As scorching summer bakes the Middle East and North Africa, the promise of the Arab Spring is wilting. While street protests continue and battles on three frontlines rage in Libya, the old order shows only bearable fissures. The hope of a clean sweep of democratic revolution toppling authoritarian regimes is receding, as an increasing number of Egyptian protesters wonder if they weren’t hapless pawns in the soft coup that the Supreme Council of the Armed Force (SCAF) carried out against President Hosni Mubarak. The past six months show that regime change doesn’t mean revolution.
Regime change is only a first step toward replacing the foundations that supported the previous regime. How soon and how radically these foundations are altered depends on the strength and clarity of the leaderships of the revolutionary movement, often consisting of disparate elements that coalesce to achieve the shared goal of changing the status quo.
When the flight of the authoritarian Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after a mere four weeks of peaceful protest triggered a mass uprising in Egypt, the world was electrified. Hopes arose in Western capitals that the wave of popular demand for democracy would sweep the region. Yet, while the gains made in Tunisia and Egypt remain to be consolidated, the democracy wave has hit barriers in Syria and Yemen; civil war in Libya remains stalemated.
What constituted a radical break in the region’s recent history was the loss of citizens’ fear of the security forces, achieved by assembling large numbers in vast squares. Friday prayers continue to provide opportunity for staging massive demonstrations. No Arab government dares to ban the communal Friday prayer enjoined for Muslim men by the Quran.
The seminal event of self-immolation by Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia occurred on a Friday, Dec. 17, 2010, drawing more attention than it would have done on any other day of the week. On a Friday four weeks later, skirmishes between protesters, pouring out of mosques after the weekly prayers, and security forces became so bloody that Ben Ali fled.
In Egypt the protesting crowds grew exponentially on Jan. 28, a Friday, with opposition leaders declaring the following Friday the “Day of Departure” for Mubarak. He stepped down a week later. Fiery sermonizing after Friday prayers by the preacher at the main mosque of the Syrian city of Deraa triggered protests there, which then spread.
By deploying Facebook and Twitter, the disparate, atomized opposition could stage large anti-regime demonstrations. Use of social media continues on varying scales in Yemen, Egypt and Syria. The Internet is such an integral part of business and industry in the region that no government can afford to close it down for too long.
But this instrument is proving to be double-edged. Witness, for instance, the emergence of the Syrian Electronic Army, disabling opposition websites and hacking into Facebook pages of dissidents. After the much publicized July visit to Hama by the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, it hacked into the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page and posted pro-government slogans.
This is one reason why the regime of President Bashar Assad has withstood four-month-long pressure from the street. The key reason, however, is the continuing loyalty of the military high command to Assad based on their common affiliation to the Alawite sect. By lifting emergency rule and allowing demonstrations cleared by the authorities in advance, the regime has enabled its backers to argue that Assad is a reformer. Many Syrians also fear that if their country were to adopt the sort of democracy the U.S. brought to Iraq, Syria, too, would descend into a debilitating inter-sectarian civil war.
The defection of senior generals in Tunisia and Egypt brought about the downfall of their presidents. Where the military command is divided, as in Yemen, a stalemate has resulted.
Though freedom of assembly was won by the sacrifices made by the opposition, it has lost the monopoly it enjoyed initially. Emulating their rivals, regime supporters in Syria and Yemen also have taken to the streets. Even in Egypt, where revolution is supposed to have triumphed, pro-democracy activists are now realizing it was naïve to accept at face value the commitment to social justice, civil liberties and democracy from the SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years.
After five eventful months it is dawning upon the leaders of the Tahrir Square sit-in that the SCAF has a vested interest in preserving as much of the political-economic structure of the Mubarak era as it can. Under the tutelage of President Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, the military acquired farms, factories and hotels. Estimates of its assets vary from 10 to 30 percent of the economy.
Those who have taken to the streets in Cairo are rightly targeting the SCAF. During a recent march on the Defense Ministry, protesters were assaulted by pro-SCAF thugs wielding knives, swords and Molotov cocktails. On Aug. 1, the SCAF promulgated a decree banning protests. Army troops fired in the air to disperse the three-week long sit-in by peaceful protesters.
The de facto freedom of association in Egypt has led to a mushrooming of political factions, enlarging the SCAF’s margin of maneuver. The supreme council has the power to set the agenda and play one group of politicians against another.
The young, secular initiators of the street protest are now realizing the vast gap existing between their success in assembling crowds and establishing political parties, grounded in a practical ideology with a nationwide network. To their dismay, they find that they cannot match the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who raise the prospect of an alliance between the Brotherhood and the SCAF are overlooking the fact that it was the military in Algeria that brutally crushed the Islamic Salvation Front after it won four-fifths of the parliamentary seats in the first round in December 1991. Aware of the subsequent decade-long bloody chapter in the Algerian history, Brotherhood leaders have decided to contest less than 50 percent of the parliamentary seats if and when elections are held.
The final test of a democratic system is the subservience of the military to the elected civilian authorities. Revolutionaries are discovering that overthrowing dictators is perhaps the easiest part of a longer struggle.
Dilip Hiro is an author whose latest book is “After the Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World” (Nation Books). This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu), Copyright © 2011, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.