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The Arab Spring Three Years On

27 January 2014

The Arab Spring Three Years On

By Gwynne Dyer

It has taken a little longer than it did after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution we can definitely say that the “Arab Spring” is finished. The popular, mostly non-violent revolutions that tried to overthrow the single-party dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Arab world had their moments of glory, but the party is over and the bosses are back.

People in the Middle East hate having their triumphs and tragedies treated as a second-hand version of European history, but the parallels with Europe in 1848 are hard to resist. The Arab tyrants had been in power for just as long, the revolutions were fuelled by the same mixture of democratic idealism and frustrated nationalism, and once again the trigger for the revolutions (if you had to highlight just one factor) was soaring food prices.

In many places the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen – just like the French, German, and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples”. For a time it looked like everything would change. Then came the counter-revolutions and it all fell apart, leaving only a few countries permanently changed for the better – like Denmark then, or Tunisia in today’s Arab world.

The disheartening parallels are particularly strong between Egypt, by far the biggest country in the Arab world, and France, which was Europe’s most important and populous country in 1848. In both cases, the revolutions at first brought free media, civil rights and free elections, but also a great deal of social turmoil and disorientation.

In both France and Egypt the newly enfranchised masses then elected presidents whose background alarmed much of the population: a nephew of Napoleon in one case, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the other. And here the stories diverge for a time – but the ending, alas, does not.

In France, President Louis Napoleon launched a coup against his own presidency, and re-emerged in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III. It had been a turbulent few years, and by then a large majority of the French were willing to vote for him because he represented authority, stability and tradition. They threw away their own democracy.

In Egypt last year, the army allied itself with former revolutionaries to overthrow the elected president, Mohamed Morsi – and within a few months, after an election which will genuinely represent the wish of most Egyptians to trade their new democracy for authority, stability and tradition, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will duly assume the presidency. The counter-revolution is as popular in Egypt now as it was in France then.

And if you fear that this analogy is really relevant, then here’s the worst of it. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for twenty years. If that timetable were also to apply to the Arab world, then the next round of democratic revolutions would only be due around 2035. But it probably doesn’t apply.

There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011. The 1848 revolutions were violent explosions of popular anger that succeeded in hours or days, while those of 2010-11 were largely non-violent, more calculated struggles that took much longer to win. Non-violent revolutions give millions of people time to think about why they are taking these risks and what they hope to get out of it.

They may still lose focus, take wrong turns, even throw all their gains away. Mistakes are human, and so is failure. But once people have participated in a non-violent revolution they are permanently politicised, and in the long run they are quite likely to remember what they came for.

The most promising candidate to succeed Gene Sharp as the world authority on non-violent revolutions is Erica Chernoweth, a young American academic who co-wrote the study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict” with diplomat Maria Stephan. A lot of their book is about why non-violent revolution succeeds or fails, but most interesting of all are their statistics about HOW OFTEN it succeeds.

Their headline statistic is that violent revolutionary struggles succeed in overthrowing an oppressive regime only 30 percent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 percent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly under-performing.

There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed). There were two no-score draws: Yemen and Jordan. And there were three abject failures: Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, the latter ending up in a full-scale civil war. (Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start.) So far, not so good.

But the most relevant statistic from Chernoweth and Stephan’s work for the future of the Arab world is this: “Holding all other variables constant, the average country with a failed non-violent campaign has over a 35 percent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.” Failure may be only temporary. The game isn’t over yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“People…prices”; and “There have…good”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

Central African Republic: A Genocide Forestalled

10 December 2013

Central African Republic: A Genocide Forestalled

By Gwynne Dyer

The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the poorest and most inaccessible countries in the world. It’s the size of France, but it only has four and a half million people. It is a serious contender for the title of Worst Governed Country in Africa, and it is now teetering on the brink of a genocide. Something has to be done, and only France was able and willing to do it.

France moves fast. There are already 600 French troops in the capital, Bangui, and another thousand will be moving out into country areas by the end of the week. (There are already 2,500 African peace-keeping troops in the CAR, but they lack transport and don’t have orders to shoot.) It has all happened so fast that France hasn’t even decided yet if it supports the man who currently claims to be the president of the CAR.

Asked last Saturday if Michel Djotodia, who seized power last March, should stay as “interim president”, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: “I don’t think we need (to create) more difficulties by adding the departure of the president.”

On Sunday, however, President Francois Hollande said exactly the opposite: “We cannot leave in place a president who was not able to do anything, or even worse, has let (some very bad) things happen.” Fabius and Hollande may simply not have had time yet to talk to each other about Djotodia’s future – and besides, it doesn’t much matter: he controls virtually nothing.

The CAR has had eight coups since it got its independence from France in 1960, and got eight bad leaders out of it. The worst was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself emperor of the “Central African Empire” and used his “Imperial Guard” to murder people, including schoolchildren, who defied his rule, but even he had little impact on life outside Bangui, the capital.

The vast majority of people in the CAR are herdsmen or subsistence farmers who have little or no contact with the institutions of the state: the coup leaders and “presidents” came and went almost unnoticed. Until this time, because Michel Djotodia is the first Muslim president in a mostly Christian country, and he was brought to power by Muslim fighters many of whom don’t even come from the CAR.

Djotodia has been trying to seize the presidency for eight years. Coming from the Muslim northeast of the country, he recruited some fighters from that area – but up to 80 percent of the soldiers in his Seleka (alliance) militia were Muslim mercenaries whom he hired from Chad and Sudan.

Except that he didn’t actually have the money to pay them; he just tacitly offered them the chance to loot if they won. So when he ordered Seleka to disband last March, having fought his way into power in Bangui, they did nothing of the sort. They hadn’t come all this way just to steal a few things and go home again.

Like Djotodia, the mercenaries are in the game to get rich, but while he can now do his thieving from the presidential palace, they still have to do it in the traditional way. So the majority of Seleka’s fighters have broken up into bands of marauders who plunder, rape and burn their way around the country. Many of the country’s villages now lie abandoned, while their former inhabitants hide from the bandits in the fields or the woods.

Tens of thousands may have already died in the more remote parts of the CAR, and at least four hundred were killed right in Bangui last week. Worse may follow: there is now a serious risk of genocide.

The Christian majority and the Muslim minority in the CAR have generally lived alongside each other in peace. However, the ex-Seleka mercenaries, being Muslims, tend to spare Muslim communities and target Christian ones. In self-defence, the Christians have begun banding together in vigilante groups – and there are a lot more Christians than Muslims.

Inevitably, they suspect the local Muslims of helping the ex-Seleka killers, so they are starting to see them as enemies as well. In the circumstances of extreme deprivation and fear that now prevail in country areas – at least a million people are living in severe hunger or actual famine – this could quickly slide into a genocidal level of killing.

That’s why France moved so fast. It got the approval of the United Nations Security Council and the African Union for the intervention last Thursday, and by Saturday it had troops on the ground in Bangui. Djotodia, who could not be found last week, has also belatedly endorsed the intervention.

The need for speed is still paramount, and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said that the job of disarming the ex-Seleka fighters got underway on Monday: “First we’ll ask nicely and if they don’t react, we’ll do it by force.”

This is the second time this year that French troops have been sent in to stop an African state from collapsing into slaughter and anarchy. (The French intervention in Mali in January saved that country from conquest by jihadis.) It is deeply embarrassing for the African Union to admit that its own peace-keeping force cannot do the job in time, but it hasn’t let its pride get in the way of preventing a genocide in the CAR.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 5. (“Asked…the capital”)

 

Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013

5 June 2013

Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cties are equally diffuse and contradictory.

It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.

The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.

Erdogan, in cahoots with the developers as usual, assumed that the plan to include a mosque in the new mall would placate his own supporters, while the plan to make the exterior of the mall a replica of an old Ottoman barracks that had once stood on the site would assuage everybody else’s unhappiness at the loss of the park. He was wrong.

At the start of the protest, on 27 May, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas last Friday night, burning their tents after they fled. The protesters came back in far larger number the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.

Prime Minister Erdogan, leaving for a tour of several Arab countries on Monday, dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements”, and said he’d sort it out after he got back on Friday. Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.

It’s been a week, and the protesters have not quit. Meanwhile, in Erdogan’s absence, his closest colleagues have been conciliatory. President Abdullah Gul said “the messages sent in good faith have been received,” and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said “The use of excessive force against the people who initially started this protest…was wrong.”

But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdogan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?

Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdogan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.

He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.

He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.

He even insists on naming the proposed third bridge across the Bosphorus after the 16th century Ottoman ruler, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Around a quarter of Turkey’s population are Alevis, and they have not forgotten. Once Erdogan could play public opinion like a violin; now he is arrogant and tone-deaf.

So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdogan will not even be removed as AK party leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.

The protesters in Paris in May, 1968 didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Erdogan…wrong”; “It’s been…wrong”; and “He even…deaf”)

 

 

Mali Intervention

14 January 2013

Mali Intervention

By Gwynne Dyer

“Those days are over,” said Frances President Francois Hollande last month, when asked if French forces would intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have seized the northern half of Mali and the government in Bamako. But the days in question weren’t over for very long. Last Friday France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the capital.

“We are making air raids the whole time,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.” Some 550 French combat troops are on the ground already, with up to 2,500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It has turned into a real war.

It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Mali has asked for French help, and on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported France’s military intervention. The army of Mali, such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war – but everybody knows that the Malian army is useless.

In fact, the presence of Mali’s army at the front is usually counter-productive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent, and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?

The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last year’s Western military intervention in Libya, another French initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a democratically elected government, and no Western casualties. But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than the similarities.

In Libya the rebels were trying to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Gaddafi’s mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and massacre the rebels. NATO served as the rebel air force, but no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.

With Mali, once again it was decided in a couple of days, and once again France has taken the lead. Once again Britain is sending some help as well (transport aircraft, but no troops or combat aircraft), and the United States is providing discreet logistical support. (US Air Force tankers refuelled the French fighters on their way to Mali.) But that’s where the similarities end.

The West is supporting the government, not the rebels, in Mali. That government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having them on your side is not an asset.

The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant, and violent, but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons came on the market when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed) and they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular support in 90-percent-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the north into submission or flight.

The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home. They are formidable opponents, and the war to free northern Mali may be long and hard.

Until recently the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali’s desert north, but last week they began to advance into southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country’s 14 million people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would effectively give them control of the entire country.

Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African countries, and it is only 3,000 km. (2,000 mi.) from France. So President Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the Islamist advance, and we’ll all worry about the long-term consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist extremists has already started, and the question is whether it will end up like Afghanistan.

Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the French. Except, of course, the Malians.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“With…end”; and “The insurgents…hard”)