The end of change from abroad
The great Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, show change cannot be forced from outside, but can only come from inside, writes Azmi Ashour*
Will 2011 mark the year of the fall of Arab dictatorships and the end of the maxims that helped keep them alive? Egypt's unprecedented youth revolution, which brought millions of people from all the diverse sectors of society into the streets to tell that country's dictator for 30 years to leave, and its success in achieving this aim, furnishes tangible proof of the failure of the notion that democracy can be imposed from abroad by military force or by pressuring authoritarian regimes to democratise while supporting their self-perpetuation in order to safeguard foreign interests. Huge question marks now hang over the policies of Western powers, and the US in particular, not only in light of the results and repercussions of the Egyptian revolution but also in light of the events in other Arab countries, such as Libya and Yemen, where sustained mass protest campaigns strive to overthrow rulers who have been in power for decades.
Sometimes history can help countries avoid making the same mistakes, especially when the mistakes are repeated in the same general area, environment and culture. The attacks of 11 September 2001 galvanised the Bush administration into adopting a strategy aimed at eliminating what it regarded as the root causes behind this event, notably the lack of democracy, rampant corruption and the consequent spread of radicalism. The strategy was to employ military force in order to supplant despotic regimes with democratic governments. Afghanistan and Iraq were the first countries to be targeted by this strategy. There were significant differences between the socio-political orders in the two societies. In Afghanistan, conditions had so deteriorated as to clear the way for radical forces to outbid each other in the struggle for power, a process that resulted in Taliban rule and a secure base for Al-Qaeda, which masterminded the 11 September attacks. Iraq, meanwhile, had long been in the grip of an authoritarian regime that not only repressed its own people but also began to threaten its neighbours and the Western interests that were vested in these countries. In all events, almost 10 years later, following the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the enormous human and material toll that ensued, it is palpably apparent that democracy did not win out. Indeed, the contrary occurred: radicalism increased, social and sectarian violence proliferated, and neighbouring powers extended their tentacles into these countries by manipulating sectarian and ideological divides, all of which worked to prolong tensions and perpetuate instability.
Not only did the US fail to bring democracy at the barrel of a gun, it also failed to do so through the use of "soft power", in the form of economic aid and educational training and assistance. The problem with this strategy was twofold. On the one hand, it was excessively idealistic and divorced from realities on the ground. On the other, it was closely linked to the promotion and protection of US interests. The use of soft power thus became prey to the logic of the use of military force. The absence of democracy and abuses of human rights were reduced from moral wrongs to foreign policy or negotiating instruments, wielded by the State Department as it saw fit, in order to pressure on non- democratic governments. To round out the picture, Washington funded many human rights and pro-democracy societies and NGOs in order to create a kind of bargaining front, regardless of how effectively these groups were in disseminating human rights awareness and democratic culture. Observers of such organisations soon discovered that they had become goldmines for certain segments of the intelligentsia, that the pace of their activities was synched with American election seasons, and the periodic conferences that accompany them, and that their publications were devoid of analytical and factual substance.
In sharp contrast to the two previous approaches to democratic transformation are the home grown modern revolutions that unfolded in Tunisia and then Egypt. To a large extent these were the product of the new virtual reality, which has become a major source for shaping the awareness of youth in many societies governed by dictatorial regimes. This, in turn, has worked to break down the barriers of fear and deception that had once been secured by the slogans and lies of government propaganda machines. The positive outcome of this was reflected in the rise of protest movements, as exemplified by the Kifaya (Enough) Movement in Egypt. Beginning as a relatively small activist movement in 2004, Kifaya sparked the growth of parallel movements in subsequent years. The mutual feedback between these groups in virtual space enhanced their ability to address social concerns while developing the political consciousness of young people through blogging and social networking websites.
Simultaneously, the proliferation of the independent media became the "unknown soldier" who cast into relief all the protest movements and other activist movements over the years and helped catalyse an ongoing process of fermentation. The result was that barely a day went by without a strike by the workers of a privatised factory, a sit-in by employees demanding salary raises to help them meet the soaring costs of living, and other protest actions of various forms with varying aims. These, too, combined to shape the new mentality of the youth, whose determination to bring change grew all the more resolved in the face of the deliberate blindness and entrenched stubbornness of a regime that refused to respect their aspirations for real economic growth, as opposed to the plundering of the country by a coterie of super wealthy business magnates, and for political rights and an effective voice in public affairs, as opposed to a voice artificially produced by forged elections.
The result of the interaction between all these factors was the explosion of the revolution of anger that surpassed all expectations and that simultaneously put paid to all arguments and assumptions that change can be imposed from abroad by the use of military force. While that logic has hopefully died in the debris of the tragedies it wrought in Afghanistan and Iraq, the voices of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt resound with the news that democratisation and change can come from within, spearheaded by the robust and vibrant mentality of our new generations.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.