A year ago, uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began the wave of popular mobilisations across the Arab world that has become known in the West as the “Arab Spring”.
A desperate individual protest in a provincial Tunisian town ― the self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to protest police harassment and lack of economic opportunity ― triggered a region-wide revolt against economic and political injustice.
Throughout the region, economic injustice (such as high unemployment, rising prices and lack of opportunity) is the result pf policies imposed by the West through international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, such as cuts to food and fuel subsidies and the privatisation of infrastructure and amenities.
However, the Arab Spring uprisings have challenged the political injustices and crimes of range of tyrants. This has ranged from those who are straight-out puppets of Western imperialism, such as former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, to those that have varying degrees of conflicts with imperialism.
This includes overthrown and assassinated Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s besieged ruler, Bashar al-Assad.
The uprisings have also challenged the standard line pushed in the Western media since the 9/11 attacks, which presented the region through the prism of supposedly clashing Western and “Islamic” cultures.
These mass movements of ordinary people have also challenged the West’s self-appointed role of supposed “bringer of democracy” and linked the struggle for democracy with economic justice ― opposing Western-pushed economic polices.
The West has sought to respond to this ideological and political challenge. Western money and arms have continued to flow to dictatorships as they crack down on protests. The US and European Union have also tried to posture as supporting the movements for democracy ― even though, in most cases, they are challenging regimes the West props up.
This double game has included seeking to exert influence over the democracy movements, even in countries with pro-Western regimes, through the distribution of money, resources and access to the global corporate media and international political forums.
The key motive for NATO’s opportunist military intervention in Libya, which cost more than 20,000 lives, was to reassert the West’s role as “bringer of democracy” in the region.
Now the focus is on Syria. After 10 months of popular protest and government repression, defections from the military, Western interference and terrorist attacks by unknown groups, the country is on the brink of civil war.
The UNHCR estimates about 5000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-regime protests started in March. Most of the dead are protesters killed by regime security forces, who have used live ammunition, tanks and artillery against protesters. They have also used widespread imprisonment and torture.
About 400 deaths have occurred since the Arab League dispatched a human rights monitoring mission on December 26.
On January 13, the head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, told a press conference in Cairo: “I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war.”
On January 12, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC) agreed to coordinate activities. The FSA is comprised of Syrian army units that have defected from the Assad regime and the SNC is a Western-promoted opposition umbrella group.
The West treats both as spokespeople for the uprising in Syria, but it is not clear how representative they are. The SNC was previously opposed to armed action.
In a January 12 interview in Kommersant, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s National Security Council, noted the similarity to the situation in Libya before NATO’s military intervention in March.
He said: “We are getting information that NATO members and some Persian Gulf states, operating according to the Libya scenario, intend to move from indirect intervention in Syrian affairs to direct military intervention.
“This time it is true that the main strikes forces will not be provided by France, the UK or Italy, but possibly by neighbouring Turkey which was until recently on good terms with Syria and is a rival of Iran with immense ambitions.”
NATO denied it is planning to intervene. Spokesperson Carmen Romero told Xinhua on January 13: “At present, there is no discussion at all of a NATO role with respect to Syria. We have followed and will follow events in Syria, but there is no discussion for NATO’s role.”
However, the pro-Western emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, told CBS on January 13 that he favoured sending Arab troops to Syria.
The cash-strapped administration of US President Barack Obama has recently announced that the US would refocus its military power in the Asia-Pacific region and reduce its involvement in the Middle East (where the past decade’s wars have cost US$4 trillion). But SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun has asked the West for a scaled-down version of the intervention in Libya.
He told the BBC on January 5: “We are seeking a partial no-fly zone: covering a limited area, just over one piece of territory. We don’t want the complete destruction of Syria’s air defences. We don’t want international intervention to replace the Syrian revolution. We want it to support the Syrian revolution.”
The hypocrisy of the Western attitude to democracy in the Middle East was illustrated by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who used a January 13 visit to Saudi Arabia to denounce Assad’s tyranny and praise the Saudi government for taking a stand against it. Cameron was silent on the fact that the Saudi absolute monarchy has one the worst human rights records in the region.
The day before Cameron’s visit, Saudi authorities shot dead a protester in the Eastern city of Qatif, where protests have been occurring for months despite several such killings, Press TV reported on January 13. While Cameron was in the country a much rarer protest took place in the capital Riyadh, Press TV said.
In March, Saudi Arabia spear-headed a Western-backed military intervention in neighbouring Bahrain to prop up that country’s absolute monarchy against a non-violent mass movement for democracy.
Dozens of killings, hundreds of arrests, routine torture and show trials have stabilised the Bahraini regime, but smaller protests have continued, as has repression and Saudi military occupation. On January 13, a protester was tortured to death in prison, Press TV said.
The protests and repression in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been mostly unreported in the Western media, reflecting the economic, military and political importance of the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to the West.
Throughout the Arab world protests have become commonplace. For example, on January 13, Press TV reported clashes between opponents and supporters of the government in Jordan. There were two separate incidents of self-immolation earlier in the week.
For almost a year, protests in Yemen have continued despite considerable violence. Under the dysfunctional regime of US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen was already violent before the uprising, with at least three separate insurgencies and regular US drone strikes that kill civilians more often than the Saudi terrorist bands they are aimed at.
Added to this, since the protests began, some military and paramilitary units have broken with the regime and clashed with loyalist units (and wounded Saleh in an assassination attempt).
However, the protesters have distanced themselves from these defectors, stressing non-violent protest and demanding a total break with the regime. They have also rejected a US-backed “peace plan” under which Saleh is supposed to step down with an amnesty while the regime remains, reintegrating the military and paramilitary defectors.
In Egypt, the military, who have ruled through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) since Mubarak's overthrow, have held elections while continuing much of the repression that characterised Mubarak’s rule. This repression includes including military trials, torture in custody and the promotion of violence against women and religious minorities.
On November 18, protests calling for SCAF to hand over to civilian rule before the election were violently attacked by security forces, killing 42. This led to a renewed upsurge in protests.
After images circulated on YouTube of security forces stripping and assaulting a female protester, 10,000 women marched on December 20, Ahram Online reported. On New Year’s Eve, 50,000 protesters gathered in Tahrir Square.
However, the protests have so far not been as broad as last year and most Egyptians have not heeded protesters’ calls to boycott the protracted electoral process.
The main winners in the elections was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned under Mubarak but tacitly tolerated more than other opposition groups.
A year ago, the MB stood aside from the protests against Mubarak until it became clear the movement was too big to ignore. Since Mubarak’s overthrow it has continued to vacillate.
It initially supported the November 18 protests but, confident of electoral success (its profile boosted by Qatari money) it later withdrew support.
The “clash of civilisations” narrative notwithstanding, Islamist parties, ultimately conservative but with anti-dictatorship or anti-imperialist credibility in several Arab countries, have proved to be essential allies of the West since the Arab Spring uprisings began.
In Tunisia, the Arab Spring appears most successful. Elections were peaceful, and won by Ennahda, a Qatari-supported Islamist party that has successfully projected a “moderate” image to the West and secular Tunisians.
However, Britain's Channel 4 reported on January 10 that the anniversary of the uprising has been marked by a spate of self-immolations by Tunisians who, despite the democratic progress, faced the same lack of economic prospects that motivated the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.