Five years on, Arab Spring’s thirst for blood still unsated

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 23, 2016

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.   / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015

Palermo, Italy – The Italian Coast Guard ship Gregoretti disembarks 1,169 migrants, of various nationalities, in April, 2015. UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 2015.

In an eerie reflection of the start of the Arab Spring five years ago, tens of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets on Friday demonstrating outrage at the death of a young man protesting his lack of a job.

Authorities responded with a nighttime curfew after police stations across the country were attacked by protesters armed with stones and Molotov cocktails. The trigger for the uprising was the death on Sunday of Ridha Yahyaoui, 28, who electrocuted himself by climbing a transmission tower after failing to win a government job.

With unemployment at about 30 per cent among young people, Yahyaoui’s suicide is a grim echo of the death of 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, who burned himself to death after police confiscated his street stall. Five years ago protests at Bouazizi’s death quickly turned into an outright revolt. On January 14, 2011, the dictator President of 23 years, Zine Ben Ali, was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia after the military and police joined the uprising.

The events in Tunisia ricocheted across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

The shock wave from Tunisia also set off the civil war in Syria, which is now one of the world’s worst humanitarian and political catastrophes. At least 250,000 people have died in the Syrian fighting, according to the United Nations. More than four million people have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Last year about one million refugees made the perilous sea crossing to find safety in Europe. At least 2,500 people died attempting the Mediterranean crossing last year and 3,500 in 2014.

The flood of a million refugees into Europe has ignited a political crisis, which some leading political figures, such as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, are warning threatens the survival of the European Union.

That is not as alarmist as it might sound. The crisis of the common currency “euro zone” is largely unresolved, and later this year Britain is due to hold a referendum on continued EU membership. That vote could go either way, but a vote for what is being called “Brexit” could easily be the first domino in a cascade.

Meanwhile the chaos in Syria has provided a breeding ground for the vile Islamic State (IS) group, whose trade-mark is the butchery of its enemies or anyone it considers heretic by the most brutal means possible. The group has used crucifixion, burning alive, throat slitting, beheading, burying alive, all carefully videoed and posted on-line in a macabre and depressingly successful recruitment campaign aimed at disaffected young Muslim men and women in the West.

IS has not only grabbed control of large tracts of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, it has spawned equally violent disciple groups in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Indonesia. IS claims its followers have also been responsible for deadly attacks in France and the United States.

It is sobering to remember now the optimism that swept through the Middle East and supportive countries in Europe and North America at the upwelling across the region of popular frustration at dictatorial, repressive governments.

The fallout from Bouazizi’s sacrifice and the flight of Ben Ali in Tunisia swiftly engulfed Egypt. On February 11 2011 and after 30 years in power President Hosni Mubarack was removed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following 18 days of demonstrations in Egypt’s major cities.

What became swiftly apparent, however, was that the throngs of young people in the city squares chanting for democracy did not constitute a political movement of any utility. Demonstrations demanding political reform continued through 2011 and into 2012, when a democratically elected People’s Assembly was created. This was followed by the election of President of Mohammed Morsi in June 2012. But Morsi was a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which also dominated the Assembly, and its work of writing a new constitution.

It is often the case that authoritarian states breed oppositions that are just as intolerant and rapacious as they are. And to survive, the opposition is usually as brutally disciplined as the state it seeks to overthrow. That is certainly the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic movement whose dubious credits include being the inspiration for the al-Qaidi terror network and, by extension, the butchers of the Islamic State.

The Egyptian experience was an uncomfortable lesson for U.S. President Barack Obama and the European leaders, who had applauded the advent of elections, but were appalled by the outcome.

Over their year in office, Morsi and the Brotherhood made is clear they intended to turn cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant Egypt into an Islamic State. In the run-up to the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency in June 2013, there were new street protests and on July 3 the military launched a coup and removed him from office.

In all likelihood the street demonstrations were inspired by the military to justify the coup. The result is that Egypt is now back in the firm grasp of another military dictator, former Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

The sense of relief in Washington and Europe is palpable.

The revolution was even more messy in Libya, where the sinisterly eccentric Muammar Gaddafi had ruled since 1969. The uprising boiled up along communal lines in this highly tribal country. Gaddafi used his armed forces to strike back uncompromisingly against his ungrateful subjects. Indeed, there were atrocities on both sides and in March 2011 the UN Security Council allowed the imposition of a no-fly zone to try to protect civilians from the depredations of Gaddafi’s air force. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Canada, began bombing in April, aiming at Gaddafi’s military in support of rebel fighters moving westward out of the eastern city of Bengazi. In August the rebels took the capital, Tripoli, and Gaddafi fled to his home town, Sirte, where rebels cornered him in a drainpipe on October 20 and then killed him.

The NATO allies may have been in a rush to help depose Gaddafi, but they had no intention of aiding in the construction of a functioning state after he was gone. The last four-and-a-half years in Libya have been a grim catalogue of death and destruction as the various tribal groups have battled for supremacy. There have been several battles for the capital and usually at least two groups claiming to be the legitimate government.

This maelstrom has, of course, been fertile ground for the Islamic State to win converts and take root. It has also sent thousands of ousted members of Gaddafi’s armed forces into the Sehal region across North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. In many cases these fighters have teamed up with local al-Qaida-linked groups to spread the spores of Islamic terrorism.

And for many ordinary Libyans, putting themselves in the hands of human traffickers and risking the terrors of crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has seemed preferable to the horrors of home.

Belatedly, the UN has stepped in. It is attempting to end the civil war and begin national reconstruction by appointing Prime Minister, Fayez Sarraj, who has selected a 32-member cabinet. However, not too much confidence should be placed in this initiative. Neither of the two rival governments in Libya recognize the Sarraj administration. The Sarraj government is also hampered by being unable to enter Libya for security reasons. It is currently operating out of a hotel in neighbouring Tunis.

At the same time as the shockwave from the Tunisian revolution hit Egypt in January 2011 it broke over Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh had been President for 30 years. After a few weeks of street protests, he swiftly promised not to run again for election, but few people believed him and as protests gathered in strength there were mass desertions from the armed forces and civil service.

The country dissolved, like Libya, into a maelstrom of regional, ethnic and religious contests for power. But in late 2014, fighters for the Shia Muslim Houthi sect from north-eastern Yemen, in alliance with the remnants of Saleh’s army, captured the capital, Sana’a. This alarmed the new King Salmand and his son and heir Prince Mohammed in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. As the champions of the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam, they smelled a conspiracy by their regional rivals Iran, the heartland of Shia Islam.

The over-excitable Prince Mohammed in particular believed Iran was aiding its co-religionist Houthis. In his capacity as Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister, Mohammed mustered a regional alliance to launch air attacks against the Houthis and their allies. United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Egypt have all sent warplanes to join the Saudis, but, as everyone knows by now, air power alone cannot win wars. Efforts at the end of last year by the UN to broker a peace accord collapsed.

Iran has been circumspect in its support for the Houthis because it didn’t want to do anything that might derail the lifting of UN-imposed economic sanctions penalizing Tehran for its nuclear development program. The lifting of those sanctions this week after last year’s agreement to put the nuclear program under international limits and monitoring may now make Iran feel more free to support the Houthis and goad Saudi Arabia on its southern borders.

Tehran already has several proxy campaigns in play that challenge Riyadh’s assumption that it is the natural leader of the Muslim world. Tehran has significant influence over the Shia majority government in Iraq, and elements of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps are operating there against the Islamic State, which has seized much of Sunni Iraq.

Iran is also a firm backer of Syria’s besieged President Bashar al-Assad. Not only is Tehran giving him direct military aid, it has also dispatched fighters from its proxy Hezbollah group in neighbouring Lebanon to support him.

Tentative efforts to start peace talks for Syria have got nowhere and there is no end in sight for the chaos there.

So the Middle East in general is in much worse shape than it was before the Arab Spring bloomed five years ago.

The irony today is that the one place where it looked as though political reform would take root was where the revolution started: Tunisia. It was not an easy transition. There was much unrest and violence in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s flight. And, as in Egypt, the first attempts at interim elections and writing a new constitution produced bodies dominated by previously outlawed, hardline Islamists. However, elections in later 2014 produced a broadly representative parliament and president.

But democracy has not produced a vibrant economy and corruption among officials and politicians is a constant irritant. Tourism has been about the only area of the economy that has continued to function well, which is why last year Islamic extremists began targeting visitors, who come mostly from Europe. Tourists were targeted in an attack on the world-famous Bardo Museum in Tunis early last year. Then in June, a gunman claiming allegiance to Islamic State attacked people on the beach in front of luxury hotels in the resort city of Sousse. He killed 39 people, including himself.

That attack has had a devastating effect on Tunisia’s tourist industry and exacerbated the unemployment problem which pushed Yahyaoui to scale a transmission tower on Friday and take his own life. The authorities have imposed a nation-wide nighttime curfew to try to calm passions. But clearly the Arab Spring has not yet ended its hunt for victims.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related on F&O:

The Middle East: Meltdowns, Crises and Daesh. By Simon Mabon, Report

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Arab Uprisings, it’s hard to remember the days of popular protests, of democratic revolutions and of dreams of a better future that rocked the Middle East in 2011. Nearly five years on, tensions between rulers and the ruled have exploded across the region – and the ensuing struggles for survival have continued to take all manner of ugly forms.

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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