I would like to thank you for inviting me to deliver this lecture. I would like to thank the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for organising my visit under its innovative outreach programme.
Given my Foreign Service background my perspective is that of a diplomatic practitioner; for me national interest and ground realities must be the preeminent starting points of any analysis with ideology, personal biases and preferences and wishful thinking to be strictly avoided.
What is the Arab Spring?
The Arab countries have never known anything other than autocratic regimes. But truth, as the saying goes, can be stranger than fiction. On 17 December 2010 a vendor being slapped by a police personnel in a small rural town in tiny Tunisia, a common everyday occurrence in Arab countries, implausibly sparked an unlikely revolt and on 14January 2011Zinedin Ben Ali who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years fled the country. Cairo – the heart and soul of the Arab world – caught the virus quickly and Tahrir Square witnessed an unprecedented ‘day of rage’ on January 25, 2011.Hosni Mubarak who had ruled Egypt with an iron hand for 30 years stepped down on Feb 11 2011. The utterly unimaginable had happened.
People had risen up spontaneously and in unprecedentedly large numbers demanding not merely reform but regime change. In the Arab context this was REVOLUTION in capital letters. There is still no rational explanation why this eruption took place when it did, for the sudden realization by the common people that their destiny is in their own hands and will no longer be permitted to be determined by their dictatorial rulers or by foreigners. Before regimes can be overthrown or dislodged, people must overcome fear of regimes, even of the most autocratic ones and must even be ready to die. Astonishingly, that is what happened and once again there is no explanation of why and how at this time.
There were several other unique features of this popular upsurge – it started without known or identifiable leaders, without the banner of any specific ideology or organization, without instigation and incitement from abroad. It was preeminently a movement spearheaded by the younger generation and was consciously inclusive of all the diverse elements that constitute a national society. The unrest initially began everywhere as a peaceful, non violent protest against autocratic, corrupt and brazenly repressive rule and the lack of economic development and opportunity for the people at large while the ruling elite lived in luxury. The focus of the protests had been almost completely domestic – a demand for democracy, for fundamental political, economic and social reform, for basic human freedoms and had little or nothing to do with external relations. No government, no intelligence agency, no expert on the Arab world anywhere had anticipated even the remote possibility of anything like this happening.
Without taking anything away from the courageous protests of hundreds of thousands of common people, the unvarnished reality is that the regimes fell because the armed forces chose not to violently confront their own people and thus effectively deprived the two regimes of the major potential instrument of overcoming the revolts; the dictators, being utterly unpopular and deeply despised, had no legs to stand on to survive. A truly miraculous ‘Arab Spring’ had dawned.
Very significantly, there was no Islamist fervor or flavour to the protests, which clearly represented a more than tacit rejection of what Al Qaida has stood for. Despite its popularity in the Arab street and its immediate support of the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Iran was not heralded as a beacon. In fact, foreign policy issues had not been a factor at all in initiating, propelling or sustaining the protests; there was a conspicuous absence of anti Americanism and anti Israeli sentiment.
The Worm Turns
Although an uplifting spirit of revolt against autocratic authority provided a common thread that underlay the unrest and longings for change which spread across the Arab world, very distinct variations in the evolution of events in each country emerged including in regard to the approach adopted by the people, reactions by ruling regimes and policies of outside powers.
Rulers in other Arab countries carefully observed evolving events and drew lessons from the outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia. Regime preservation and security became the preeminent priority of the ruling classes whatever the costs in blood and treasure. In many countries, the ruler’s family members and close tribal kin commanded and controlled the intelligence, internal security apparatus and the military. These power holders and wielders, the Islamists who emerged as new power seekers and Western countries, the traditional power brokers used or sidelined the original protestors to shape outcomes. A few Arab countries actively intervened too. Foreign intervention became an integral part of unfolding events. In just a few months the soaring hopes of a jasmine scented spring gave way to a summer of growing discontent and frustration amidst harsh and bloody repression of popular uprisings as the regimes struck back with brutal force. The Arab spring had died a premature death.