North Africa and Arab Uprisings

Uprisings and protests are continuing across North Africa and the Middle East. What started in Tunisia has spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran. The beginnings of popular discontent have also been expressed in the Sudan, Jordan, Algeria, and even Morocco.

Indeed, the contagion of revolution has moved so fast that in the words of the blogger Ethan Zuckerman it seems that, “In 2011, history has apparently accelerated – it feels like a decade’s events are happening in a few weeks.”[1]

So widespread are the protests, they now occur in countries that have us scrambling for atlases to identify where they are. At the very least, some of us have improved our geography!

For many who have witnessed the crushing of the Arabian people under brutal dictatorships, often with the cynical acquiescence of the West, the uprisings are a cause for celebration.

Why did the West fail to see the uprisings coming?

A remarkable phenomena has emerged. The large scale failure of Western politicians, media commentators and the Arab elites to anticipate the protests. Also noteworthy is the West’s clumsy and faltering reaction to those protests.

Even many journalists on the ground seemed unable to grasp the direction of events or realise the importance of features such as labour disputes to the uprisings. At times they have given the impression of sitting on an erupting volcano wondering why it was getting so warm!

How did the pundits and journalists, with a few exceptions, get it so spectacularly wrong? Why are they still failing to learn lessons from the uprisings, even failing to acknowledge the possibility of new Egyptian scale uprisings?

Relying on anecdotes and prejudices

Before the events in Tunisia, the consensus amongst the Western elites and their agencies was unanimous. The Arab masses were apathetic and resigned, (due to their religious fatalism, ‘it’s god’s will’), to their circumstances. The only dangers were from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other religious fundamentalists.

For several decades the prejudices used to guide policy in the Middle East gave the illusion of corresponding to the real situation on the ground.
The masses were quiet and cowed, they made no loud demands for changes. If any attempt to protest was made then the dictators were able to easily snuff them out.

These prejudices are based on and reinforced by close political, economic and in some cases, personal ties with the assortment of tyrants in the region. They were further compounded by the complacent view that the methods used yesterday will work today and tomorrow because they worked yesterday.

Exposed by events

The first signs of the fallacy of the West’s approach were exposed with escalation of the Tunisian protests.

The evidence for the coming explosion was in the hands of the West as outlined in the Tunisian Cables[2].
They acknowledged an increasing use of force, a growing insularity of the regime but failed to realise that these were the signs of a regime with an ever narrowing social base making it weaker and more unstable by the day.

Tunisia in particular is an object lesson for the intelligence agencies, it’s not the amount of data that counts, it’s how you interpret it.

When the protests began, there was an assumption that the regime would easily suppress them with the overwhelming force at it’s disposal.

Commentators failed to observe that the violence of a regime in its youth, as it seeks to eliminate its opponents and consolidate power, is very different to the violence of a regime in its senile years. These are regimes where the competent are usurped by cronies who grow fat and lazy on the privilege of power. Its narrow base of support means that it has little receptiveness to changes around it and violence becomes the main method of response.

This was the case with the Tunisian regime. It is also the case with other regimes such as Egypt, Yemen, Libya et al. Clearly, the social reserves of support enjoyed by a dictatorship will be an important factor in its survival, regardless of the size of its security forces or the wealth at its disposal.

The sudden and spontaneous nature of the uprisings have disorientated Western politicians and the Arab autocrats alike. They made the crucial error of believing that what is quiet on the surface must also be so in the depths.

The process towards social upheaval can almost be likened to the indiscernible movement of tectonic plates that move together under ever greater pressure until all the accumulated forces are vented in a cataclysmic release.

When it became obvious that the protests were more than just a little ‘local difficulty’, the initial instinct of Western politicians was to defend their friends.

This cynicism was reflected by the likes of Tony Blair, who would point to the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood and resort to the lame justification of Egypt’s rising GDP as reasons to defend Mubarak. On the latter point one almost expected him to add that Mubarak had also got the trains running on time…

There was even the crass claim that the Egyptians were not ready for democracy. Then, before their very eyes, protesters spontaneously organised committees of action, elected and discarded leaders, made and carried out decisions in an instant. In other words, Egyptians instituted the most fluid form of democracy.

Response and options for the regimes

There are broadly two options open to the regimes when faced with protest.

  • Repression. Send in the thugs. To borrow the euphemism of the Bahrain monarchy, ‘Do what it takes to preserve order’.
  • Concessions. Accede to some of the demands, bribe the population, increase subsidies for goods needed by the poor or give pay rises for state employees.

In normal times, one or a combination of these measures are sufficient. However, these are not normal times. The methods that worked in the past can now have the opposite effect.

This statement quoted by Al Jazeera illustrates ignorance of this fact:

“Widespread unrest in Algeria could have implications for the world economy because it is a major oil and gas exporter, but many analysts say an Egypt-style revolt is unlikely as the government can use its energy wealth to placate most grievances.”

This analysis borders on the imbecilic. Many regimes have tried to buy off their populations with, for example, wage rises in Egypt and direct bribes in Bahrain[3] without the desired effect.

It’s worth noting that the colossal looting and rapacious greed of the elite usually means that they are very reluctant to make financial concessions until the damage has already been done. The ex-Tunisian First Lady, Leila Trabelsi, is a good example of the endemic greed of these creatures. In fleeing, despite the multi-billion dollar fortune she already enjoys, she is alleged to have still found time to loot 1.5 tonnes of gold from the Central Bank.

At critical times, paying off the population has the opposite of the intended effect. Not only is it seen as a crude bribe but also a sign of weakness and acts as encouragement to greater effort and to demand even more.

In this, there is a dilemma for the dictator, grant concessions that will encourage the masses to greater effort, or send in the thugs and infuriate the masses into greater effort. For the dictator, all roads lead to hell…

When the regimes are uncertain and split, their armies unreliable, they will vacillate between concession and repression. Sometimes, the divisions are so profound, one section will attempt conciliation with the opposition while the other orders them shot.

West sits on the fence. Opportunism and hypocrisy.

The West, and the USA in particular, at times has looked like a rabbit caught in the head lights. Through much of the uprisings they have been onlookers with minimal influence, having to watch events unfold on TV.

Their preferred options were ill disguised, stability and orderly transition became code phrases for maintaining their friends in powers.

They were noncommittal on the basic democratic demands of the protests. These are rights that are taken for granted in the West.
Hilary Clinton epitomised the West’s hypocrisy, calling for stability and orderly transition for Egypt, but with Iran, demanded democracy now! This duplicitous approach has not gone unnoticed by some protesters.

We’re also lectured that there’s no alternative to dealing with these despots. Even if, stretching the imagination, this were true, why do Western politicians have to go as far as accepting free holidays using private planes owned by friends of these dictators? Why treat these dictators to lavish state banquets? Or in the case of Tony Blair, engage in a ‘Hug a Tyrant’ scheme? Most of us would be wary of the local gangster and keep a cautious distance, we don’t go draping ourselves over their shiny new BMW and invite them around for tea![4]

Group think of the elites

There are two reasons we can deduce for the failure of the West to anticipate events in the Middle East. Firstly, the material interests of the West gives them a vested interest in the preservation of the Arab regimes. The absence of democracy, transparency and human rights makes for a lower cost of conducting business in the region. Policy was overwhelmed by the need to keep their friends in power and blinded them to the real course of events.

Secondly, politicians and media commentators appear drawn from an increasingly narrow strata of society, passing through the same educational institutions, mixing in the same circles. Their reflex response to the crisis is more or less the same, with the odd minor diiference here and there. Right across the elite professions a similarity of views and prejudices prevail, akin to a sort of ‘group think’. It’s even been suggested that this self perpetuating clique is a result of superior genetic selection!

The West and their Arab allies were ill prepared for the revolutionary storms in the Arab world. To borrow the apologetic words of the Egyptian Newspaper al-Ahram, the western elites and their acolytes “… failed to hear the thundering message of change”[5].


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Gary Hollands – February 19th 2011.

Notes and references

1. Watching Bahrain through a friend’s eyes, heartbroken

2. Wikileaks Cables Ref ID 09TUNIS492

3. 1,000 dinars (US$2,650) to every family at Feb 2011 prices

4. Since this piece was written, The Daily Mail, in an article which dubs the LSE, the London School of Useful Idiots, has exposed how a collection of the greedy and the morally challenged collaborated with a Gaddafi regime every bit as odious as Pinochet’s in Chile.

5. Translation by