A rude Arab awakening

What will happen to the uprisings in Libya, Yemen, and Syria as the ruling governments continue repressive policies?

Yemeni anti-government protestors
Once people dare to rise in defiance against dictators, as in Syria, regimes lose much of their capacity to instill fear or command loyalty [Reuters]

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, answers questions about the current escalation – and what some see as setbacks – surrounding the uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. 

How do you explain the fact that since the upheavals erupted several months ago, the Libyan, Yemeni and Syrian regimes have continued their repression unabatedly – while in Egypt and Tunisia the regimes fell quickly?

The transformations in Egypt and Tunisia raised expectations of swift change elsewhere, but when the Arab Spring turned into a hot summer, it led to disappointment and doubt.

In reality, the early Arab Spring was exceptional by all standards when it led to the ousting of a combined 54 years of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt within the course of a few weeks.  

While the military sided against the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, the situation in Libya, Yemen and Syria is complicated by the fact that their regimes’ militia, special forces and republican guards have been better organised, better armed and better financed – and hence more potent and in control of their national armies.

These “mini armies” are headed by, and are loyal to, influential family members of the regimes that have long groomed them to fight in defence of the regime, not for state or society.

These soldiers’ indoctrination and privilege blind them from noticing the changing reality. Instead, they continue to kill and destroy their countries to try to save their expired regimes.

As these ruling families monopolised security and business, they’ve emptied their countries of independent state agents capable of taking a neutral or mediating position. This has led to direct and ugly confrontations between people and the escalation of brute force.

Be that as it may, Libya, Yemen and Syria face complete economic shutdown, economic sanctions, and poor supplies. There is a limit to their resources.

Realising that their fight is primarily against time, the regimes are throwing all they’ve got to tame the upheavals, in order to avoid yet worse sanctions and the loss of whatever remaining legitimacy they have as state actors, shielded from international interference under the international system.

Gaddafi’s idiotic and bombastic threats against his people provided the pretext to rush in UN Resolution 1973, which effectively authorised the use of airpower to protect civilians.

All of this means that the regimes’ viciousness, terror, and shows of force are signs of weakness, not strength.

If these are signs of weakness, why are these regimes able to continue their fight unabated?

Once people dare to rise in defiance against dictators, as is the case in Libya, Yemen and Syria, it means that the regimes have lost their deterrence, their hegemony and their capacity to instill fear or command loyalty. While an exact estimate is impossible, one could safely assume that the regimes lose about half of their power when they lose their dissuasive effect.

Once force is used and fails to tame or silence protesters, but rather brings them out in greater numbers, it diminishes the regimes’ power by another factor, say, by a quarter.

Historically, regimes have either relinquished their power or were forced out, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt – in Bahrain, force has worked for the time being – or they’ve gone on to the third stage of using overwhelming or excessive force.

This usually escalates to an unpredictable dynamic of its own, leading to terrible and ugly violence such as “war crimes”. Such violence represents the governments’ de facto abdication as the recognised authority and their transformation to being just another rogue element in the state.

From then on, it’s only a question of time before the regime loses all power. And time is generally on the people’s side, especially if the international community takes a moral or legal stand.  

But what does that mean concretely for the future of Libya, Yemen and Syria?

The good news is that despite the terrible violence, pluralistic city- and town-based associations and regional coordination committees are being established to help the resistance in all three countries. Such civil cooperatives are the best guarantees for ploughing forward and ensuring a popular-based, post-conflict future.

But as they enter their final phase, regimes could also get so desperate that they try to bring the country down along with them. However, they may also use that “craziness” as a bargaining chip to share power, ensure safety for themselves and their families, and obtain immunity from prosecution.

While the latter option could still work in Yemen, and power-sharing is still on the agenda on Syria, Gaddafi is a maniac whose time has expired. Gaddafi has burnt his bridges, and his son’s efforts will not change matters.

The problem with escalation of force is that it goes beyond wasting time and shedding blood. It leaves a legacy of pain, hatred and revenge that could last decades, hampering a peaceful, stable transition to a better form of governance. An implosion from within the regime is always the better scenario, because it allows for a less violent transition.

The longer it takes, the more difficult the post-conflict healing and rebuilding of a nation. If steady and deep reform towards constitutional democracy is the best way forward, bloody civil war is the worst-case scenario for any country.

That’s why today’s challenge is no longer limited to the removal of the expired and bloody regimes, but also to try to ensure that the transition is not excessively long and costly.  

The challenge for the Arabs is to define their conflict through peaceful protest, and to not be dragged into bloody conflicts that tend to change people for the worse.

If I could end with an analytical cliché, I would say change must be defined by the motivation for sacrifice, not the bitterness of the fight; defined by the dream of a peaceful and prosperous future, not by the nightmares of a violent past.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst.