So You Say You Want an Arab Revolution?

For those of you who are still keeping score on the Arab Spring, it’s Democracy 2 – Dictators 1 — and  everybody else undecided.

In Tunisia, the Jasmine Revolution is still being propelled by daily protests.  The caretaker government is keeping the country together – so far – and elections should be held this summer.  The main problem is that the gulf between the urban European north and the rural Arab south is widening.  This has actually created a political vacuum.  At this point, the Islamists haven’t made any significant gains, but, unfortunately, nobody else has, either.  There are still serious threats to this fragile process, but now that the world’s eyes are turned elsewhere, the Tunisians have a good chance of settling their own affairs and moving slowly — but directly — to democratic reform.

In Egypt, the people have voted overwhelmingly in favour of constitutional change; presidential and parliamentary elections could come as early as September.  The military, who are the real bosses, are busy trying to figure out how to keep the process going without turning power over to the mob (read Moslem Brotherhood.)  Meanwhile, some old scores are being seriously settled, and that violence may continue.  However, the pro-democracy people are working hard to form an urban coalition beyond Mubarak’s old regime — without much success.  The most immediate and serious problem in Egypt is the tourist industry has collapsed.  The result is huge unemployment numbers and no hard currency coming into the economy.  This alone could kill democracy long before it ever gets to the ballot box.

In Bahrain, as predicted, the minute the Western media turned its back, the king called in the troops (in this case, the Saudis — so there was no fear of the military changing sides) and the street battle was over within hours.  The protesters were driven out of Pearl Square, with some loss of life.  The country is now under martial law.  Everybody on both sides is keeping a low profile, and any talk of political reform is strictly forbidden – now and in the future.

In literally every other country in the region there is some sort of political unrest — including the most unlikely of places: Syria and Iran.  In Damascus, the relatively recent protests have been met by a government response that has escalated from whistles and batons to teargas and bullets in less than a week.  In Tehran, and across Iran, the nights are still haunted by anonymous voices echoing “Allah Akbar” into the darkness, in a two-year-old protest against that country’s corrupt elections.  In Yemen, President Saleh denies he ordered the military to open fire on protesters, but dozens were killed, and the bullets had to come from somewhere.  In Jordan, the protests are still peaceful but they’re continuous — and the crowds are getting bigger.   In Morocco, the people remain in the streets as King Mohammed VI has both promised reform and threatened a crackdown.  Time may be running out on both these royal houses.  And this brings us to our old buddy, Muammar, and the situation in Libya.

Muammar Gaddafi has been a pain in the ass on this planet ever since he seized power in Libya in 1969.  He has thrown bags of money at every terrorist group he could get his mitts on.  He financed IRA bombs in Britain, Red Brigade kidnappings in Italy and had his hand in just about every other terrorist attack in Europe for the last 30 years.  He has provided weapons and training to every psycho who came calling — from Abu Nidal to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.  At one time or another he’s managed to piss off just about everybody — except maybe the Pope and the Dalai Lama (and that’s only because they have to forgive him.)  He’s been kicking sand in the face of every Western country for decades, and there isn’t one of us who hasn’t been waiting for a chance to slap the crap out of the guy.  Last Friday, March 18th, the United Nations flicked on the green light.  The Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which authorizes a “No Fly Zone” over Libya.  In our eagerness to get a few licks in before anybody can change their mind, I don’t think we gave much thought to the consequences of our actions.  We just attacked him.

For those of you who haven’t got the time to read the entire U.N. Resolution, let me summarize it for you.  Basically, it says this: “We, the undersigned, are going to rain fire and hell on anything in Libya that moves faster than a donkey cart, so stay off the roads and out of the sky.  After that, we’re going to hang around forever, taking a bunch guff from both sides, while the situation deteriorates into chaos.  Even though we have overwhelming military superiority, we don’t have the political will to fix things, once and for all.  Eventually, we’re going to get tired and bored and go home for a while.  In a couple more years, we’ll come back — with boots on the ground — to try and correct our original mistakes.  At that point, a lot of young people are going to die.  If anybody has any illusions about this situation, take a look at Iraq, circa 1991, when another U.N. coalition wasted an opportunity to get rid of a dictator because a U.N. resolution didn’t authorize it.”

That’s it — in a nutshell.  Without a lot of serious help, which includes ground troops, the rebels simply aren’t strong enough to topple Gaddafi, and he isn’t going anywhere voluntarily.  On the same page, do we even know who these rebels are?  For a people’s army of barbers and shopkeepers, they certainly seem to know what they’re doing militarily.  Who’s running the show in Benghazi?  And finally, how are we going to know when this is over?

So, again, if you’re keeping score, it’s Democracy – 2 Dictators – 1.  And the U.N. has dropped the ball in Libya, so we’ll all be going in to a long and bloody unnecessary overtime.

So You Say You Want a Revolution?

I realize I can bark my brains out; the caravan has probably already moved on, but could we just stop for 3 seconds and check the safety net before we go off the deep end?  No doubt there are powerful forces crawling across the Middle East and North Africa; all the conditions are right.  Every country in the region has the same set of circumstances: a young population, a growing middle class, a reasonable level of education, a contracting economy, unemployment, rising prices and an old and decrepit leadership.  This is the perfect storm.  It might even be the long-awaited Arab Revolution.  However, before we all hitch up the bandwagon let’s remember this isn’t 1989, no wall has come down, Benghazi isn’t Berlin and democracy is not on the march.  It isn’t even on the crawl.  Let’s quit with the self-congratulations for a minute (like western governments even did anything?) and put down the pom-poms.  Nothing has been accomplished but everything has been set in motion.  Get real.  This is the way it is.

Okay, Hosni Mubarak is gone.  So what?  At this point the army is still in charge.  This is the same bunch of guys who’ve been running the show since Nasser kicked King Farouk out of the country in 1952.  In essence, what happened in Egypt was a really, really weird kind of show-of-hands election and the incumbent (Mubarak) was defeated.  However, he didn’t actually have a challenger.  There is no political organization available to govern after him.  The problem the army faces now is how to hold a semi-free election without giving the country away?  They know that for every young professional in Cairo, dreaming of democracy there are seven guys upriver who think this is a golden opportunity to get the girls back in their bags where they belong.  The military needs to make it look good without letting the Moslem Brotherhood take control of the country.  Egypt depends on foreign aid and foreign tourists to survive; an Islamic revolution — freely elected or not — would ruin everything.

In Bahrain, when the people gathered in Pearl Square in Manama demanding reform, Shaikh Hamad listened for a while.  But absolute rulers don’t have to take that kind of abuse — or so he thought.  He sent in troops with tanks and automatic weapons.  Unfortunately, the western media noticed that they were all stamped “Made in America.”  Within minutes the State Department was in full damage control mode, burning up the Internet, telling the royal family to withdraw the tanks or they weren’t going to get any more.  Suddenly, the troops were gone.  Now, it’s all goodwill and dialogue, but the only tangible change (so far) is the Grand Prix was cancelled.  Personally, I think the king is just waiting ‘til CNN’s not looking.

In Iran, where nobody gives a damn what CNN thinks, anti-government demonstrations are old news.  They’ve been going on, back and forth, ever since the Ahmadinejad government fixed the national elections two years ago.  Invariably, any time people in Iran gather for anything more than a birthday party, the government response is brutal and ruthless – not necessarily in that order.  There will be no democratic reform in Iran in the near future — even though the demonstrations will continue.  The Iranian people are on their own, and they know it.

In Yemen and Algeria the battle for the streets is still going on.   Both governments are trying a combination of economic reforms and ungodly violence to keep control.  In both countries, the people are disorganized, and several factions are scrambling to put together a cohesive movement.  At this point, their only demand is the current regime step aside and hold free elections.  This isn’t going to happen unless – as in Egypt — the military takes control and rewrites the constitution.

Which brings us to Libya and the impending civil war.  The problem with democratic reform in Libya is Muammar Gaddafi himself.  He has been in power since 1969 (longer than anybody except Castro and the Queen.)  The only Libyans who remember a time without Gaddafi are retired now.   For 40 years, there has been no political dialogue in Libya, so it’s doubtful that the people currently shooting at each other are willing to give a try.  They want Gaddafi out;  that’s it.  They may be calling for democracy, but unless they’ve been taking secret courses from The Learning Annex, how do they even know what it looks like?  Besides, Muammar is not one to go quietly.  Nor does he have a room full of generals advising him to leave for the good of the country.  This fight is not over, and believe me, even when it is, it won’t be.

And finally, Tunisia, where the whirlwind all started.  Actually Tunisia has the best chance of surviving the turmoil and bringing true democratic reform to their nation.  Their size, history and population give them some big advantages in the search for reform.  Maybe, if they can solve their problems, the long, hard, old-fashioned way, then other nations in the region can follow their example.

If this is the Arab Revolution, it’s about to hit a snag.  It’s called history.  It teaches us that most revolutions don’t end the way things did in 1989.  Daisies don’t normally grow where the tanks were, and any eventual democratic reform is going to be long and hard — and maybe even bloody.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.  It would be far better if we stopped cheerleading for a while and started dealing with the facts — before the caravan actually does go by and we’re left behind, wondering what happened — again.