Marc Lynch

When the Empire Struck Back

When the Empire Struck Back

Exactly one year ago, I was in Doha to speak at the Al Jazeera Forum, where a remarkable group of Arab politicians, intellectuals and activists had assembled to talk about the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the changes sweeping the region. Moncef Marzouki, then a human rights dissident and now President of Tunisia, told me about his hopes for crafting a genuinely democratic constitution — hopes which al-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi assured me he shared. Tareq el-Bishri gave a long speech about how Egypt’s 1952 revolution gave way to despotism and military rule; the youth activists in the audience could hardly mask their boredom with the old man, but perhaps should have listened more carefully. The Libyan revolutionaries at the conference were treated like rock stars, as were the youth activists from Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries. The mood was celebratory and electric, though tinged by anxiety over the atrocities in Libya and reports of Qaddafi’s forces moving towards Benghazi.

But in retrospect, the week of March 12 marked the precise turning point away from the "New Hope" of those dizzying Tahrir days towards the grimmer, darker political struggles to come. I never made my scheduled trip from Doha to Manama. That week, the Empire struck back:

-Saudi Arabia helped ruin Bahrain. The GCC intervention to crush the Bahraini protest movement terminated U.S.-backed efforts by the more moderate elements within the Bahraini regime and opposition to find a political solution. Instead, the Bahraini regime and its Saudi backers launched a scorched-earth campaign against the opposition, with a massive and unjustifiable campaign of arrests, torture, repression, abuse and arbitrary dismissals which have been fully documented in the report of the Bahrain Independent Committee of Inquiry (pdf). The crackdown succeeded in the short term, clearing the streets and cementing the regime’s hold on power, but that momentary advantage came at the cost of a generation’s worth of lost legitimacy and challenges to come. It also badly hurt American credibility, as Arabs across the region pointedly noted the public silence of the United States on the crackdown in a Gulf ally.

The crackdown in Bahrain also introduced the virus of sectarianism, which had to that point been virtually non-existent in the Arab uprisings, at home and regionally. The Bahraini regime and the Saudi media tarred the opposition as Iranian-backed provocateurs, emphasizing their Shi’a identity through relentless propaganda and denying to them the identity of democracy and human rights campaigners which they had to that point successfully claimed. The ability of this regime-led sectarian frame to take hold in certain quarters, both inside the region and abroad, represents one of the true tragedies of the entire Arab uprising.

-King Abdullah bought off the home front. The "day of rage" called for March 11 in Saudi Arabia failed spectacularly. The Saudi regime then moved aggressively to shore up its own domestic standing. King Abdullah went on Saudi TV to announce a massive new public spending campaign, which amounted to "a total estimated volume of $130 billion… larger than the total annual government budget was as recently as 2007." The regime also worked through powerful Islamist networks to guarantee that they would not join in any protest movement. This not only consolidated the Saudi home front, at least for the time being, but also offered a model for other Gulf states to follow.

-The Libyan intervention. With Qaddafi’s forces closing in Benghazi and the Arab League calling for international action, the United Nations approved a no-fly zone for Libya and NATO began its military intervention. This intervention clearly remains highly controversial and its ultimate success in creating a democratic, stable and unified Libya remains in doubt. The intervention clearly fit within the overarching narrative of the Arab uprisings and played an important role in keeping the hope for change alive. I remain quite convinced that the intervention was the right thing to do, that it saved many lives and helped to usher in a profound change for the better in Libya.

But at the same time, the shift from popular, peaceful mobilizations from below to an international military intervention inescapably shifted expectations about the nature of the uprisings. Al-Jazeera’s screens which had for months been filled with powerful images of protestors chanting slogans were now dominated by battle scenes and war coverage. Even though the Libya intervention came against a murderous regime, it did contribute to the shift towards this darker second chapter.

Yemen jumped the tracks. That same week, snipers opened fire on protestors in Yemen’s Sana’a University. That horrific moment of violence triggered a wave of official defections and a split in the military. While some hoped that this would lead to the quick fall of the President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, instead it led to a long stalemate. The incredibly resilient and creative Yemeni protest movement found itself trapped between the competing centers of military power, and increasingly shut out of political dialogues which focused upon the traditional opposition parties. Whether or not the GCC transition plan which has finally removed Saleh from the Presidency succeeds in moving Yemen forward, the long months of stalemate and the horrible images of violence and human tragedy in Yemen further blunted regional momentum.

Egypt’s referendum. Also in that same week, Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional referendum which charted the path for a problematic, military-led transition. The high turnout and the strong support for the constitutional referendum delivered the first major setback to Egyptian activists, many of whom had campaigned against the referendum but now found their mobilization efforts swamped by the electoral process. The vote emboldened the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which now claimed a popular mandate for their transition timeline. The vote foreshadowed the clashes to come over the summer between protestors and the regime, as well as the results of this winter’s Parliamentary elections.

Syrian protests. As if all of this was not enough, the same week saw the first significant popular demonstrations break out in Syria. The heavy handed response by Syrian security forces set in motion the spiral of repression and mobilation which has brought the country to civil war and unspeakable violence. Syrian protestors and the regime alike may have been influenced by the intervention in Libya, with activists hoping to attract a similar intervention and the regime determined to prevent such an escalation from beginning. Saudi and Qatari efforts to drive Arab and international action against the Syrian regime, whether out of concern for the killing or hostility to Iran, have been a defining feature of the following year.

That’s quite a week. In retrospect, it appears clear that the dramatic, nearly simultaneous events in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen during a single week exactly one year ago ushered in a qualitatively new phase in the Arab uprisings. It’s difficult today to even remember the dizzying excitment of those first few months, when everything seemed possible and the entire Arab world seemed bound together in a single narrative of inevitable change. The escalating violence, the grim determination of regimes to hold power, the fragmentation of the regional agenda, the stalled transitions, the rise of Islamists, the nasty sectarianism — all of this has led many observers and analysts to turn away from their early enthusiasm.

But that’s premature. We are still in the early stages of a profound structural transformation in the Arab world, and there’s no going back to the old status quo. The Arab uprisings are far from over, no matter how much the Arab regimes would like them to be. Don’t forget: Darth Vader might have seemed in control during The Empire Strikes Back but we all know what happened in The Return of the Jedi.

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