If you’re surprised by the Egyptian military’s latest power grab – well, you shouldn’t be.
With well over a year having passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring, it’s time to take a look back at some of the outcome so far, and the result is not very optimistic. Despite all the mentions of how Twitter and Facebook were changing the world and how the youth of the Middle East were changing their societies in a peaceful manner, the lesson being learned again and again is that might still makes right.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Middle East today. In Egypt, the military tacitly backed the supreme court wiping away a third of the parliament, took control of the writing of the constitution, and essentially neutered the position of the presidency. The protests of 2011 are not to be seen yet, and you may even see some silent joy from secular and leftist candidates who feared the Muslim Brotherhood sweeping into power. Even if protests do occur, there seems little incentive for the army to allow them, or they may just play a democratic charade again, perhaps more convincingly.
The rest of the Middle East is no better. In Syria, the military has repeatedly crushed protesters, who have in turn taken up arms themselves. As a result, 13,000 may have already perished, and a conflict bordering on a full-scale civil-war is brewing. In Bahrain, protests have been repeatedly crushed by the government, with the timely help of patron state Saudi Arabia. While not really part of the Arab Spring, the Green Movement in Iran stirred much interest in the West. This interest was followed by the Iranian government dispersing the demonstrators, using a mixture of beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death.
But there are successful models, correct? Yes and no. Considerable reforms have been made in Morocco, but the King still maintains a level of power that would be unacceptable in any Western nation, and there also remains the unrelated yet ideologically important question of the status of Western Sahara within Morocco. Tunisia is the primary example still given: the heart of the Arab Spring, where it all began. Yet even in Tunisia, what is often not spoken is that the military’s decision not to back Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was as crucial as any protest. Then there’s Libya, which took an armed uprising and NATO bombing campaign to rid itself of its dictator.
If you’re not reading the writing on the wall here, then what you should learn from this article is that those who hold the guns hold the power if they are willing to use them. The autocratic regime falls when those who control a monopoly of (or at least the greater share of) force either a) lose that advantage to an opposing or outside force or b) have a military/security apparatus that is unwilling to use it on the civilian population. Both do occur. One can look not only at Tunisia, but Pakistan, South Korea, and even Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to see how a military’s silence or acquiescence dooms the autocratic regime. On the other end, one need not look further than Tiananmen Square or Iran or Iraq circa 1992 to see what happens when authorities are willing to use violence to get their way.
One should not take away from this article the idea that protesting is useless and a waste of time. Far from it, they are the key ingredient that sparks many a revolution and legitimizes a change in government, and the bravery of taking on those who are armed is beyond impressive. Nevertheless, our lionization of the protester seems to make us blind to the fact that we exist in a violent world filled with weapons, and those who carry these weapons still wield vast amounts of power.