|The Egyptian military’s crackdown on protesters shows cracks in the resolve of the Egyptian protest movement’s commitment to nonviolence [EPA]|
One of Egypt’s most insightful journalists, Hossam el-Hamalawy, posted this message from a friend a couple of hours after the Egyptian military attacked thousands of people in Tahrir Square during a pre-dawn raid on April 9:
My name is Sara Hussein Abdel Ghany, my brother, Asser Hussein Abdel Ghany, 22 years old, was arrested on the 9th of April, 2011, by the military police. Asser was among peaceful demonstrators who participated in a sit-in Tahrir Square calling the army to answer the demands of the Revolution of the 25th of January. The peaceful protesters, however, were brutally attacked by the police even though they kept shouting “selmya” –non-violent demonstration. Asser and another 41 protesters were arrested and brought to the military prosecution in the 10th District – Nasr City, charged with violating curfew. All the 42 peaceful demonstrators will be facing a military trail on the 11th of April, 2011.
As you read this, the fate of the protesters is likely being decided – if the recent past is any guide, perhaps in a makeshift “court” that normally serves as a mess hall for soldiers.
Welcome to the new Egypt; same as the old Egypt? Has the revolution become merely a transition between dynastic orders, with a collective Pharaoate replacing the recently deposed pharaoh like some postmodern redux of the Third Intermediate Period, the interregnum between the New Kingdom and Late Dynastic periods of Ancient Egypt?
Increasingly, that’s how the protest movement sees it. One of the chants heard before the army stormed Tahrir at around 3 a.m. was “Tantawi is Mubarak and Mubarak is Tantawi”, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body which is currently ruling the country. A friend in Tahrir with whom I was Facebook chatting throughout the night didn’t mince words: “It seems that the second 18-day revolution has begun. The power of hate that we had out there for the past few weeks and been confused about where to point it… has now laid on a target, the army.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the vast majority of Egyptians, who didn’t participate in the first revolution, are going to turn out for the second – especially if the establishment can convince them that change is coming, albeit slowly.
What is striking in the ongoing protests at Tahrir Square is precisely how they have kept them semi-peaceful, despite violence on the part of the army that was always greater than has generally been acknowledged. Most of the activists I know are determined to keep it this way, despite Egypt’s “Pearl” moment yesterday with the Egyptian military adopting the tactics of its Bahraini counterparts by violently attacking peaceful protesters in the middle of the night to disperse them.
Yet cracks are appearing. As one protester told Al Jazeera after an announcement by the army that it would use “firmness and force” to empty Tahrir and return the roundabout “to normal”: “If they use force we will use force. This isn’t Libya, where the army can just attack us.”
Is Libya the future?
Libya has until now served as the polar opposite of the Egyptian and Tunisian experienceits long-serving strongman has refused to leave, and his deployment of large-scale deadly violence provoked protesters to armed revolt. But Libya did not begin as an armed insurrection. Protests began as a response to the arrest in Benghazi of Fathi Teribl, a well-known human rights activist in Benghazi.
There was violence against regime institutions, with protesters setting fire to police stations and cars, much as Egyptians burned down the headquarters of the National Democratic Party in the revolt’s early days. But the level of anger and riot-like violence that erupted so quickly in Libya was not likely the cause of the overall turn to armed revolt.
In Tunisia and Egypt the ruling systems were bigger than the rulers themselves. Their survival and interests were not completely tied to the leaders who became the symbols against which the people’s anger was directed. And so, at a certain point, Ben Ali and Mubarak could be sacrificed in order to preserve the system, or more precisely the power and wealth of elites whom it was constructed to benefit. Publicly this was seen as a triumph of democratic protest, but particularly in Egypt, the reality of the system’s continuity becomes clearer each day.
Yet in Libya the system has long centred around Gaddafi and his family. There is no larger political order that could successfully push him out to preserve itself, as occurred in its neighbours to the east and west. Even more than the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe, Gaddafi is the Libyan state, a set of institutions which he’s done little to develop in his four decades in power despiteindeed, because of the enormous wealth generated by the country’s oil revenues. As one former OPEC official put it in a BBC interview, Gaddafi is the personal embodiment of the “petroleum curse” that has long plagued the Arab world.
Lack of civil society
Moreover, in Libya there was no well-developed infrastructure of civil society that could maintain a level of discipline and unity of strategy from the start of the revolt. In Egypt and Tunisia, civil society institutions that developed over decades – despite often-harsh control measures by the old regimes – created the political and intellectual infrastructure for large scale protests that ensured a remarkable degree of discipline and unity when it came to “keeping it peaceful”.
Especially in Egypt, the main activists running the streets, a seemingly motley crew of young activists –secular and religious, bourgeois and socialist-oriented – had spent years building personal relationships that served them well once the mass protests erupted. Although activists have done a remarkable job in building them quickly in Libya, the situation at the start of the revolt was, as Fathi Terbil explained in an interview on al-Arabiya, “as if we had just been born today. We were a group of rebels who barely knew one another.”
At the same time, the Libyan ruling system does not seem to have been able to imagine a post-Gaddafi scenario in which it retained significant power. And so, when Terbil told his interrogators that “we can’t stop [the protests]. We can make it peaceful,” their response was “we cannot allow protests like that to take place. Blood will be shed.”
Investigators from the International Criminal Court have since said that they have evidence that Gaddafi planned to use large scale deadly force to crush protesters even before the protests erupted. Within a few days of its outbreak, his forces – buttressed by newly-arrived foreign mercenaries – deployed large calibre machine guns and even helicopter-borne snipers against unarmed civilians, including children, killing dozens.
Passion versus discipline
One of the defining aspects of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests –it now seems rash to call Egypt a revolution yet was the determination of the protesters to keep the protests “peaceful,” and their success at doing so despite significant state violence.
If in Tunis the revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, in Libya perhaps the most important act of self-martyrdom was that of a middle-aged oil company employee, Mahdi Ziu, who loaded his car with propane tanks and rammed it into the main gate of the well-defended military base in Benghazi, creating an explosion that blew a large enough hole in the gates for demonstrators to storm and take it over.
Terbil explained to Christian Science Monitor reporter Dan Murphy that the rag-tag rebel forces confronting Gaddafi “aren’t organised military units… We’re trying to bring structure to something that’s just been organised on passion so far.”
Revolts and revolutions are as a rule fuelled by passion. But to succeed, especially when based on non-violent methods, they need incredible discipline and training, as well as the good fortune to have historical, political, strategic and structural factors in their favour that have not been present in Libya (or, for that matter, Bahrain, where the state and the rulers similarly overlap).
Can violence defeat violence?
Several commentators and analysts, such as Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman, Chicago Tribune‘s Steve Chapman, and Paul Miller of the National Defense University, have criticised president Obama’s warning of imminent mass slaughter by Gaddafi’s forces (for example, Obama adviser Dennis Ross claimed 100,000 people faced imminent death if Gaddafi conquered Benghazi). They argue that however brutal the violence deployed by the government, the kinds of large-scale civilian killings seen in the Balkan civil wars or Rwanda have not occurred in Libya, nor have they been in the offing.
Other conflicts, from Kosovo to Darfur, are held up as examples of how engaging in violent rebellion was believed by rebel leaders to be the key to encouraging Western military intervention; in doing so, they were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths that would not have otherwise occurred.
It will likely take the end of the conflict before a proper assessment of the actual and potential civilian death tolls can be assessed, although it is inarguable that Gaddafi’s forces have engaged in significant war crimes and crimes against humanity, including killing thousands of Libyan citizens. But this fact does not mean that large-scale violence, whether on the part of protesters-turned-rebels or the West that has intervened ostensibly to protect civilians, will reduce the number of Libyan civilians killed in the conflict.
As University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes has crucially pointed out, the most successful phase of the Libyan uprising was the massive nonviolent resistance that liberated a number of key Libyan cities back in February, after which popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments. It was then that important aides and ambassadors resigned, while soldiers defected or refused to attack protesters.
In particular, Zunes argues that it was only after the rebellion became more violent that its “progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya.”
One could, however, reverse the direction of cause and effect, and argue that it was use of large-scale violence against protesters in response to these early successes that forced them to take up arms to defend themselves.
It’s hard to know which direction is more accurate, and it’s now impossible to say how the protests would have played out had violence not become the primary means of conflict on both sides. But Zunes’ most important point is precisely that thequite understandable lack of strategic planning and coordination by the protest movement made it harder for them to sustain a disciplined non-violent strategy against the level of violence Gaddafi declared he was going to deploy from the start of the uprising.
At the same time, Western military intervention has not won the day for the rebels, not merely because of confused of war aims, but also because – in order to stop Gaddafi through violence – NATO would have to use a level of force that would assuredly end up killing many civilians, thereby seriously harming the justification of the attacks: to prevent large-scale civilian deaths.
Finally, using force to aid a violent uprising while supporting the violent repression of non-violent protests in other countries (most notably Bahrain and other Arabian Peninsula states) sends three very negative messages to protesters around the Arab world: First, that the West only supports democracy when it serves its military interests. Second, violent revolt is more likely to get massive Western support than mass civil protests. Third, there is little incentive to engage in the hard work of developing a broad and coherent strategy of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation-strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-compliance with the government thatwhile far less spectacular in terms of TV or YouTube imagery in the long term are crucial to fatally weakening authoritarian regimes.
Preventing the next civil war
We can only hope that a peaceful way is found to resolve the Libyan civil war, one that produces a democratic outcome with the least amount of violence in the interim. But the ongoing stand-off in Libya, coupled with backwards movement in Egypt, successful Western-supported crackdown in Bahrain, and continued regime violence in countries like Syria and Yemen, cry out for a coherent and well-defined set of responses by the US and Europe towards the Arab revolts in order to prevent more of them from descending into violence and chaos.
The problem is, of course, that the West clearly has little interest in fostering real democratic development across the Arab world (the glaring silence in the face of army violence in Egypt is the most striking confirmation of this fact). And why should it, when for several generations war and authoritarian rule have been at the centre of the region’s political economy, ensuring steady oil supplies, military alliances, massive arms purchases and cooperative regimes – with adversaries as much as clients each playing their assigned roles.
This system has not only generated trillions of dollars in profits for corporations but created a geostrategic environment that has, remarkably, become more stable as a source of profiteering and military activity the more unstable it has become.
The power, and because of that, the danger, of the Arab pro-democracy revolts of the last four months lies precisely in the threat they have posed, not just to local rulers, but to the entire international system in which they are thoroughly enmeshed. It is clear that neither the Western alliance or powers like Russia and China have any real interest in upsetting this system. But the countries of the developing world, or rather their peoples, do. Led by emerging and recently democratised powers like Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, this emerging “non-aligned” bloc, whose economic and political fortunes are not tied to the existing military-petroleum complexes of the West, could join with emerging democracies in Africa and Latin America to demand a refounding of the international system along much more equitable lines.
Such a move would have to start with demanding the UN Security Council end the veto power of the five permanent members and a reformulation of the global financial system that has for decades (in fact centuries) worked to ensure an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of local and global elites as the majority of the earth’s people live in near or absolute poverty.
Second, there would have to be a collective opting out of the international debt-for-pseudo development system ruled by the World Bank, IMF, and larger financial industry-led Washington Consensus system by the developing world.
A century and a half ago, a debt and finance-dominated global economic system helped destroy both the already weakened Ottoman Empire and the fast-rising Egypt of Muhammad Ali and his successors. Today it has become the most effective tool of controlling restive countries and citizens from the American heartland to the African or Argentinian plains. The momentary solidarity between protesters in Tahrir Square and Madison, Wisconsin points to the common plight of average working people world-wide. The greatest gift bestowed by contemporary globalisation would be both a greater awareness of this situation and the means and desire to act collectively against it.
Everyone doing their part
The people of the Arab world have begun to do their part. What is necessary now is for citizens in the West to join the fray by taking on their militarised and finance-dominated governments with the same passion as their counterparts from Tunisia to Bahrain have taken on their autocratic systems. It’s hard to imagine such a collective awakening in Washington, London or Paris. But four months ago, no one imagined the possibility of such change in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli or Damascus. History has a funny way of providing opportunities for epochal change when people least expect it. It’s up to all of us to ensure that this moment is not wasted, lest Libya rather than Tunisia come to define the Arab awakening of 2011.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.