle, supporting the farcical 'dialogue' between protestors and a regime that has slandered, killed and tortured them in droves. The crown prince was quietly hosted at the White House last month. The US has great interests in Bahrain, the home of its 5th fleet, yet this has not translated into diplomatic pressure. Pressure that the US could easily afford to put on the government and the Saudi army occupation of the country.

Lastly in Iraq - supposedly a budding young democracy, protest has been met with repression and the the killing of protestors, but you could be forgiven for not noticing it. It has been near-universally excised from media coverage, and there has been no mention of it from the pulpits of Western governments. Human Rights Watch reported this week that the Iraqi government has been arming plain clothes security forces and sending them into protests to ferment violence and crush dissent, much as was seen in Egypt. Whilst Tunisia and Egypt have seen dictators removed, Iraq has a new quasi-dictator in Al-Maliki. It is disturbing that Human Rights Watch reports suggest that government sponsored thugs were operating with support from within the ministry of the interior, the same ministry that several years ago was behind numerous brutal death squads operating throughout the country This is in part what the insurgency was a response to - Sunni resistance to Shi'a domination of government. The US-led Coalition would do well to condemn this renewed action lest Iraq slide into fully fledged dictatorship, civil war or worse.

These rebellions are not yet revolutions, for them to become so the forces that have dominated these countries for years need to be removed and replaced with something better. In Bahrain and Iraq, one assumes brutal civil war awaits if communal grievances are met with repression rather than dramatic reform. Egypt does not need a military junta, Fridays renewed protest in Tahrir square indicates that the Egyptian people are far from finished in their revolutionary plans. France needs to bite its tongue and accept that if the ex-leaders of Tunisia are to be tried, then their dirty laundry will have to be aired in public. If the international community wants to try Gaddafi in a court of law, then it would do well to stop illegally attempting to kill him.


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