Friday, April 8, 2011

Ending Tyranny in the Middle East

Revolutions and Exorcisms

“A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
Karl Marx, 1848, The Communist Manifesto
When the current upheavals in the Middle East started, a number of essays appeared with titles that substituted the “Middle East” for “Europe” in the first sentence of the above passage. Most of the essays, however, failed to analyze the nature of the specter. More importantly, they failed to note who will try to exorcise the specter.
The Communist Manifesto was, of course, written shortly before the 1848 Revolutions that swept European cities, from Sicily to Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest and Prague.  These revolutions were varied and, depending on their locations, represented somewhat different aspirations.  Yet, for the most part they had an underlying economic dimension that was reflected in the demands of the working class as sketched out in The Communist Manifesto. Many of these demands—such as heavy progressive income tax, centralization of credit in the hands of government, and free education for all children in public schools—were quite mild by today’s standards.
The revolutions also had a common political dimension that was perhaps more important than the economic dimension: an attempt by ordinary people to end tyrannical rules of the European monarchs and imperial governments. For example, in Sicily, where the revolution first broke out, the main point of contention was the autocratic rule of King Ferdinand II who, fearing the end of his rule, promised to dismiss his ministers and establish a constitution.  In France, where in February 1848 workers set up street barricades, the subjects of scorn were Louis Philippe and his prime minster Guizot, who both escaped revolutionary Paris. France was once again proclaimed a republic on February 24. Similar events in Vienna in March forced Metternich to escape.  Budapest and Prague followed suit and the Austrian Empire was in a state of revolutionary turmoil. In Prussia, and particularly in Berlin, the working class challenged the rule of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and forced him to draw up a constitution. Elsewhere, in what eventually became a unified Germany, comparable events took place that led to the abdication of this or that tyrant, dismissal of ministers, or attempts to draw up constitutions.
Yet the revolutions of 1848 did not succeed. In Italy, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland the revolutionary forces were all crushed. In France, the revolution was led astray by inexperienced leaders who were too willing to compromise with the forces of reaction. The June insurrection of 1848 by Paris workers was brutally put down. In December of 1848, Louis Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I, became President of the Second Republic, and in 1851 he staged a coup d'état
 and declared himself Emperor.  As Marx famously recounted the event in his 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “world-historic facts and personages appear” twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It was not until the Paris Commune of 1871 that the working class rose in Paris, challenged the bourgeoisie and took over the government for 72 days.
In Prussia, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV mustered his forces and, with the help of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, put down the insurrection. In Austria, too, Emperor Franz Joseph called on the Russian Tsar to help put down the Hungarian Revolution for independence. In sum, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe were exorcised by some of the same forces who had exorcised the “specter of communism,” mostly the old reactionary European monarchs and imperial governments.
When the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa started, a number of observers, including this writer, saw similarities between these revolutions and those in 1848. For example, the spread of uprisings from one country to another was comparable. So was the speed by which these revolutions spread. Actually, given modern technology, the speed of the revolutionary spread in 2011 was faster than in 1848. In the mid 19th century one could only rely on word of mouth, newspaper articles and steam railroads to carry the news. In 2011 electronic gadgets and media, such as cell phones, live television reporting, and websites, spread the news instantly. It is interesting to note that the use of modern technology in 2011 to broadcast the news and gain revolutionary momentum caused some people to confuse the instrument with the cause, and hence the meaningless expression “Twitter Revolution.”
Besides the speed and spread of revolutions, there were more fundamental similarities between the events in 2011 and 1848. As stated earlier, the 1848 Revolutions had primarily two dimensions: economic and political. It was the wretched conditions of the working class combined with the despotic rule of this or that monarch that created the revolutionary momentum.  The same is true of the revolutions in 2011. All countries in the Middle East and North Africa that have been going through a revolutionary phase faced dictatorial rules, either by a king, a president or an emir. Also, almost all of them faced, among other economic malice, high rates of inflation and unemployment.  While this economic hardship does not appear to be the driving force behind the revolutionary zeal, it is definitely a contributing factor.
So far the events of 2011 are also similar to those of 1848 in that they seem to be failing to achieve anything of substance. In Tunisia, where the revolutionary upheaval first started, the despised President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in office for nearly 24 years, was deposed and exiled. The speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, who was part of the same ruling establishment as the president, took over the interim presidency and promised free elections within 45 and 60 days. To this day no election has materialized and, besides some reshuffling of the cabinet, nothing much has come out of that revolution.
In Egypt, the detested President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak resigned after being in office for 30 years and left for his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh.  Mubarak’s old hand, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi Soliman, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, took his place in the name of the military. Tantawi had a reputation, even according to the US officials, for being “resistant to political and economic reform” (Reuters, February 11, 2011).  Further demonstrations were discouraged, a number of demonstrators were arrested, and some were reported to have been tortured (BBC, March 24, 2010). The military proposed constitutional amendments, which a reformist leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, called “superficial.” The interim constitution was put to the vote and became law, even though many reformist leaders objected to it. The ruling “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” has now promised legislative election in September of 2011, followed by presidential election in November. Whether these promises will materialize or, even if they materialize, whether they will bring about any substantial change, remain to be seen. It is hard to imagine fundamental changes in political institutions of a country when the economic structure remains intact and one of the most oppressive instruments of the state—namely, the military apparatus—remains untouched. 
In Yemen, the reviled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled that country for 33 years, continues to reign in spite of months of massive protests. At the beginning of February 2011 he promised not to seek reelection in 2013. He then reshuffled his government and promised a referendum on a new constitution. Since none of these quelled the street protests, he killed a number of protestors and declared a state of emergency.  Yet, none of these actions stopped the protests and, subsequently, Saleh fired his entire cabinet and promised to quit even sooner.  Yet the protest goes on and there is no end in sight. But even if Saleh joins his colleagues, Ben Ali and Mubarak, in retirement, it is not all clear if the future of Yemen will be any brighter than Tunisia’s or Egypt’s.
In Bahrain, the former Emir and now the King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has ruled that country for 11 years after his father, Amir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, continues to reign despite widespread protests.   As soon as mass protests in Bahrain started, the news media reported that the king’s “police tore down protesters’ tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of birdshot” (AP, February 17, 2011).  Ever since, the king has continued to use brute force to quell the uprising. He has even tried to remove the symbol of the uprising by tearing down Pearl Square, where people gathered to protest.  Moreover, he has welcomed mercenary forces from Saudi Arabia to enter his country to subdue his own people.  After this invasion by Saudi Arabia, one of the most backward countries in the world that is equipped with the most modern military machine, not much can be expected to happen in Bahrain.
In sum, similar to the revolutions in 1848, the events of 2011 seem to be failing to produce any substantive results. All the old and reactionary forces in the region are exorcizing the revolutions that have swept the region. This holds not only for the countries mentioned above, but also for other countries in the region that are in a state of revolutionary turmoil.
There is, of course, much that separates the events of 2011 and 1848.  For example, the upheavals in 1848 came after the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth of capitalism in Europe. They came at a time when Europe was facing rising unemployment, falling wages, unbearable working conditions and increasing poverty. The revolutionary fervent heralded the birth of a new and conscious working class that was vying for political power. These were the first serious attempts to change the economic foundation of the society, to end capitalism and establish socialism. In other words, they were Revolutions with a capital “R.” Nothing of the sort seems to have happened in 2011.  The current revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa are revolutions with a small “r.” They seem to be directed not against changing the economic structure, but against certain political practices and institutions. In these revolutions there is hardly any independent and politically conscious working class that is trying to tear down the old economic order. 
Moreover, almost all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are in a state of revolutionary turmoil today have a colonial past.  Even if some were not direct colonies, they were at some point within the “sphere of influence” of the colonialists. As such these countries are still dependent on the European and American imperial powers, if not politically, at least economically. This long-term dependency has thwarted the economic development of the region and held back the development of viable and progressive political institutions. The dependency is also hindering the revolutionary attempt to reform political institutions in the Middle East and North Africa. The revolutions in the region are being exorcised not just by the reactionary governments that rule these countries, but by the West, that is, the US and European governments. The West does not like to see any change in the capitalist world order, where reactionary regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have had a symbiotic relation with the US and Europe. Anything that upsets this world order is undesirable by the West, even if it continuously pays lip service to the glory of the “Arab Spring.” 
So far, the West, particularly the US, has been quite successful in exorcising the 2011 revolutions. The old relations with Tunisia and Egypt appear to have been restored after the fall of the disposable strongmen of the US, Ben Ali and Mubarak.  Continuous communication between the new leaders of these countries and the US officials, as well as numerous visits by the leaders of the West to these countries, will insure that the old order will be maintained. In Yemen, the situation is still fluid, but even if the US’s strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, does fall, one can be sure that old relations with the US will be maintained. In Bahrain, where King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa provides, in exchange for his survival, all kinds of services to the US, including providing a home for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the US and the medieval Saudi family will insure that no revolution succeeds. The same should be expected in other countries in the region. This includes Libya, where the West has decided that the unruly and flaky Muammar Qaddafi—even though he has behaved obediently since 2003— must be replaced by somebody less flaky and more obedient.  
Yes, a specter is haunting the Middle East and North Africa—the specter of ending tyranny. All the powers of the old Middle East and North Africa, as well as the US and Europe, have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Netanyahu, Obama and Clinton, Sarkozy and Cameron, European and American liberals, and the CIA spies.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at: