By Farhang Jahanpour
Since achieving their independence from Western colonialism, most Arab countries have never experienced events such as they have seen during the past few years. The demonstrators in Tunisia got rid of their autocratic ruler in a remarkably short time.
And the events in Egypt starting exactly five years ago today (25 January, 2015) spelled the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The fire of revolutions and uprisings spread to other Arab countries, and are still continuing.
Although those revolutions have not yet led to any lasting democracy or improvements in the lives of their citizens, nevertheless, what has happened during the past five years cannot be reversed, no matter how hard the autocratic rulers try to set the clock back.
For better or worse, the Arab world is undergoing profound changes, which will affect both the lives of Arab citizens and the relations between those countries and the rest of the world for a long time to come.
Let us remember that the Prague Spring began on 5 January 1968, but it took more than another two decades for East European countries to achieve their independence and a greater degree of democracy. The Prague Spring was short-lived, as was the Arab Spring, but the spark that it ignited never died.
The spark of the revolution in Tunisia was an altercation on 17 December 2010 between a young fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi and a policewoman called Faida Hamdy. Soon, demonstrations erupted in a number of cities and in less than a month, on 14 January 2011, they had succeeded in toppling President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, one of the most autocratic rulers in North Africa, after 23 years in office.
Massive demonstrations in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo marked the start of the revolution in Egypt and in less than three weeks’ time Hosni Mubarak who had ruled Egypt for 30 years with Western backing had been toppled.
The true message of Arab revolutions is that the long-suffering Arab people were at last fed up with their unelected, dictatorial and corrupt rulers, and had decided to do something about it.
The most famous lines of a Tunisian poem, “when the people decide to live, destiny will obey and chains will be broken”, became the anthem of young protestors in Tunisia and Egypt. That sentiment was echoed in the chant of the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir Square: “The Egyptian nation has decided to topple the regime.” The term that was used most often by the demonstrators was karama, or dignity. They wished to regain their dignity as free and independent individuals and not as oppressed masses.
It is interesting to note that on 25 January 1952, the Egyptian police in Ismailia fought against the British forces by refusing British demands to evacuate the Suez Canal Zone. That event marked the beginning of the Young Officers’ Uprising. That day was traditionally celebrated in Egypt as the “Police Day”.
Fifty-nine years later, 25 January became engraved in the memory of the Egyptian nation as the “Day of Rage”, when tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding political and economic rights, and thousands of policemen were dispatched by the regime to disperse the protesters and keep the situation under control.
Although the demonstrations were declared in advance, the authorities were caught by surprise. Believing that 1,000 protesters at most would take to the streets, according to security officials 100,000 demonstrators took part in the demonstrations. That number was surpassed by a surge of masses not only in Cairo, but also in Alexandria, Suez and many other cities.
A notice by the 6 April Movement on Facebook urged the Egyptians “to continue what we started on 25 January. We will take to the streets to demand the right to life, liberty and dignity and we call on everyone to take to the streets… and to keep going until the demands of the Egyptian people have been met.” (1)
Those demonstrations were followed by the “million-man” protests demanding that President Hosni Mubarak should leave office. By some accounts, more than 300 people were killed in the disturbances, over 1,000 were wounded and an untold number were arrested.
Yet all that brutality did not prevent the crowds from returning in larger numbers and renewing their call for the end of the Mubarak regime.
US reaction to the Egyptian revolution was a carbon copy of their failed policies at the time of the Iranian revolution 32 years earlier in the month of February 1979. At first, US officials called on the Shah to resort to massive force to crush the protests, something that to his credit he refused to do although there was some violence.
Once millions of people poured into the streets, it became clear that repression was not the answer. Following the failure of the use of force, the Shah was advised to initiate some reforms and promise greater change and democratization in the future.
In a famous broadcast to the nation, the Shah said that he had heard the nation’s message and was determined to change his ways, but even that broadcast did not stem the tide of the revolution. So, the Americans tried to rely on the armed forces.
Prior to the Shah’s departure, without informing him, the Pentagon sent General Robert Huyser, the deputy commander of NATO, to Iran to arrange for the Shah’s removal from power while keeping the armed forces intact. In his memoirs, the Shah has written that the first time that Huyser went to see him, his only question was: “When are you going to leave the country?”
Lt. General Abbas Qarabaghi, the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Shah, has written a valuable book about what really happened. General Huyser who had close relations with Iran’s top generals, most of whom had studied in the United States, summoned them to a meeting.
Qarabaghi writes that in that meeting Huyser told the assembled generals that the Shah’s time was up and that they had to stop supporting him.
Instead, they had to keep the army intact so that if needs be they could carry out a coup against the regime that would come to power, if things went wrong. (2)
There were a number of wrong assumptions in that advice. First of all, it infuriated some of the generals who stayed loyal to the Shah right to the end. General Rabi’i, the head of the Shah’s Air Force, during his trial prior to his execution, accused Huyser of taking the Shah by the tail like a rat and throwing him out of the country, thus being partly responsible for the success of the revolution.
The second mistake was that it ignored the fact that just winning the support of the top generals would not necessarily mean winning the support of the rank and file of the armed forces who were drilled to be loyal to their king and country.
The third false assumption was that even if the generals and officers had issued orders to the soldiers to open fire on their fellow-citizens conscript soldiers would have been ready to kill their own kith and kin on the basis of orders issued by their superiors, especially when their commander-in-chief had been forced to flee.
The fourth misjudgment was that it ignored the fact that with the euphoria of the revolution and the victory of the revolutionaries there would be no chain of command for the generals to issue orders and for the soldiers to obey those orders.
The fifth and perhaps the most serious mistake was that it is not possible to resist genuine revolutions by force and to put down a determined nation with bullets and guns. On the contrary, revolutions thrive on conflict and military confrontations strengthen them.
It seems that after first supporting Mubarak and then deciding that he could not remain in power, the Americans decided to keep the army intact to stage a coup at the right time. This scenario has superficially worked better in the case of Egypt than it did in the case of the Shah, but many people believe that its success is temporary and when the fury of the masses returns, it will be more ugly than was the case with the Iranian revolution.
At the beginning of the Egyptian demonstrations, the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly stated that she had no doubt in the stability of the Egyptian government. Then she and President Obama called for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power from President Mubarak to a new government at the end of his term. Then they urged him to start the process immediately. Finally, they openly called on him to relinquish power as soon as possible. Meanwhile, they put their faith in a military junta.
Already, some voices have been raised in the United States accusing President Obama of having lost Egypt, in the same way that President Jimmy Carter allegedly lost Iran. However, the person who should be really held responsible for all that is happening in most of the Middle East is not President Obama, but President George W. Bush with his illegal wars, destruction of various Islamic countries, and his blind support for the most extreme Israeli policies and the suppression and humiliation of the Arabs. Huge demonstrations rocked the Arab world shortly before and after the invasion of Iraq.
What we see now is the culmination of those feelings of anger and frustration that have been unleashed in those anti-regime, anti-American and anti-Israeli uprisings.
One major problem with nearly all Arab uprisings has been that the people knew what they did not want, but had not given much thought to what they wanted.
The aim of most revolutionaries was simply to topple their rulers, but they had not planned a proper transition. As a result, instead of a progression towards democracy and the rule of law, the vacuum led to chaos, creating fertile ground for the extremists and the terrorists.
The key to the success of these revolutions would be if saner heads can prevail, if terrorism and anarchy can be brought under control, and true governments of national unity, with the participation of all political parties and ethnic and religious groups can be formed paving the way for fair and free elections.
The second key to the success of these revolutions is to prevent them from being hijacked by Islamist groups, and if they can create truly secular, democratic and free societies with equal rights for all the citizens, and ensuring gender equality. Now that people have seen the ugly outcome of religious extremism and sectarianism they are in a better position to chart a different way and move towards pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law.
The immediate prospects are grim and the road ahead will be difficult and uphill, but it would be unwise to lose hope in the eventual success of these revolutions.
We need to have a historical perspective to realise that all great movements in history have taken a long time to evolve, mature and come to fruition.
Let us remember the words of a popular Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim al-Shabi in his poem “To the Tyrants of the World”, which teaches a lesson not only to the present regimes and their Western backers, but also to any violent and radical government that might emerge out of the chaos:
“Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you …
Because the darkness, the thunder’s rumble and the blowing of the wind
are coming toward you from the horizon
Beware, because there is a fire underneath the ash” (3)
One may also recall the words of a short poem by Emily Dickinson, who teaches us that words cannot be destroyed by guns and have a way of continuing their life:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
1- See “Time for Action”, al-Ahram, 27 January-2 February 2011
2- See Mohammad Reza Afkhami, The Life and Times of the Shah (University of California Press, 2009), pp. 500-504.
3- Quoted in Lamis Adoni, “To the Tyrants of the Arab World…”, Aljazeera, 16 January 2011.