By Samir Bennis* May 30,2011
By Samir Bennis*
The events taking place in the Arab world since the beginning of this year have, without a doubt, unfolded faster than analysts can cop with, notwithstanding the predictions that had dismissed the occurrence of sweeping changes in this region. Most analysts and observers of the Arab world, from Europe to the United States have been obsessed with the supposed threat Islamic movements pose for democracy, that they did not see this coming. Observers in the West and the Arab world alike had to brush up on their rusty knowledge of the political landscape of this region and try to find an explanation of what led to these ground-shaking changes.
After over five months of the beginning of the uprisings that are sweeping across the Arab world, and in the face of the stalemate in the Libyan and the Yemeni revolutions, the main question that comes to mind is: why the revolution succeeded in a relatively short time in Tunisia and Egypt in toppling the regimes in place and ousting their Presidents, while in Libya and Yemen the head of the regimes have managed to cling to power, as long as possible.
When analyzing the underlying causes of the success the first stage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt versus Yemen and Libya, two main features stand out: the military and the comparatively ethnic homogeneity of these countries.
1- Advances in technology are affecting the livelihoods of people in the region
Shortly after the departure of former Tunisian President, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, and former Egyptian President, Hosni Moubarak, political observers have been lauding the merits of social media, of which Facebook, Twitter and Youtube rise to the forefront. No one can deny the hugely positive effect that these social networks have had in broadening the magnitude of the events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle-East and in raising people’s awareness that time has come for them to take their destiny in their own hands.
Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have also been instrumental in providing the world with up-to-date news about the evolution of the situation on the ground. These social networks have, in fact, been helpful in building world-wide solidarity with the peaceful demonstrations and the democratic demands of people in the region, as well as in exposing the iron-fisted way in which the regimes in place used to deal with peaceful demonstrations. We can, arguably, say that without the existence of these social networks, the crackdowns of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes could have gone unnoticed and a few people could have witnessed the massacre that could have befell the demonstrators.
Having said that, we should not conclude that these social networks by themselves have lead to the unprecedented changes from within that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. If this was the case, the bloodshed we are witnessing in Libya since the outbreak of the revolution would not have happened and we could have witnessed a smooth democratic transition in this country. Nor would the political stalemate in Yemen have been protracted for over four months with no peaceful solution in the horizon.
2- The Decisive Role of the Military in Tunisia and Egypt
In fact, what led to the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution was first and foremost the praise-worthy attitude adopted by the military with regard to the demonstrators. To the dismay of former Tunisian and Egyptian Presidents, at the height of the uprisings, the head of the military decided not to use their weapons against unarmed civilian, who were demonstrating in a civilized and peaceful way. Feeling that the wind of change that started blowing in the Arab world was bound to lead to irrevocable changes and that the wall of fear that used to keep people from expressing their grievances has been pulled down, the military decided to be on the right side of History and, thus, sided with people’s democratic demands.
In addition to this factor, in Tunisia and Egypt civil society movements that have been growing and forming over the past years have a common political goal, namely, to put an end to despotism and dictatorship and lay the foundations for a democratic regime that meets the legitimate demands of its people and provide dignity and a prospect for a better life to all components of society. In these two countries, the allegiance to the State takes precedence over any other allegiance, which makes for a political landscape that is likely to usher in the establishment of a democratic regime.
In Yemen, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, despite the defection of some high-ranking officials of the Army, the military institution decided not to side with people’s demands for the departure of the President and the establishment of a new regime. Without the support lent by the military to President Abdallah Saleh, the latter’s regime could have collapsed shortly after the outbreak of the revolution. In addition to the military factor, the ethnic factor comes also into play. In fact, unlike many developed and developing countries where there is a strong sense of belonging to a State and where people are bond by a common democratic project, in a tribal society like Yemen, the ethnic allegiance trumps the allegiance to a central State. Because the allegiance to the tribe takes precedence over the allegiance to the States, the members of Yemen’s President’s tribe are still lending him support, no matter how much he is abhorred and rejected by the rest of the population.
The same equation plays out in Libya where the bulk of Gaddafi’s regime forces stood by their leader, providing him with more time to maneuver with the hope of defeating the rebels through the war of attrition. Had the international community not intervened in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1973, there is no doubt that Gaddafi would have had the upper hand over his opponents.
This prospect was all the more likely that early on, after the eruption of the revolution, the rebels did not enjoy the full support of the most part of the Libyan people. In fact, if the leaders of some tribes decided early on to join the rebel movement, others remained loyal to the regime, while most tribes tried to remain neutral, waiting to see for which side the balance will tilt. In one instance, different factions of the same tribe took different positions with regard to the democratic demands of the rebel’s movement. This is the case of the Warfalla tribe, the largest tribe in Libya, whose leadership split between supporters for the Libyan regime and supporters for the Transitional National Council. Among the tribes supportive of Gaddafi’s regime, the one that stands out is the Al- Qadadfa tribe to which Gaddafi belongs. Because Gaddafi established a political system where his tribe benefits more than other tribes, the leadership of the Qadadfa tribe, as well as of those having any kind of kinship to Gaddafi know that the end of the latter’s grip on political and economic life in Libya is synonymous with their demise. Hence, their position to stand by the Gaddafi and lend him full support rather than joining forces with the rebels and betting on a political adventure whose outcome remains uncertain and whose results may not bring them the same economic benefits as those they enjoyed under Gaddafi’s regime.
3- The Uncertain Path towards Democracy in Libya and Yemen
There is no doubt that days of the Yemeni and Libyan Presidents are numbered. The two countries will most likely turn the page of long decades of despotic and chaotic rule that left their economic and political fabric in total disarray. Yet to overthrow the regime is not synonymous with the advent of democracy overnight. The establishment of such a political system needs the presence of political leaders who are determined to move their countries beyond the ethnic cleavages that might be harnessed by some politicians to achieve power.
As the ethnic identity in both countries is still strong trumping, in some cases, the national identity, their political leaders still have a long way to go before being able to build a sound democratic system. Democracy is not only about holding elections and allowing people to freely express their votes and elect their representatives.
In many sub-Saharan countries, elections are being held on a regular basis. However, these elections are far removed from giving rise to accountable and legitimate governments. Nor do they result in the establishment of long-lasting economic, political and social stability. The main reason behind this state of affairs is that elections in these countries are not rooted in national identity, let alone in a political and economic porgrams geared towards building a better future for all components of society. Rather, the capture of votes in these countries is based along ethnic lines. Those who run for office tend, in most cases, to play the ethnic card rather than present a sound political and economic program. This political behavior not only voids democracy from its meaning, it also reinforces the ethnic divide existing in society while weakening among voters the sense that they belong to one nation.
This is exactly what Libyan and Yemeni leaders need to avoid if they are to lay the foundations for a democratic system. It goes without saying that the journey towards democracy will not be an easy one and so many obstacles will have to be surmounted on the way. That being said, to ensure the success of a transition towards a participatory system that empowers people to be master of their destiny, Libyan and Yemeni leaders have to look beyond tribal identity and strive to build a strong Pan-Libyan and Pan-Yemeni identity. School curricula can play a major role, in this regard, by inserting a heavy national identity into them.
They should also inculcate to their fellow citizens that they belong to one nation and teach them to see themselves as Libyans and Yemenis, rather than members of a particular tribe. The rule of political game should also be based on the principles of non-exploitation of identity politics during electoral campaigns. Thus, the use of the ethnic card should be outlawed, prompting politicians to campaign only on the basis of their political and economic programs.
Democracy is not only a set of rules and routine practices. Democracy is a mindset, and it can only take hold in a country if its people see themselves as a nation that shares common purpose and works towards achieving the same goals for all its components.
Part of the United Nations community, Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence (France), a Master’s degree in political science, a Master’s degree in Political and Diplomatic Studies, a Master’s degree in Iberian studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish studies. He has published many articles in many languages and authored the book: “les relations politiques. Economiques et culturelles entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005”, published in 2008 in French. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News. He lives in New York.