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Algeria: Hope and Fear

One of the most popular slogans in the street protests in Algeria has been ‘Neither beard, nor kamis, nor police’. That needs a bit of translation.

‘Beard’ refers to male Muslims who want to demonstrate how devout they are, ‘kamis’ refers to the costume worn by Muslim females of the same persuasion (from shalwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy trousers worn by many Pakistani women), and ‘police’…well, that one is obvious.

After six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters are celebrating their first major victory. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old president with the world’s most spectacular comb-over, has been forced to resign. But this slogan is really about the next step.

The mostly youthful demonstrators are signaling that while they do want to get rid of the whole regime, not just its figurehead, they do not have anything to do with political Islam (beards and kamis). It’s a necessary reassurance for most older Algerians, who are haunted by the fact that the last time the regime nearly lost power, the opposition party was Islamist, and it ended in a ghastly ten-year civil war.

Islamism was very popular among opposition groups across the Arab world in the 1980s, and when the Algerian regime took the risk of holding an election in late 1991, the Islamist party won. Or rather, it was clearly going to win when ‘le pouvoir’ (The Power), as Algerians call the regime, cancelled the second round of the election and took back control.

The Islamists responded by launching an armed rebellion. It turned into a decade-long civil war in which both the Islamist rebels and the ‘le pouvoir’ used terror against the civilians caught in the middle. At least 100,000 Algerians were murdered, the regime finally won in 2002, and the population was so scarred by this experience that it has remained submissive – until now.

The current wave of protesters are on a roll, but getting rid of Bouteflika is just the first step. The interim leader who has to organise a new election within 90 days, Senate president Abdelkader Bensalah, is a regime loyalist and a close associate of Bouteflika. And the generals and powerful businessmen who really control the regime are still hoping that a change of leaders will be enough to send the protesters home.

It won’t. What’s really driving this youth-led revolt is desperation: one-third of the country’s under-30s are unemployed. The regime can no longer buy them off with cheap public housing and subsidised jobs because oil revenues have fallen steeply, and they are too young to remember the horrors of the civil war.

Since the under-30s are two-thirds of the country’s population, they are probably going to win. Having been in power ever since the end of Algeria’s war of independence from France in 1962, ‘le pouvoir’ is now going to be dismantled. The question is what happens next, and nobody knows.

The precedents elsewhere in the Arab world are not encouraging. When Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak (29 years in power) was forced out of power by popular protests in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent election, but the army overthrew them in a very bloody coup and is back in power. The attempted democratic revolutions in other Arab countries also mostly ended also ended in disaster.

When Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy (42 years in power) was overthrown and killed in the same year, there were no free elections, and the civil war started right away. Most of the contending groups are Islamist of one flavour or another, and the war is still going on.

When Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad (18 years in power) faced a challenge from pro-democracy protests in 2012, he was not overthrown, but the civil war that ensued has destroyed half the country and is only now coming to an end.

So why would anyone think that Algeria can do it better?

One reason is that most of the young in Algeria really aren’t Islamists any more. Generational turnover has done its work, and the current youth generation is mostly secular, pro-democracy, and animated by non-violent ideals.

But that’s about it. There aren’t many more reasons to believe that Algeria will turn out differently second time around, and there are lots of reasons to fear that it won’t be different this time. Yet hope springs eternal.

Tunisia managed to turn itself into a democracy non-violently in 2011, and despite huge unemployment among its under-30s it still is one. It’s hard to see how freeing Algeria from the dead hand of a superannuated dictatorship will really change the grim economic prospects of its younger generation – after all, that hasn’t happened in Tunisia after almost a decade of democracy – but it’s worth a try anyway. Despite the risk.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“When…end”)

Five Years After the Arab Spring

Five years ago this month, the “Arab Spring” got underway with the non-violent overthrow of Tunisia’s long-ruling dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He dared not order the army to open fire on the demonstrators (because it might not obey), he was running out of money, and eventually he flew off off to Saudi Arabia to seek asylum.

In an Arab world where satellite television broadcasts and social media had effectively destroyed the power of the censors, practically everybody else spent the four weeks of civil protest in Tunisia tensely watching what the Tunisians were doing. When the Tunisian revolutionaries won, similar non-violent demonstrations demanding democracy immediately broke out in half a dozen other Arab countries.

It felt like huge change was on the way, because the world had got used to the idea that non-violent revolutions spread irresistibly, and usually win in the end. The ground-breaking “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986, for example, was followed in the next three years in Asia by non-violent democratisation in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Bangladesh, and failed attempts at non-violent revolution in Burma and China.

Similarly in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany in 1989 was followed by non-violent democratisation in all the Soviet-dominated “satellite” countries by the end of the year. The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, and some of its component parts also became democratic. Non-violence was a magic potion, and people assumed that it was bound to work in the Arab world too.

They were wrong. The non-violent movements demanding democracy spread just as fast, but their only lasting success was in Tunisia. Egypt and Bahrain are back under autocratic rule, and Yemen and Syria are both being devastated by civil wars and large-scale foreign military intervention. Libya is also being torn by civil war (although the revolution there was never non-violent).

You can hardly blame people for trying to get rid of the old regimes – they were pretty awful – but beyond Tunisia the endings were uniformly bloody and tragic. Was there some systemic reason for this, or was it just a lot of bad luck? There is great reluctance to pursue this question, because people are afraid that the answer has something to do with the nature of Arab society or Islamic culture. They shouldn’t worry.

Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, had a non-violent democratic revolution in 1998 and continues to be a thriving democracy today. Turkey has been democratic for decades, although Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the current president, is doing great damage to the country’s democratic institutions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both democracies, although turbulent ones.

These four countries alone account for almost half the world’s Muslims. In the Arab world democracy is a much scarcer commodity, but it does exist, most notably in Tunisia itself. Several other Arab countries, like Jordan and Morocco, have a significant democratic element in their politics, although the king retains much power.

So what went wrong with the “Arab Spring”? In the case of Bahrain, the problem was that the majority of the population is Shia, but the ruling family is Sunni and saw the democratic movement as an Iranian plot. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia saw it the same way, and sent the Saudi army in to crush the “plot”.

Yemen was a lost cause from the start, since there was already an incipient civil war in the country. Now it’s a full-scale war, with foreign military intervention by a Saudi-led coalition that includes half the countries in the Arab world, and the non-violent protestors are busy hiding from the bombs.

Syria was a hard case since the Ba’athist regime, in power for more than forty years, had accumulated a great many enemies. The Alawite (Shia) minority who dominated the regime were terrified that they would suffer from revenge-taking if they lost power, and were willing to fight to the last ditch to keep power.

But it is also true that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and later the United States as well, encouraged an armed uprising in Syria that undercut the entire non-violent movement. It probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway, but it really didn’t get tried. And in Egypt, the non-violent revolution actually won.

The Egyptian victory didn’t last long. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election in 2012, and the urban, secular minority who had made the revolution panicked. They asked the army to intervene, and the army was happy to oblige – so now the army runs Egypt again, after a massacre of non-violent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in 2013 that was probably worse that the slaugher on Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Egypt is by far the biggest country in the Arab world. If it had not thrown its democracy away, about a third of the world’s Arabs would be living in a democracy today. It was very bad luck, but non-violent revolution is still a viable technique – and democracy is still just as suitable for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peruvians or Pakistanis. It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought in 2011.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“You..worry”; and “These…power”)

Islamic State: More Massacres

Last Friday (June 26), in France, an Islamist named Yassin Salhi killed his employer, Herve Cornara. He attached the victim’s severed head to the fence around a chemical plant, together with a cloth saying “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet” —and then rammed his vehicle into a warehouse full of chemicals hoping (but failing) to cause a massive explosion.

In Kuwait two hours later, Fahd Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Qaba’a, a Saudi citizen, entered a Shia mosque and detonated a bomb that killed at least 25 people. He was presumably a Sunni fanatic sent by “Islamic State” to kill Shias, who they believe are heretics who should be killed.

In Tunisia one hour later, 38 European tourists, most of them British, were massacred by a 23-year-old man with a Kalashnikov on a beach in Sousse. The perpetrator, Seifeddine Rezgui, was studying engineering at a university in Kairouan, an hour’s drive west of Sousse.

Islamic State, which has carved out a territory in Iraq and Syria that has more people and a bigger army than half the members of the United Nations, immediately claimed responsibility for all three attacks. Yassin Salhi may have been a lone-wolf head case, but in the other two cases the claim was almost certainly true.

But there was another attack that you probably didn’t hear about. Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria that withstood a four-month siege by Islamic State troops last year, came under attack again last Thursday. About a hundred young Islamists in Humvees and pickup trucks drove into town and shot 220 people dead in the streets and in their houses.

So 64 murders that you heard a lot about, and 220 others you heard little or nothing about. There are hundreds of innocent people being murdered by Islamist fanatics in Syria every week, so it’s no longer news. Besides, the motive there is obvious: it’s just Islamic State trying to expand its territory in Syria. But as for the others…

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, responded to the deaths of 30 British citizens in Tunisia by trotting out the same shopworn drivel that Western leaders have been peddling for the past 14 years. The fight against Islamic State is “the struggle of our generation,” Cameron declared. Indeed, IS poses “an existential threat” to the West.

Maybe Cameron doesn’t know what the word “existential” means. Could somebody please explain to him that he is saying that Islamic State poses a threat to the continued existence of the West? Does he really think that is the case?

Forgive me for making a cold-blooded calculation, but sometimes it is necessary. The population of the West (not counting the countries of Latin America, which don’t play in this league) is about 900 million. Thirty-nine “Westerners” have been killed in attacks by Islamist terrorists this month. At this rate, the West will have ceased to exist in 1.9 million years. If this is an existential threat, it’s not a very urgent one.

In fact, it’s not really about the West at all. The European victims on the beach in Sousse were killed in order to destroy the tourism that provides almost 15 percent of Tunisia’s national income, and thereby destabilize the only fully democratic country in the Arab world. The extremists’ real goal is to seize power in Tunisia; the Western victims were just a means to that end.

The bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait was intended to increase tensions between the Sunni majority and the large Shia minority in that country, with the ultimate goal of unleashing a Sunni-Shia civil war in which Islamist extremists could take over the Sunni side as they have already done in Syria and Iraq.

Only the lone-wolf attack in France could be conceivably be seen as directed at the “West”—although that might also have been just a personal grievance wrapped up in an Islamist justification.

The rest of the killing was about who controls the Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, as it has been from the start. Even 9/11 was about that, designed not to “bring America to its knees” but to lure it into an invasion of Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden believed would stimulate Islamist revolutions in Muslim countries. The Islamists do “hate Western values”, but they have bigger fish to fry at home.

Islamic State and the various incarnations of Al Qaeda (the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, et cetera) pose an existential threat to the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of the Middle East, and even to Sunni Muslims whose beliefs diverge significantly from those of the Islamists. The West should help governments in the region that protect their minorities, and of course it should try to protect its own people.

But this is not the “struggle of our generation” for the West. It should be nowhere near the top of its own list of priorities.

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.