Middle-East: It didn’t rain on its own

The Arab Spring that saw regime changes in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and unending violence in Syria was choreographed elsewhere

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

In early 2008, I was in Cairo a few days after the food riots broke out in Mahalla-el-Kubra, the textile city
of Egypt.

Cairo is a noisy and disorderly city, where chaos stands out as defiance against the authoritarian leaders who have ruled Egypt for many years. The streets were crawling with edgy security personnel in black dungarees and carrying Kalashnikovs. Hotels, too, were on heightened alert. Fierce dogs sniffed hotel guests before they could enter the lobby.

We were told law and order had collapsed in the last few days and tourists were discouraged to go to the pyramids of Giza unless their vehicles were escorted by armoured carriers. Egypt’s government under President Hosni Mubarak was losing credibility, but was conscious of history. He did not want a repetition of 1952 when the government of the day was ousted during food riots.

Despite the turmoil and the raging protests that were also known as “IMF riots” in different parts of Egypt, no one really thought they were enough to bring down the government. In some ways, these riots showed the erosion of the control communities exercised on the economy and especially over the food market. When governments are compelled to adopt IMF policies and slash subsidies and make food expensive, people get angry everywhere.

As I wrote in Hardnews in April 2008, the government machinery went into overdrive and doubled the wages of the striking textile workers. Cleverly, they tried to show the incident as an aberration rather than a manifestation of a deeply infected body politic. In a matter of a few days, the happenings in Mahalla were dismissed as the typical “food riots” that hit parts of Egypt in the early part of the year. [See more at: http://bit.ly/1H8pFba]

What was visible in Cairo then was the collapse of the moral economy, which had nothing to do with the one praised by multilateral bodies like the IMF and World Bank. Ordinary people experienced what Amartya Sen would describe as a “failure of entitlement” and they stepped out to demand their rights.

The Middle East-North Africa area was the fastest growing region of the world at the time. Despite being hit by the global slowdown in 2008, it still managed to grow at a steady pace of 3 percent. The oil-producing countries suffered more. Even the IMF and World Bank did not think that the political instability caused by the slowdown would bring down the Mubarak government.

The question is, What really did? Was it just food riots, poor quality of governance, or more? Before we come to a definite answer, there is another question. Why didn’t Egypt end up like Libya or Syria—ravaged by Islamist jihadis and militants after Mubarak was finally ousted in 2010?

We will look for answers to the Egypt riddle in the occurrences in Syria.

On March 15, 2011, the people of De’raa in Syria, considered the wheat bowl of the country, seemed to have been infected by the contagion of the Arab Spring. They took to the streets to protest against the Assad regime, which had been in power for the last 34 years. It was a peaceful demonstration but handled very badly by the Syrian security apparatus. Syria did not have a paramilitary force like our CRPF or Rapid Action Force to tame riots. They had the army and shadowy outfits that hammered the opposition into subjugation. The protests spread to different parts of Syria and were in the process of dying down when the peaceful demonstrations turned violent.

I visited Syria a few months after the De’raa uprising as part of a media delegation. Damascus looked normal, despite reports to the contrary that were routinely aired on the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera. Nightlife in old Damascus was noisy and surreal. The historic Umayyad Mosque was full of people. Even the famous storytellers of Damascus got eager listeners in the cafes behind the great mosque.

However, the hotels had emptied out. Only Shia pilgrims from across Iran were still to be found heading to the mausoleum of Zainab. In an endeavour to woo the West, President Basher al Assad had followed policies prescribed by the multilateral bodies. This involved creating an infrastructure of tourism that seemed to encourage people to leave rural areas.

This proved counterproductive. Not only was agriculture discouraged, there was a greater attempt to withdraw the State from business and create a facilitating environment for the private sector. Due to this, areas primarily dependent on agriculture were bankrupted and there was considerable rural to urban migration—leading to what is called the “youth bulge”. Much of this new labour force was absorbed in the tourism sector that has now gone bust.

The policies followed by his feared father, Hafez-al-Assad, to promote small irrigation projects and build agriculture and hence food self-sufficiency were abandoned. The earlier regime also kept the young away from the cities.

“We are extremely poor in the rural areas, but this government has done nothing for the rural poor. Only the cronies and corrupt have prospered,” said an angry government employee, whose low salary did not allow him to make ends meet. Corruption is so rampant in the regime that the city is abuzz with apocryphal stories of the riches of some of the top leaders. An aide of a senior minister drew close to this correspondent and said that his boss was very corrupt, and there was no way he could do anything. “I am praying that he goes soon,” he said. [See more at: http://bit.ly/1FVqKI9]

At the same time, years of famine, which some attributed to climate change, had hurt food stocks severely. The De’raa demonstrations were linked to extreme farm distress and also contributed to growing anger towards the Assad regime. Here again, no one was really convinced that the disenchantment was enough to overthrow a President whose charm had become part of Damascus’s carefully cultivated folklore.

However, a new narrative had begun to take root: All the top jobs were held by the minority Alawite community, and the majority Sunnis had been sidelined. In the two trips that I made in rapid succession, it was apparent how violence unleashed against the State was making the young more outspoken. Syria had Baathist secular ideology that began to flounder when people started believing the allegations that his government was partial to a particular sect.

Our visit to the windy city of Homs, some distance from Damascus, was illuminating. The authorities tried to discourage us from visiting this city, famous for its jokes, but they finally relented. Homs was in curfew. We drove to the hospital to find out who was fighting against whom.

The hospital was in a state of frenzy. There was blood everywhere with many men, women and children with bullet wounds. There were many armymen, including a general, who had been hit. We were told that outsiders armed with sniper rifles had been shooting wildly. For quite a while in Homs, it was not known who was killing whom. Residents complained of mysterious snipers targetting ordinary citizens and even securitymen. At that time, there was little clarity about their identity. Even the Western and Arab media, which had been lending both content and direction to the anti-Assad discourse, did not know who was fighting whom. It was only later that flesh was added to the fiction of ‘Free Syrian Army’. [See more at: http://bit.ly/1bFzZzv]

These snipers, the authorities told us, had weapons and skills that the Syrian army did not have. They were shooting randomly to erode the authority of the State administration. Who were they? If the allegations of the Syrian authorities are to be trusted, they were mercenaries inserted by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to overthrow Assad. Lakhdar Brahimi, former Special UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, claimed that terrorists from 38 countries were fighting in that country. Similarly, Debkafile, an Israeli intelligence website, claimed in a highly quoted report on June 26, 2012, that British Special Forces had been fighting alongside Syrian rebels in Homs then. Similar allegations were heard against Special Forces of other Western countries and their Arab allies.

The purpose of giving this example of external players violently disturbing the status quo was to show that, despite the objective conditions encouraging a rebellion or a revolt, people don’t really have the might to take on the State. In Bahrain, for instance, when the majority Shia community protested against the discriminatory attitude of the royalty towards them, their demonstrations were brutally crushed. The Saudis sent in their troops to save the royalty in Manama. The Pakistani army’s help was also sought. As the US and UK are allies of the Saudis, the Western media, too, did not get hysterical over the brutalities heaped on angry protestors in Manama. The help to Bahrain was seen as an operation to protect the West’s strategic asset. In other countries, a different policy was followed.

Tunisia is perhaps the only example where the Arab Spring ushered in multiparty democracy.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi would have survived if the Western and Arab forces had not used force under UN protection to overthrow him. French philosopher Bernard Levy lobbied for Western intervention in Libya on specious grounds of providing freedom to its people. Unlike Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen—all the countries that came under the sway of the Arab Spring—Libya had a robust economy due to proceeds from oil. The quality of governance in terms of delivery of services was also of a high order. The only thing that was missing was dissent, but the manner in which Libyan society had been destroyed after the Arab and Western invasion, it was a small price to pay for peace and stability, that many people want. Libya after invasion has been reduced to a playground of warlords where there is no government. Unlike in Iraq or Syria, there was no resort to Shia-Sunni sectarian narrative—as it did not exist.

Worse, now the world is not even paying attention to Libya, apart from marking the latest massacre committed by the Islamic State.

Even in Syria, despite five years of extreme violence and brutality exhibited by both the government forces and the rebels, President Assad and his army still have control over many parts. The Islamic State and Al-Nusra Brigade have largely grown due to the collapse of the State, and the old Baath party structures that have come under the attack of the sectarian narrative, backed by the Saudis and Qataris. 

The purpose of sharing some of my reporting from Cairo and Damascus was to show that while poor quality of governance and a falling economy contributed to political instability, it did not lead to the fall of regime until outside forces intervened. In the Arab world, these interventions were mostly made by Saudi Arabia backed by the US. In Syria, where a secular Baath party has been in power for 34 years, Islamic radicalisation became more pronounced when the State became weaker. In Damascus, when I went the first time the women were wearing Western clothes. A few months later, when the Islamic radicals were closer to the gates of the capital, more women were attired in long abayas. Similarly, men, too, had grown their beards.

What are the lessons that India can learn from how some of these socialist societies of Iraq, Syria and Libya
have collapsed?

Firstly, the government should not allow the grievances of large minorities to go unattended, because that encourages alienation from the State and radicalisation. Second, the security agencies have to build their competence, both in terms of intelligence gathering as well as counter-terrorism, so they can take on battle-hardened mercenaries. As these foreign conflicts have shown, these highly indoctrinated militants can be introduced anywhere, leading to violent standoffs with armed forces.

The other lesson that the Indian defence forces have to understand is how to counter the new methods of urban warfare where suicide bombers are followed by snipers to take out road blocks as well as quick reaction teams (QRTs) of professional armies. The military success achieved by the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and towns and cities in Syria are credited to these strategies. In Afghanistan, too, Islamic militants are adopting these methods to fight the Afghanistan National Army.

Indian armed forces should develop tactics to counter them. More importantly, though, they should work to ensure that countries inimical to India’s interests do not provide these violent groups with intelligence, logistical and diplomatic support.   

(This article is based on a talk delivered at the Centre for Land and Air Warfare Studies)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2015