The Second Arab Revolt: Winners and Losers

Commentary No. 298, Feb. 1, 2011

The Arab Revolt of 1916 was led by Sharif Hussein bin Ali for Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were evicted. The great revolt however was co-opted by the British and the French. After 1945, the various Arab states gradually became independent members of the United Nations. But in most cases their independences were co-opted by the United States as the successor to Great Britain as outside controller, with a minor continuing role of France in the Maghreb and Lebanon.

The second Arab Revolt has been brewing for some years now. It got a substantial shot in the arm from the successful uprising of Tunisian youth this past month. When courageous young people risk their lives to rise up against a supercorrupt authoritarian regime and actually succeed in deposing the president, one has to applaud. Whatever happens next, it was a good moment for humanity. The question always is, what comes next?

Actually, there are two questions. How come this uprising succeeded, when many other attempts in many countries did not? And then who will be the winners and losers in Tunisia, elsewhere in the Arab world, in the whole world-system?

It is not easy to rebel against an authoritarian regime. The regime has guns and money at its disposal, and normally can simply suppress attempts to defy it in the streets. Symbolic acts, like the self-immolation of a young street merchant in a remote Tunisian town, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest against the capricious acts of agents of the regime, can ignite others into protesting, as happened in Tunisia. But for this act to lead to the overthrow of the regime, there must be fissures in that regime.

In this case, there clearly were. Neither the army nor the gendarmerie was ready to shoot at the protestors, leaving this task only to the elite presidential guard. It was not enough, and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family had to flee, able to find refuge only in Saudi Arabia. That there were fissures in the regime is shown clearly by the fact that the leading figures of Ben Ali’s party, trying to survive the storm, made sure to arrest the key figure of Ben Ali’s enforcement machinery, Abdelwahab Abdallah, lest he in turn arrest them. Remember how, after Stalin’s death, the successors immediately arrested Lavrenti Beria for the same reason.

Of course, after Ben Ali fled, the whole world applauded, with the sole exceptions of Kaddafi of Libya and Berlusconi of Italy, who continued to defend Ben Ali’s virtues. Ben Ali’s chief outside supporter, France, was sufficiently embarrassed to confess its “errors” of judgment. The United States, having left Tunisia to the supposedly safe hands of the French, did not feel the need to make a similar apology.

As everyone has noted, the Tunisian example encouraged the Arab street elsewhere to pursue a similar path – most notably for the moment in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. As I write, it is unsure if President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt will be able to survive.

Now, who are winners and losers? We shall not know for at least six months, perhaps longer, who will actually come to power in Tunisia, in Egypt, indeed everywhere in the Arab world. Spontaneous uprisings create a situation like that in Russia in 1917 when, in Lenin’s famous phrase, “power lay in the street,” and therefore an organized, determined force could seize it, which the Bolsheviks did.

The actual political situation in each Arab state is different. There is no Arab state today that has a strong organized, secular, radical party like the Bolsheviks, ready to try to take power. There are various bourgeois liberal movements that would like to play a major role, but few of them seem to have an important base. The most organized movements are the Islamist ones. But these movements are not of a single color. Their versions of an Islamic state range from those relatively tolerant of other groups, such as exists today in Turkey, to a harsh version of Shar’ia law (as the Taliban enforced in Afghanistan) to in-between varieties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The outcomes in terms of the internal regimes are uncertain and evolving. And therefore who wins internally is extremely unsure.

But what about the outside powers, who are heavily involved in attempting to control the situation? The principal outside actor is the United States. A second one is Iran. All the others – Turkey, France, Great Britain, Russia, China – are less important but nonetheless relevant.

The great loser of the second Arab Revolt is clearly the United States. One can see it by the incredible vacillation of the U.S. government in the present moment. The United States (like every other major power in the world) places one criterion before all others – regimes friendly to it. Washington wants to be on the side of the winner, provided the winner is not hostile. What to do then in a situation like that of Egypt, which presently is a virtual client-state of the United States? The United States is reduced to calling publicly for more “democracy,” no violence, and negotiations. Behind the scenes, they seem to have told the Egyptian army not to embarrass the United States by shooting too many people. But can Mubarak survive without shooting a lot of people?

The second Arab Revolt is occurring amidst a worldwide chaotic situation in which three features are dominant – a declining standard of living for at least two-thirds of the world’s populations; outrageous increases in the current income of relatively small upper strata; and a serious decline in the effective power of the so-called superpower, the United States. The second Arab Revolt, however it turns out, will further erode U.S. power, especially in the Arab world, precisely because the one sure base for political popularity in these countries today is opposition to the intrusion of the United States in their affairs. Even those who normally want and depend on U.S. involvement are finding it politically dangerous to continue to do so.

The biggest outside winner is Iran. The Iranian regime is no doubt viewed with considerable suspicion, partly because it is non-Arab and partly because it is Shi’a. It is however U.S. policy that gave Iran its greatest present – the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power. Saddam had been Iran’s fiercest and most effective enemy. The Iranian leaders probably say a daily blessing to George W. Bush for this wonderful present. They have built on this windfall by an intelligent policy wherein they have shown themselves ready to support non-Shi’ite movements such as Hamas, provided only that they are strongly opposed to Israel and to U.S. intrusion in the region.

A smaller winner has been Turkey. Turkey was long anathema to popular forces in the Arab world for the double reason that it was the heir to the Ottoman Empire and that it was closely allied with the United States. The popularly elected current regime, an Islamist movement that does not seek to impose shar’ia law on the entire population but simply droit de cité for Islamic observance, has moved in the direction of supporting the second Arab Revolt, even at the risk of compromising its previously good relations with Israel and the United States.

And of course the biggest winner of the second Arab Revolt will, over time, be the Arab peoples.