The grassroots movements in the Middle East, which began in early 2011 when Bouazizi, a Tunisian peddler, set himself alight in protest, later became defined as the Arab Spring or the Arab Revolution. Robert Fisk defines it as the Arab Awakening, which continues to this day in North Africa and the Middle East, and will apparently still continue for a long time to come. Bouazizi’s protest ignited the fuse and before long, protests that started in Tunis spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Irrespective of religion, sect or ethnicity, people took to the streets and demanded justice with one voice. Tahrir Square became the symbol of the revolutions. Although dictators resisted at first, soon Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left his country and subsequently Egyptian president Mubarak was forced to resign and is on trial at present. A similar case was that of Libyan Colonel Gadhafi, who was toppled and had to flee, then was captured and killed. And now the Baath regime mercilessly attacks Syrian protesters, but Assad will not stand for long in the face of resistance. Then the people who have been oppressed for years will hold leaders accountable for years of oppression.
The Background to the Uprisings
Public protests in Tahrir Square, Wall Street, as well as in Spain and Greece, and government resignations throughout Europe clearly show that a global transformation is in the works. It is important to note that all the protests emerged with essentially the same demands. In this respect, it is clearly not possible to separate the transformation in the Middle East from the one happening around the globe, though the uprisings in the Middle East are of a unique nature.
The winds of change sweeping through the Middle East have been expressed in many a political and social theory. It is even claimed that the name behind the rapid development of these grassroots movements was Gene Sharp, an American academic and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. The Albert Einstein Institution was founded in 1983 with an aim to promote nonviolent movements in the world. It conducted and led the way for a great deal of research on how to eliminate dictatorial regimes and how to organize nonviolent, silent protests in undemocratic countries.[i] Coverage of civil disobedience during protests exploded in the media, and Sharp’s methods, though possibly inadvertently, mobilized societies through Facebook, Twitter and other media (Al Jazeera for example).
Certainly, the manner in which protests came one after another in rapid succession has deep historical roots. Arab societies were ruled for decades by autocratic, despotic military regimes. Now with these protests, the end of these regimes has become inevitable. The oppressed people want to participate in government. Prof. Dan Diner says: “The East is now on the path to creating modernity and enlightenment in terms of its internal dynamics. Rather than transferring the Western culture or experience, the East must distil and separate its own culture and experience.[ii]”
The uprisings in the region emanate from society’s quest for justice, and this process can be regarded as the renaissance of the ideal of justice in the Arab world. Societies exhibit commitment and self-sacrifice for the sake of justice. The fight of the peoples in the Middle East has said “Stop!” to the injustice of such neo-colonial states as the U.S., the UK, France and also of their own rulers, who have overlapping interests with the imperial powers. The fight has turned into a clash between the minority that enjoys power and great luxuries and the majority stricken with poverty and unemployment, because the imperialist spirit has injected a consumption-oriented culture and way of living into the society. And this in turn has eroded the systems of culture, traditions, faith and values.
What lies beneath the surface in the struggle that is unfolding in the region is not poverty, but the revival of the concept of justice and the reclaiming of human dignity. The Palestine issue also holds a very important place in the movements, as the neutral stance of rulers has further damaged human dignity and justice that are already in dire states. Although a variety of opinions and approaches exist in different countries and movements, all of them stress the Palestine issue. So much so that the regimes in power are being evaluated by their societies in terms of their perspective on and attitude toward this issue. The fact that the Mubarak regime remained silent in the face of crimes against humanity committed by Israel in Palestine and the fact that it also supported the Gaza conflict indirectly contributed a lot to its eventual demise. Opening the Gaza border, removing the Israeli embassy in Cairo and stopping the gas transfer to Israel were among the demands of the Egyptian revolution and all have been met as of today. Of the points voiced by movements in Syria and Libya are the clandestine links between Israel and other regimes in the region. The message of those participating in the Arab Awakening to the world is clear: They are willing to sacrifice themselves for justice and honor and are against all imperial powers including not only Israel but also America and Europe.
The position of the US and Europe
Until the present day, traditional secular sections in the political arena of the Middle East have developed their relations with the West by defying or alienating the conservative and religious parts of societies. Whenever these secular elements did not receive support from the West, they used the “Islamists coming to power” discourse and were subsequently supported. It is therefore the result of a reflexive behavior that Assad declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, though it was never involved in acts of violence, and that in the same manner Gadhafi pronounced the rebels in Libya “members of Al-Qaida.”
The Middle East policies of the U.S. and EU member states are very difficult to understand. France, which wanted to suppress the uprisings that started in Tunis and to provide support for the government, attempted to send special troops to Tunis and two days later refused to allow Ben Ali, who left his country, into Paris. This is a prime example of the existing confusion between countries. Yet another example of the prevalent state of confusion or the existence of very deep plans is that America and European countries did not support the movement in Egypt at first, but then sent their foreign ministers in in a hurry when the movement achieved success.
When the U.S. and EU states saw that their loyal allies whom they aided for years were being toppled, they ceased their support immediately. Moreover, these countries assumed the guise of an avid supporter rather than applying self-criticism and considering the mistakes that were made. The revolution in the Arab world took place not with the support they offered but in defiance of the obstacles they threw its way[iii].
In terms of the development process, the movement in Libya advanced in a different way from those in Tunis, Egypt and Syria. All actors which were in favor of NATO intervention in Libya stood silent when it came to Syria. It is plausible to explain this situation with the existence of some complicated relations. If Israel wants peace in Lebanon, then it needs Assad. Assad needs Iran in order to preserve his regional influence. Syria is the gate to the Arab world for Iran, whereas Iran is the gate to the Muslim world for Assad.[iv] The U.S. moderates its reaction against Syria killing its own citizens because the U.S. needs Syria to remove its last troops in Iraq. The air forces had bombed Gadhafi in order to protect innocent civilians in Libya, but do not seem to worry much about those in Syria.
In the modern age, there has been constant tension in terms of practices and ideas between the West and Islamic societies, and this is due to Western orientalism. However, with the latest movements, the Western view of Islam and Muslims is starting to change. Western countries have realized that these changes will occur eventually and that they cannot work with despotic regimes that are disconnected from their own people.
Model discussions and the future of the region
Turkey said from the very beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East that dictatorships must be removed. Now the discussion in regard to the position of Turkey as a model has become more intense. In this respect, Foreign Minister Davutoglu argued that Turkey was a “source of inspiration” for the region, as he identified the Arab Spring as a “process of normalization that is way overdue.”
Two stages of the Arab Spring—Tunisia and Egypt—developed smoothly for Turkey’s foreign policy. Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a hardline secularist, put pressure on religious movements by banning the headscarf. Mubarak, who pressured religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, was not different in that sense, and Turkey welcomed the toppling of both leaders. In the case of Libya, PM Erdogan was at first concerned about stability, since Turkey has a large economic partnership with Libya, but then changed his attitude with the NATO intervention there. He later called on Gadhafi to resign and received opposition in Ankara. When the Syrian regime resorted to violence in order to contain public protests, Ankara called on Damascus to make reforms. Upon realizing that Assad is not interested in introducing reforms, Ankara hardened its tone and came to the verge of breaking ties with Syria.[v]
After the revolutions new parties emerged, especially in Egypt with the coming together of public groups. These parties, as well as those groups who already held power such as the Muslim Brotherhood and parties such as Ennahda in Tunisia, stressed that they took Turkey as a political model.
Turkey, given its social history and economy, is indeed in a position to assume such a role. When the changes in the Middle East are combined with the stability in Turkey, new structures will rise which will be beneficial for the whole region. At present, Turkey’s experience and energy are capable of being converted into political thought on a regional, as well as international scale.
It is known that new structures will have to endure a lot during the course of the long-term process of transitioning to democracy. There are two models facing new regimes at this point: One is the Iranian model, fundamentally disconnected from the West; the other is the Turkish model, which is trying to develop constructive relations with all parties in the region, without breaking ties with any. New regimes are expected to favor the Turkish model, which represents neo-Islamism, over the Iranian model, which represents classical Islamism. The leaders of Islamic movements who actively take part in the uprisings claim that they have changed or are willing to change. Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda, which has been using a civil and politically-oriented discourse, as well as such radical movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have begun to adopt a more reconciliatory and flexible language. Undoubtedly, Turkey’s successful steps toward democratization and economic development as a country seeking to be both Western and Muslim will be a source of inspiration for the region. On the other hand, if new regimes become isolated and radicalized the same way as Iran is, this would be disastrous for the Arab world, since in such an environment it would be highly likely for sectarian conflicts to break out.
Much in the same fashion, it would be very dangerous for the public movement that has been continuing for a long time in Syria to become militarized, factionalized or grounded in ethnic affiliations, since such movements always open the door for foreign intervention. In the 19th century, France advanced into Lebanon with the excuse of concern for minority rights and divided it into separate sections in the 1970s. This is a striking example and a horrible scenario, given the present situation in Syria and the region.
The Egyptians demand to know who gave the orders for the killing of innocent protesters, and Mubarak will surely not be able to escape the punishment. Gadhafi has been killed. As for Ben Ali, he will probably remain in exile in Saudi Arabia and eventually be sentenced to capital punishment. What about Assad? His end will be the same, and it is very close. Because the people on the street are now asking: “What about justice?”
The whole process of uprisings has achieved regional successes, but has not been concluded. Yet the peoples of the Middle East have tasted a hint of democracy and freedom, and now democracy has to come to the region at all costs. It is also evaluated that these revolutions might turn into a global movement of awakening. However, if we take the pessimistic scenario into account and suppose that the Arab Spring is an imperialist trap, then it is only normal to think that the Arab Spring also has the potential to turn into the Arab Deception.
[i] Ali Haydar Harmankaya, “Ülkeleri Fethetmenin Temel Yöntemi: Sessiz Devrimler”, Ekopolitik Gündem Dergisi, Sayı 8, Temmuz-Ağustos 2011, s.40
[ii] Prof. Dr. Dan Diner, “Doğu, Kendi İç Dinamiklerini Çalıştırmaya Başladı”, 21 Kasım 2011, http://www.zaman.com.tr/haber.do?haberno=1204431&title=roportaj-dogu-kendi-ic-dinamiklerini-calistirmaya-basladi, Röportaj yapan: Abdullah Yavuz Altun, (Erişim Tarihi: 21 Kasım 2011)
[iii] Dr. Detlev Quintern, “Arap Devrimleri Gücünü Adalet Hareketi Geleneğinden Alıyor”, http://www.orsam.org.tr/tr/trUploads/Etkinlikler/Dosyalar/2011113_devtlev_roportaj.pdf, Röportaj: Uğur Çil, (Erişim Tarihi: 21 Kasım 2011)
[iv] Robert Fisk, “Arap Baharı Burada Biter”, 1 Nisan 2011, http://www.stargazete.com/yazar/robert-fisk/arap-bahari-burada-biter-haber-340866.htm, (Erişim Tarihi: 21 Kasım 2011 )
[v] Mustafa Akyol, “Turkey's Maturing Foreign Policy”, July 7, 2011, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67974/mustafa-akyol/turkeys-maturing-foreign-policy, (21 Kasım 2011)