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Revolutionaries Have Learnt Crucial Lessons Since the Arab Spring
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Two very different political waves are sweeping through the Middle East and north Africa. Popular protests are overthrowing the leaders of military regimes for the first time since the failed Arab Spring of 2011. At the same time, dictators are seeking to further monopolise power by killing, jailing or intimidating opponents who want personal and national liberty.

Dictators in Sudan and Algeria, who between them had held power for 50 years, were driven from office in the space of a single month in April, though the regimes they headed are still there. The ousting of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, now under arrest, came after 16 weeks of protests. Hundreds of thousands continue to demonstrate, chanting “civilian rule, civilian rule” and “we will remain in the street until power is handed over to civilian authority”.

The protesters are conscious of one of the “what not to do” lessons of 2011, when mass demonstrations in Egypt got rid of President Hosni Mubarak, only to see him replaced two years later by an even more authoritarian dictatorship led by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. A referendum is to be held over three days from this Saturday on constitutional amendments that will enable el-Sisi to stay in power until 2030.

Given that he was re-elected president last year by 97 per cent of the vote – the remaining 3 per cent going to a last-minute candidate who did not campaign and enthusiastically supported el-Sisi – there is no doubt about the outcome of the poll.

Fortunately, even hypocritical respect for democratic forms can backfire, as shown by recent events in Algeria. In February, it was announced that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, nominally in power for 20 years but apparently in a coma since 2014, would stand for a fifth term. This, like the Egyptian referendum, was an expression of contempt for any real popular mandate.

But the contempt went a little bit too far and Bouteflika has been replaced by another old regime figure, Abdelkader Bensalah, backed by, among others, the army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah. Protesters reject these cosmetic changes and have continued to demonstrate in the face of mass arrests and beatings by the police.

The success of popular action and civil disobedience in Sudan and Algeria has been treated sceptically by commentators speaking in gloomy tones of a rerun of the 2011 protests, which began in Tunisia and sparked further protests in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. In these last five countries, a brief democratic spasm was followed by savage repression (Egypt and Bahrain) or permanent war (Libya, Yemen, Syria).

The pessimists might just be getting it wrong this time round, just as the optimists did eight years ago. The revolutionaries have learned from their past defeats. There are no chants in Khartoum today, as there were in Cairo in 2011, that “the army and the people are one”. More realise that armies in the Arab world are parasitic entities, bloated maggots that live off the flesh of the rest of the population.

The political, social and economic ingredients that went into igniting the Arab Spring are still there because repression and poverty have got worse. Thirty million Egyptians, a third of the population, live below the poverty line on less than $2.50 a day. The public debt is five times what it was five years ago, while the government favours giant vanity projects like a $45bn new administrative capital.

It is in the interests of the opposition in Sudan and Algeria to keep their protests peaceful whatever the provocation. Militarisation of a crisis like this is always in the interest of the powers-that-be because they know that, in the words of the Hilaire Belloc rhyme: “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun and they have not.” Once regular soldiers get shot at, they are less likely to defect to the side doing the shooting.

Military action also means that an opposition will need money and weapons in large quantities. They can only obtain these from outside powers pursuing their own egocentric agendas which do not include genuine concern for ordinary Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis or Yemenis.

The discrediting or defeat of political Islam since 2011 is a bonus for revolutionary forces. Over the past 40 years, religion had become the vehicle for all sorts of grievances and resistance to oppression in the region, a shift dating from the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-80. Shia and Sunni Islamists largely displaced nationalists and socialists as the motivators of mass popular action.

Islamic ideology and organisation gave great punching power to opposition movements in Algeria in the 1990s, in Iraq after 2003, and to the anti-government forces in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq after 2011. Fanatical religious belief united people who would die fighting against a more numerous and better-armed enemy.

But the prominence of jihadi Islam in these insurgencies was good news for established regimes. Al-Qaeda type groups like Isis might pose a dangerous but temporary military challenge, but they always alienated the large part of the population that were not Sunni Arabs or were only moderately religious. Dictators benefited because the alternative to their brutal rule seemed even more horrific. I remember being in Baghdad in 2004 when Shia office workers were giving blood for wounded Sunnis in Fallujah when it was first besieged by US troops. There was a second siege later in the year but, by this time Shia civilians had been killed and injured by deadly suicide bombs apparently emanating from Fallujah, so the former blood donors were all in favour of US airstrikes and artillery obliterating the town.

It was not just Shia in Iraq, Alawites in Syria and Copts in Egypt who were alienated by militant Sunni Islam. So too were those who might go to the mosque on Friday, but were otherwise broadly secular. People like this were shocked when, as happened in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, they learned that one of the first acts of the provisional government was to propose ending the ban on polygamy.


A trap that opposition movements often fall into is to believe that all the problems of their country are caused by the evil rulers they are trying to displace. This will inevitably be part of opposition propaganda, but it is damaging to act as if this was true. Again and again in Iraq after 2003 and in Syria after 2011, the anti-government forces would compel religious and ethnic minorities to rally to the central government because they feared they faced extinction if they did not.

Sectarian exclusivity is less prevalent today and protesters know what damage it can do to their cause. A telling slogan of the Sudanese Professionals Association, which is leading the protests and wants to include non-Muslims, is “Christ at the heart of the Revolution”.

Some of the powerful forces determined to stop revolutionary change in the Arab world are the same in 2019 as they were in 2011. The Arab Spring was a curious mix of revolution and counter-revolution to a degree seldom appreciated in the west. It was extraordinary to see people fighting and dying for liberty and equality with the backing the last absolute monarchies on earth, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE, who most certainly wanted neither of these things.

We have seen the same process at work in Libya over the past few weeks where Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have greenlit an offensive by Gen Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are firing mortar bombs and rockets into Tripoli. Haftar has already shown his determination to be another strongman in the Arab world by posing grim-faced for cameras on a sort of throne of pharaonic proportions. The revolutionaries may have learned some lessons from 2011, but the military dictators are as nasty and pretentious as ever.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring, Shias and Sunnis, Sudan 
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  1. Kirt says:

    Betting that any revolution becomes a bloody mess and puts in a regime worse than the one overthrown is a bet I’ll win about 95% of the time – more than that in the ME and Africa. And I certainly hope that the slogan “Christ at the heart of the Revolution” does not become widespread or widely known. It just sets up Christians to be blamed for the next genocidal blood-letting in the Moslem world. In fact, Christ specifically repudiated the idea that his mission was to overthrow the rulers of his time.

    • Replies: @Anon
  2. Wow, what a convenient memory Cockburn seems to have here. The US and UK earn no mention? The CIA, MI6 fomenting of sectarianism and their endless propaganda in support of it all…where is that? The lies about Iraq, Libya and Syria were absolute as were the behind the scenes support for the Islamists including arms. The Muslim Brotherhood thug Morsi supported by the US against Mubarak…where is that? This is garbage. I expected at least a little better.

  3. Iris says:

    The Muslim Brotherhood thug Morsi supported by the US against Mubarak

    Very correctly stated, Janice.

    The real reason President Mubarak was overthrown is because he opposed Israel/US request to use Egypt as a training ground for the proxy Sunni Takfiri foreign legions destined to bring “revolutionary regime change” in Syria and Iran.

    Mubarak refused to play along. As a consequence, he was destituted and exhibited in a cage at his trial, aged 82. Better than Gaddafi’s fate, but a lesson nonetheless to whoever dares resisting.

    Both Presidents Al Bashir (Sudan) and Bouteflika (Algeria) are nationalists who have managed to shield their countries’ sovereignty from the Zionist-planned “Arab Spring” .
    This article is a disgrace.

    • Agree: druid55
  4. Sorcery says:
    @Janice Kortkamp

    “Soviet invasion of Afghanistan” could also be more accurately described as an invitation.
    Unless referring to the Al-Qaeda invasion of Afghanistan.

  5. The Scalpel says: • Website

    More realise that armies in the Arab world are parasitic entities, bloated maggots that live off the flesh of the rest of the population.

    Let me fix that for you…..

    More realize that armies are parasitic entities, bloated maggots that live off the flesh of the rest of the population.

    PS I also helped with spelling the word realize 🙂

  6. Jules says:

    Patrick Cockburn is a plagiarist.

    This article is essentially a rehash of a piece by David Hearst in Middle East Eye, 16 April 2019 (“The second Arab Spring? Egypt is the litmus test for revolution in the Middle East.”)

    Cockburn even steals & rehashes a line from Hearst:
    (Hearst) “Thus far, the Sudanese protesters appeared to have learned the lessons from Egypt’s failure in 2011. They have stopped chanting that ‘the people and the army are one’, because often they are not.”

    (Cockburn) “There are no chants in Khartoum today, as there were in Cairo in 2011, that “the army and the people are one.”


  7. Anon[293] • Disclaimer says:

    Christ specifically repudiated the idea that his mission was to overthrow the rulers of his time. Muslims say the same thing, even while talking out the other side of their mouth.

    The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.

  8. TG says:

    Missing the point.

    What’s driving this turmoil is demographics (except, curiously, for Libya, that does seem to be another story).

    Contrary to popular propaganda, Malthus was right. If people try to have many more children than they can reasonably support, this does not automatically and instantly create wealth. How can it? No, unless there is an open frontier or very very unusual circumstances (such as in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, at least, for now), when people breed like rodents, they and their children will live and die like rodents.

    Honest economists refer to the “Iron Law of Development”: FIRST fertility rates moderate, THEN, if everything else goes half-right, a people can slowly accumulate wealth. Never the other way around.

    But the real criminals are those economist whores, in craven service to the elites whose only God is cheap labor, who DEMAND that if someone could maybe take care of 1 or 2 or 3 kids, they simply MUST try to have 7. And of course, those journalists who refuse to even mention demographics… Because that might incur the displeasure of the elites who pretty much control so-called journalism today…

    • Replies: @anonymous1963
  9. @Janice Kortkamp

    Don’t forget, Janice, that the so called “bombs from Fallujah” and the Sunni-Shia war in Iraq in the mid-2000s benefited only the occupation. Do you recall the two Brutish SAS war criminals arrested by Iraqi police in Basra in 2005? They were driving a car loaded with weapons, explosives, and Shia Mahdi Army uniforms. When captured, before they could be interrogated, the Brutish colonial occupation regime attacked the police station with tanks and armoured personnel carriers to free them. Not for a moment do I believe that the Shia-Sunni violence was anything but a deliberately fomented Gladio operation by the imperialist invaders.

  10. anonymous1963 [AKA "anon19"] says:

    Here is my prediction. There will be no democracy, freedom (political or personal), equality, free press, respect for women’s rights, religious minorities, or anything that can be said to belong to the modern political world. Arab society is as it always has been; disgusting and dysfunctional. With the straitjacket of Islam added on top, only authoritarian rule is possible.

  11. anonymous1963 [AKA "anon19"] says:

    The very high birthrates in the Arab-Muslim world is largely due to the extremely low status of women in Islamic society.

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