Another weekend in the Middle East, and more lives have been ended by regimes determined to smash the spirit of the Arab uprisings.
It has been reported that more than 100 demonstrators have been killed in Syrian cities on and since 29 April, as President Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to show it will not relax its grip on power. In Libya, the uprising that started in February persists, but has been contained. Yemen’s political crisis continues with no sign of a peaceful resolution. And in Bahrain, the government is punishing anyone associated with demonstrations that brought Manama to a standstill in March.
The cost of the popular protests is still rising. By 1 May, as many as 10,000 people had lost their lives and several times that number has suffered physical and mental injury. Thousands have been arrested. Tens of thousands have fled the region. Billions of dollars in output, income and investment have been lost.
The only result that can be deemed to be positive is the dismissal of two senile heads of state whose time was up anyway. Optimists believe that Egypt and Tunisia are on the road to a freer future. However, the outcome of elections in both countries, due before the end of the year, should not be assumed. The systems Hosni Mubarak built in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali created in Tunisia are still essentially intact. Their powers of patronage remain largely in place. They are well armed. And the appeal of regimes that can claim to be guardians of stability has been enhanced by the spectacle of Libyans killing each other with foreign assistance.
None of this yet seems to have sated the appetite for more of the same among cheerleaders of the uprisings viewing events from a safe distance. People with nothing to lose continue to encourage others in the Middle East who cannot win to rise against repressive regimes with no option but to resist.
The Middle East and its present condition suggests that revolution, or even rapid change, could be a disaster. More than 60 per cent of the world’s oil and 40 per cent of its gas reside in a region where entrenched divisions have produced more than half-a-dozen full-scale wars in just over 60 years. It was naive to dismiss the possibility that peaceful demonstrations in favour of moderate objectives would degenerate into conflict and chaos.
This point was lost on Western governments that backed the Benghazi rising without a plan for what they would do if the Libyan regime fought back. The same was even more obviously true in Bahrain. Warnings went unheeded that a Shia government, or even the possibility that one might eventually come, would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia and provide dangerous encouragement to Iran.
The case can therefore be made that the uprisings of 2011 were not only premature and mismanaged, but they could also be counterproductive. Setting aside the economic damage and the loss of life, the uprisings have undercut those who have been quietly urging Middle East governments to allow greater freedom. No Middle East regime, no matter how well intentioned, can contemplate with equanimity the humiliating fate of Mubarak and his sons, now reviled and in detention. If that is what change means, then change will be resolutely resisted.
Radical reformers will have to face the fact that the regimes they are challenging have survived external threats and internal subversion for decades. They are too well armed and too calculating to be displaced by dissidents wielding mobile phones. Facebook is no match for truncheons, tear gas and the sniper’s rifle. Western governments are also supporting governments some of the rebels are defying. What Obama said in public about the uprisings in February bears little connection to what he has since approved in private.
Where then does it leave Middle East reformers? In most of the region, they are probably in a worse position than they were when it all started. Should they then accept the status quo? Democracy, as experience in Lebanon and Iraq demonstrates, is almost unworkable in societies where people divided by sect and tribe live in fear of being ruled by their rivals. But there is a less-romantic alternative: seeking greater freedom that does not necessarily imply regime-change. This will take time and patience.
What has been missing from the Arab uprisings is evidence that the objectives of reformers and rebels are widely shared. The average citizen wants freedom and to be treated fairly, but if the price is mayhem, then most would prefer things as they are. Only a tiny minority is prepared to provoke the wrath of regimes such as Syria’s that are subject to practically no constraints.
The outside world has cheered the pluck of those who have taken to the streets, but their attention is fickle and their governments are driven by practical politics not dreams. Those living in the region who want a better future need more reliable allies. Their compatriots – the sceptical and fearful majority – have to be won over first. This is the work of decades. Wishful thinking that anything else is possible, as the sufferings of 2011 have shown, is no foundation upon which to build a better Middle East.