Citizens International

Resentment, anger and violence

By Prof George Joffé 


The outcome of the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’, as many inside the region prefer to call it, has been very different from the original expectations of those who had been involved in the massive popular demonstrations that started it off. Rather than radical or even revolutionary democratic change, to enshrine the demands for ‘bread, freedom and dignity’ in constitutional principle, the result has been violence, chaos and, in some cases, a renewal of autocracy or civil war. Only in Tunisia and, perhaps, in Morocco, have the hopes for democratic transition been fulfilled and then only in part. Tunisia’s experiment is threatened by violent extremism and, in Morocco, the royal palace has managed to preserve its dominant position inside the political scene despite constitutional change. It is a record that, inevitably, demands an answer to the question, “But what went wrong?”

Revolution and post-revolution

There is no doubt that the events of late 2010 and early 2011 that constituted the Arab Awakening were a radical departure from the superficial impression of artificial calm that had characterised the decade that preceded them. However, in the sense usually attributed to the term ‘revolution’ – “the complete overthrow of an established government or social order,” according to the dictionary – they were not revolutionary. Nor did the experience simply begin in December 2010 for, in reality, the demand for an end to autocracy and for popular participation in government had often been made before in the Middle East and North Africa. Nor, indeed, were all the demonstrations stimulated by common causes even if they did occur virtually simultaneously, nor did they provoke common responses from the regimes involved nor, finally, did they have common outcomes. The one common feature, perhaps, was the ambivalence with which they were greeted by Western states that might, from their endless discourse about human rights and freedoms, have been expected to have been enthusiastic supporters of the demonstrators’ essential demands.

If any state can claim to have been in the vanguard of demands for political change, it is Algeria, where the Amazigh population demanded cultural diversity in the ‘Berber Spring’ in April 1980 and the Algerian population-at-large demanded radical political change in October 1988. And the Algerian experience thereafter can give us some insight into what actually happened on a much wider scale in the Arab World some twenty years later and what the eventual outcomes might be. After the government responded to the 1988 riots by introducing multiparty democracy overnight, a moderate Islamist movement won, first, municipal elections and then legislative elections. European states looked on aghast at the arrival of Islam to political power by democratic means and, when the Algerian army command, backed by the security services, carried out a coup against the movement, banned it and took over the government instead, they hardly protested at all!

Within a year, Algeria was in the throes of a five-year-long civil war pitting the security forces against violent extremists seeking to create an Islamic state that cost at least 150,000 deaths. It was only once the army had prevailed and a new president had been installed that peace gradually returned but even today ‘residual terrorism’ continues, linked into the uncontrolled violence around the country’s borders, particularly in Mali and Libya. Algerians themselves today are ruled by an authoritarian state, ordered by elections which seem to lack popular sanction or support but without too much threat to their personal liberties, a system they mockingly designate as ‘façade democracy’.

Lessons from the past

The Algerian experience seems to me to be uncomfortably close to the evolution of events throughout the Middle East and much of North Africa more recently. If that is true, then we can derive certain basic conclusions that might have relevance to the situation today, despite the very real differences that exist between the situation then and the one in which we find ourselves today. This could be important as, from the vantage-point of 2015, we survey the wreckage of what had promised to be, only four years ago, a heartening experiment in social and political reconstruction, carried out by the populations of the region themselves, not by foreign or autocratic diktat, whether benign or malign.

First of all, as was the case in 2010-2011, the immediate cause of the 1988 crisis was economic. In 2010 it was a combination of the financial and economic crisis in the developed world which began in 2008, together with the sudden explosion of food and energy crises in 2010. In 1988 it was the introduction of rigid import controls by the Algerian government two years earlier when oil-and-gas prices collapsed. Both examples, therefore, tell us something about the dangers inherent in globalisation for developing economies and about failing economic development models that, in the last analysis, victimise the poorest and most vulnerable. The essential problem with both phenomena is that they undermine the economic potential for job-creation, yet it is jobs that developing economies with expanding populations most need.

Secondly, although it was not directly involved in the riots that initiated change in Algeria, a moderate Islamist movement, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), was the main beneficiary of the elections that followed. It does not seem to me that this was because Algerians were or had become more religious during the period of one-party rule and autocracy that had preceded them. Rather, it was that the FIS offered a more culturally authentic socio-political model that accorded with the moral and political norms that Algerians associated with what they considered to be the ideal society that their struggle against French colonialism had been intended to recreate. That also seems to have been the case, in 2011, in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, although not, interestingly enough, in Libya or Syria. In the latter two cases, the absolute autocracies in power reacted immediately with brute force, stifling any political development in the bud. Indeed, it was only in states with autonomous civil society institutions, even if in theory under careful state control, that alternative social movements – of which moderate Islamists were but one example – could emerge to contest the absolutist discourse of the state.

Thirdly, it was the violent reaction of state itself to such changes – the army-organised coup in 1991-2 in Algeria or the army’s intervention in July 2013 in Egypt or, indeed the immediate reactions of Qadhafi regime in Libya or the Assad regime in Syria – that generated extremist violence in return. In three cases – Syria, Libya and Algeria – that resulted in civil war, whilst in the fourth, Egypt, the response has been a recrudescence of urban and rural terrorism. In other words, there was no seamless transition from ‘moderate’ to ‘extremist’ Islam as is often posited; the two phenomena were quite separate and had different causes, the one as a social movement contesting the state, the other as a violent opposition, provoked by the state’s reaction to opposition, seeking its overthrow. In the Algerian case, the state eventually supervened over its extremist opposition. We do not yet know what the outcomes in Libya and Syria will be, although the failure of the state in both cases could open up frightening prospects of chaotic futures of virtually endless violence, as occurred in the Lebanese civil war.

There are, perhaps, two other lessons to be drawn from the Algerian experience and the events of 2011. Firstly, democratic transition is a difficult and lengthy process and that cultural authenticity and moral authority are not, in themselves, guarantors of success. Thus, an-Nahda in Tunisia was able, eventually, to operate effectively within a nascent democratic environment because its leadership had spent two decades in exile observing how democratic systems, despite their imperfections, actually worked. It understood the compromises that formal empowerment by an electorate still required, both in its own understanding of the political process and in its relations with coalition partners and even its political opposition. Those were lessons that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt either ignored or of which it was unaware, and it was this that stimulated the Tamarrud movement which the Egyptian army command adroitly exploited to remove it from power.

And the FIS in Algeria, in 1991, had made a similar mistake by threatening to transform the Algerian constitution into one for an Islamic state, thereby encouraging the army command into taking over the reins of power. In effect, the democratic option requires accommodation of opposing points of view; electoral success does not, as Friedrich Hayek, warned, empower an electoral dictatorship for a specific period of time, as the Brotherhood seems to have thought. Political parties, in short, have to acquire the skill of engagement with their political opponents in a process of constant formal and informal bargaining as they articulate formal power. There is an implication in this; that political action of this kind amplifies the political engagement of the parties concerned, often to the detriment of their assumed moral status, as they implicitly accept that political sovereignty is a popular, not a divine, attribute. It is a lesson that the Christian Democratic movement in Europe also had had to learn at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ambivalent allies

The second lesson, and one that already seems to have been appreciated inside the region, is that outside powers are unreliable partners, both for regimes and for their opponents. One of the overwhelming impressions that outside observers have taken from the chaos and violence that has spread through so much of the Middle East and North Africa over the past four years has been the intense and often inchoate anger that people there feel over the behaviour of Europe and the United States. It is not just a question of the calamitous invasion of Iraq, there is also the question of regime-change in Libya and, behind that, a deep sense of resentment over Western behaviour from the beginning of the colonial period onwards. It is a sense of anger and resentment that is well-justified for, quite apart from mistakes made inside the region over the outcome of the Arab Awakening, there can be little doubt that Western interference over a very long period of time has done nothing to improve the situation there.

The crisis in Iraq, for example, is directly attributable to the incompetence and arrogance that accompanied the American-led invasion of the country in 2003. Furthermore, the situation that that initiative was designed to resolve was itself a consequence of British attempts after the First World War to construct the new Iraqi state in an image that satisfied the colonial authorities in London rather than the future population of Iraq. Libya, too, was the result of a similar set of experiences. Of course, the external factor was not the only cause and many other factors inside the region also played their part. But British, French and American intervention and interference in the region have been critical contributions to the problems it now faces. The problem, however, has been intensified by the human rights and democratisation discourse that those self-same powers have articulated in recent decades. It is not that the discourse itself is offensive, far from it, but Western action usually belies its discourse. Thus, as Condoleeza Rice, the former American Secretary-of-State, admitted in June 2005 and as President Obama repeated in June 2009, also in Cairo, the United States had supported stability inside the region for sixty years but it was now going to support democracy instead. Except, of course, it did not, any more than the European Union has done!

We, in the West, therefore, should hardly be surprised when we are accused by the Arab world of applying double standards there because that is precisely what we have done, with often tragic and violent consequences inside it. My impression is that this resentment is at least as important as perverted religious conviction in informing the violent extremism of, say, the Islamic State which owes a significant part of its deadly effectiveness as a military organisation to its alliance with the Naqshbandi Order in Iraq which, in turn, is really a cover for the angry remnants of the old Ba’ath Party and its army, determined upon revenge. A similar pattern of events can also be discerned in Libya, the Sahara and the Sahel. Equally appalling has been the minimal engagement of Western states in the outcomes of the Arab Awakening, to which their rhetoric had also contributed. Indeed, the restoration of autocracy in Egypt has been quietly greeted with gasps of relief in Western chanceries. And, of course, that in turn, as was the case in Algeria in the 1990s, was a reminder that the Arab Awakening rarely rooted out the deep state behind the autocratic regimes that had been in power throughout the region.

What, then, does the future hold and what does the Algerian experience suggest it may be? Firstly, transitional processes take a long time to be completed and may well follow unpredictable paths, so we should not be too hasty in writing the Arab Wakening off as a failure despite its apparent success in Tunisia and partial success in Morocco. Secondly, there are skills to participatory pluralism that can only be acquired through the practice of governance and participants need to appreciate the difficulties and pitfalls that can occur in acquiring them. Thirdly, the state, even in the Arab world where it has largely been a colonial and post-colonial construct, is more robust than is often assumed to be the case – that, at least, was the Algerian experience. On the other hand, the opposition it may confront, rooted as it is in a potent combination of moral perfectionism together with anger and resentment directed both at the state itself and at its supposed supporters outside the Arab region, is a powerful threat which, even if marginalised, will prove to be extremely difficult to eradicate. And, finally, the United States and Europe need to recognise their own not insignificant responsibilities in the crisis that the Arab world faces, but that may not happen until we reach the Greek Kalends!

Prof George Joffé