The Genie of Change is Out of the Bottle

I was sitting in Cairo at the beginning of this year, planning to travel to the United Arab Emirates for a research project. On Jan. 18, I submitted an article for my column in an Emirati newspaper, The National. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had just been overthrown in Tunisia, and there was a great deal of speculation that there would be a domino effect, resulting in great changes across the region.

FRANKLY, I DID NOT BELIEVE IT. I thought Tunisia was a fluke – and everyone I spoke with inside and outside Egypt seemed to agree. It was shocking, to be sure, but it was a fluke, and Egypt could not possibly be affected. Perhaps the key difference between Tunisia and Egypt in this regard, as far as I was concerned, was that Tunisia had an active civil society movement that was able to apply pressure and organize in ways that were impossible to conceive of in Egypt. I met a young activist in Cairo who had wanted to organize a recycling initiative in his neighborhood during Mubarak’s time and had been flatly told by the authorities that it would be illegal to do so. Here, the concern was: If you can organize for recycling, what else will your organization be able to do?

Such a thought was, I am sure, going through the minds of those elsewhere in the region, particularly in Libya and Syria, where civil society has been very closely controlled. This was less so in Bahrain, where it struck me that while there were “red lines” in civil society, people were far freer to organize than in a place such as Syria. In Yemen, the state in general was quite weak, so civil society was stronger – but that was not going to make things particularly easy.

For decades, Egyptian civil society had been slowly, but surely, put down – to the point where I believed that if any sort of uprising were to take place, for whatever reason, it could not lead anywhere. Where would the vision for a new Egypt come from after Hosni Mubarak’s regime had so clearly destroyed all the places in the public sphere from which such visions could emanate?

It was true that vision was lacking in Tahrir Square. The main vision that was articulated was simply an Egypt without Mubarak. There were some specific policy points, but generally these were all directed toward the resignation of Mubarak. In that regard, perhaps I was correct. Along with all Egyptians, however, I was wrong about civil society. Reports of civil society’s death, it turned out, had been somewhat exaggerated. Or to put it another way, civil society underwent a resurrection, and its consequences would shock Egyptians, Arabs and the world.

In the end, it was a complicated set of factors that pushed Ben Ali and Mubarak from power. In both cases, it was clear that the military was the linchpin of their regimes – and that it was the military that gave up on them. In Tunisia, Ben Ali realized that the military and the judiciary had lost faith in his ability to hold the country together in the face of huge protests. He took the decision to run while he still could, and get out of the country before he was arrested. Saudi Arabia, in a step that would signal its future course, took him in; and that was the end of Ben Ali’s rule of Tunisia. In the months that followed, Tunisia tried him in absentia and sentenced him to 35 years in jail. The country also began revolutionary procedures to change the way the state operated, including allowing for the flourishing of a wide range of political parties. The revolution there continues, but it is in operation.

In Egypt, it has been somewhat more complicated. Tunisia was a spark for the Arab World – but Egypt was a fire. Egypt is the largest Arab country, with a population that makes up a quarter of the Arab World; its cultural reach extends far beyond its borders, through cinema and television, and its religious influence, through Al-Azhar University, is significant. But it is also a country where the regime was determined to stay in power. Yet, even while Mubarak seemed oblivious to the changes that were taking place, with the mass protests all over the country, the world – and the Egyptian military – were not so isolated. The international media was watching the situation very closely, and in so doing they gave the protesters a power that they could not have had otherwise – namely, the power of global public opinion. International pressure was brought to bear on the regime in a way that had never been done before. Perhaps more crippling was the economic price of the revolution. With people protesting across the country to such a vigorous degree, it seemed clear that Mubarak’s regime could not hold things together. Order seemed to be slipping from its grasp, and with that came a threat that the world’s leaders could not fathom. The army knew that Mubarak had to go for order to be restored, and when he refused, they forced him down and relocated him to Sharm el-Sheikh where he is still being held. The people had, in a manner of speaking, brought down the regime – and in so doing, they shocked the world. The fire had been set ablaze.

Bahrain was next, on Feb. 14. The protesters there were not calling for the overthrow of the regime; they were calling for significant changes in the way the country was run. Bahrain is a predominantly Shi’a country in terms of its population – anywhere from 65 to 70 percent, according to most figures. The rest (30 to 35 percent are Sunni – but it is the Sunni population that holds the reins of power and makes up the monarchy that rules the country. I was in Bahrain last year and was impressed that out of all the Gulf states I had visited, this country’s population had kept the culture of privilege down to a minimum, which meant that Bahrainis were generally more entrepreneurial, as a population, than many others in the area. But there were also deeply held feelings of resentment and suspicion – among both the Sunnis and the Shi’as. The Sunnis suspected that the Shi’as were, by and large, linked to Iranian designs in the region – and, as such, could not be trusted to put the interests of Bahrain above those of a pan-Shi’a enterprise. Such feelings were widely held and reflected how many Sunni Arabs in general feel about Iran – but it took on a more local flavor within Bahrain. The Shi’as, on the other hand, felt that their stake in the country was less than it should be, and that they deserved a bigger share of the power-pie. Their uprising, however, came to a dismal end, when the Bahraini government (made up of competing power structures of its own) invited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to intervene militarily to put down the protests. It’s unclear what will happen now in Bahrain – if much at all. What is clear, however, is that the thriving civil society that had existed before has taken a massive blow, and there will certainly be consequences for the country’s prosperity.

Libya followed Bahrain, with significant stirrings beginning Feb. 15. What happened next was what many across the Arab World had feared might happen in the event of a revolution anywhere – a harsh crackdown against any dissent and large numbers of deaths. At first, it was a nonviolent protest, but as the response from the regime grew more violent, leading to hundreds of deaths, it turned into a full-scale uprising against the regime. Not too long thereafter it led, essentially, to a division of the country – Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists controlled Tripoli and much of the south, whereas the rebels controlled Benghazi and other strategic cities near and on the eastern coast of Libya. It was, and at the time of writing, remains, a struggle that has captured the support of huge swathes of the Arab World. For a long time, the Gadhafi regime has invited ridicule from Arabs across the region – but now, he has attracted hatred for his violence against the people of Libya. Matters were complicated somewhat when NATO intervened on the side of the rebels – Arabs never being ones to favor Western military intervention in an Arab country. Nevertheless, as it seemed clear that the rebels wanted NATO’s help, no troops were put on the ground, and NATO forces were carefully avoiding civilian casualties, it was a bittersweet pill to be swallowed. Gadhafi had been, for a long time, despised by huge swathes of Libyan society for his authoritarian rule – now, he had become a figure that had to be removed at all costs. An interesting element to the situation was the reaction of the religious establishment, the ‘ulama, who generally threw their weight behind the rebels, showing that in some circumstances, religious authorities in the Muslim world, contrary to popular belief, do advocate physical resistance of an unjust ruler.

On Jan. 27, Yemen began protests regarding unemployment, economic conditions as well as corruption without including calls for the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. That changed not long after. The Yemeni uprising has not attracted the same levels of support in the Arab World as the protests in Egypt or Libya, for example – mostly owing to the fact that the Yemeni state is fairly weak in the first place, and it is unclear what overhauls might happen by changing the leadership (which anyway does not effectively control large parts of the country). Nevertheless, in the spirit of supporting change across the region, Arabs have been waving Yemeni along with other Arab flags – and cheering along the protesters’ demands for a revived state in Yemen. Saleh eventually left Yemen in June for medical treatment, and was in Saudi Arabia before returning. Yet again, Saudi Arabia was seen as siding with the forces of counter-revolution in the Arab World, as it was when Ben Ali of Tunisia fled there months earlier.

But there is a reason why many Arabs were against revolution before 2011 – and that reason can be summed up as “the Syrian scenario.” There, protests have erupted in different parts of the country, but the military and security forces are firmly behind the government, which has invested a great deal of time and energy in ensuring its loyalty through enfranchisement and playing sectarian divides (the Syrian regime is run by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ism). There, the protests have been put down – hard. The regime regards the protests (which as yet have not turned into a widescale violent resistance, similar to the Libyan situation, but are more analogous to the Egyptian case) as a threat to its existence – and is pushing back with the force it believes is required to ensure its survival. It is clear that for decades, there has been discontent in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab World with the Syrian regime, which has run an authoritarian state for a long time. But that discontent was always tempered with support for the regime’s foreign policy, and the belief that should the regime be challenged, it would respond with violent fury. Many Syrians still remember the tens of thousands of people of Hama slain in 1982, when a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt was put down by the establishment. That has not been repeated in 2011, in the age of international media, but it is still on the minds of many in the country. That probably explains why protests in Damascus and Aleppo, the main metropolitan centers, have been minor in comparison with the rest of the country.

There are two issues that still occupy the minds of people in the region and elsewhere. First, how likely is it that these revolutions will succeed? Second, what will they produce in terms of states?

The answers are speculative, at best. Tunisia is likely to see a new state, one where the curtain of fear has been torn down. Tunisia has the chance now to produce a pluralistic political sphere, and in this regard, is helped significantly by the fact that the key Islamist party in the country (the Ennahda Party led by Rachid Ghannouchi) is committed to pluralism. There are, as could be expected, teething problems in the country, but the signs are positive, as the secret police has been disbanded and political freedom is far more evident as the transitional government moves forward.

For Egypt, the stakes are higher. Though it was not the first player in this story, it is the star actor: If the revolution in Egypt succeeds, then it is likely to have a positive effect on the rest of the region. History teaches us that Egypt has often influenced the region through a variety of avenues – it’s at the center of the region in many ways. If the revolution fails, then it will also have consequences. There, the commitment of different parties to a pluralistic public sphere is less certain than in Tunisia. The army is in power, and is focused on transferring power at the earliest possible time, which worries liberal and non-religious forces, who fear that early elections might produce a Parliament with a strong Islamist component. The relations between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces continue to sour, which raises the question of whether the revolution can entice Egyptian parties to put the national interest ahead of the sectarian political one.

Libya has now reached the point of no return – the rebels will not allow Gadhafi stay in power, and it is clear that they have sufficient backing from the international community to ensure that he does not remain. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for him, which ensures his travel outside of Libya is severely curtailed – and the rebels appear to be growing in strength from day to day. Their recognition by the international community increases. What sort of state they seek to craft is unclear, as the political discussions and debates are taking a back seat to the military struggle to oust Gadhafi. But all signs indicate a democratic regime, informed by mainstream Islamic values, which have always been at the heart of Libyan society. The ‘ulama and Sufi sheikhs have issued statements that indicate their approval of such an arrangement, suggesting that even conservative sectors of Libyan society desire a free and open Libya.

Bahrain, ironically, was probably more clearly on the road to increased political freedom before its uprising. The protests created something of a power struggle within the ruling elite, and it appears that the hardliners have won out over the reformists. One might assume with some justification that it will be years before Bahraini society returns to a point where Sunnis and Shi’as engage with each other in a more pluralistic political arena.

Yemen’s fate is still unclear – we do not know how long the president will manage to retain power, and how the future looks for the country. In short, it is still too early to make many predictions about what this might mean for a country that has not known a strong government.

Syria is perhaps the most worrying situation of all in the region. The death toll is likely to rise and the security forces are likely to intensify their efforts to restore control over the entire country. As yet, there is no identifiable Syrian organized opposition – and it is likely that this will continue to be the case. At the same time, Syrian public opinion is growing more sympathetic toward the protesters in the face of what they believe are increased government repressions in different parts of the country. It’s hard to see what sort of solution can be found in this regard – will the Syrian regime back down, or will the protesters dissipate, having lost their energy? Only time will tell.

But it is clear that the region has changed, irrevocably. The forces-of-change genie cannot be simply put back into the stability bottle – the people of the Arab World are demanding change. The leaders of the different regimes realize this and will take different steps to ensure their own survival, while managing and tempering those expectations. In some places, they may be successful in finding a role for themselves in the new Arab order. In others, there might be further upheavals – but what is clear is that this is the dawn of a new age for the region.

Is it for the best? Will a better region emerge, one that sees the aspirations of its people being fulfilled? It’s too early to say, but for many, the curtain of fear has been dropped. The freedom to hope has been established. The chance for creating a better future is there – whether it will be taken is yet to be seen. §

Dr H.A. Hellyer is Fellow at the University of Warwick, and director of the VC Group. A prolific author and commentator, he has been based out of Cairo since last year on sabbatical.


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    H. A. Hellyer

    Dr. H.A. Hellyer is non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans,” published by Edinburgh University Press, he is a prolific commentator on the politics of the Arab world, Muslim Western communities, and the interplay between Islam and modernity. Follow him @hahellyer and at

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