Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Friday, August 19, 2011

The Arab Spring or Revolution? A Reply

Beirut editor Rami Khouri published this piece in the Toronto Globe & Mail this week on the Arab Spring. The article is full of typical Arab attitude about Western condescension towards the Arabs. Supposedly the term Arab Spring is implying that the Arab movement against Arab authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is doomed to failure. Khouri castigates Western journalists and opinion makers for not using the term thawra (plural thawrat) meaning revolution for the various movements. But Khouri knows very well that this is the term used by those very same authoritarian and totalitarian regimes for the coups d'etat that put them into power in the first place. In Arab usage, copying the Soviets, a revolution is termed to be a military putsch followed by a banning of political parties, an arrest of political opponents, and the creation of a new class of nomenklatura or those with influence. On the other hand the term spring was applied by historians both to the failed popular revolts in Europe ("springtime of nations") and to the reform movement in Czechoslovakia in the spring and summer of 1968 ("Prague spring"). It has almost always been a positive reference by Western historians.

Had Western journalists applied the term revolutions to these popular movements, Khouri and his ilk would likely have castigated them for tarring them with the vocabulary used by Arab autocrats. Instead of posing and simpering Khouri should spend his time analyzing why the Prague Spring and the 1848 revolutions failed and passing this information along to his Arab readers. He then might analyze why the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 were successful. Just as mature people take their fate in their own hands and make what they can of their lives, mature nations must act under the circumstances that they find themselves in instead of continually blaming outsiders.

As George Friedman has pointed out, so far the only successes of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt, are well short of revolutions. In both cases the militaries stepped in and removed the presidents. In Egypt it was the military regime that had placed Mubarak in charge in the first place. The military has ruled Egypt since 1952. The military decided that the octogenarian leader was more of a liability than an asset and removed him. He was also partially toppled by American pressure. 

The Arabs are now confronted by two Arab regimes, the products of the Libyan and  Syrian thawrat, that are fighting back instead of going quietly into the night. Both of these were Soviet clients during the Cold War. It was NATO that took it upon itself to neutralize Kaddafi's military advantage by grounding his air force. It is now up to the Libyan opposition to either succeed or fail. In Syria the West has acted through economic sanctions aimed against the leadership of the regime. The success or failure of the revolution or intifada--a name that until now has been reserved for Palestinian revolts against the Israeli occupation--in Syria is now up to the Syrian people. Maybe that is what Khouri is worried about.

For a much more nuanced take see James Traub's piece in Foreign Policy.

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