Wednesday, June 11, 2014


"The Middle Eastern strongman is back. This week, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad staged an election in which he won a landslide victory, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was declared winner of last week’s contentious presidential poll, having secured 96.9 per cent of the vote. A few weeks earlier, Iraq held a more genuine election, in which the highest score went to a coalition led by the increasingly authoritarian leader, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Libya, meanwhile, a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, is waging battle for control of the state in the name of weeding out unruly Islamist militias. Three years after Arab uprisings awakened long-suppressed hopes for a democratic future, the Arab world is lurching back to the old autocratic order. In the scorched political landscape of the region today, only Tunisia appears to have a chance of a stable democratic future. For much of the rest of the Arab world, it is a time of democratic setback".
Roula Khalaf, "Strongmen are back to dash hopes of the Arab spring." The Financial Times. 5 June 2014, in
"This divorce between the revolutionaries and the people determined the happenings of 1848. The revolution had officers but no rank and file. The old forces, on which the system of 1815 rested, succumbed to their own weaknesses and confusion; but no new forces took their place. There followed instead the rule of ideas, and this rule ended as soon as the old forces recovered their nerve."
Alan John Percival Taylor. The Course of German History. (1945), pp. 70-71.
What the three plus years after the overthrow of the sclerotic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya plus disturbances in Bahrain, Yemen and of course famously in Syria seemed at the time to indicate was that the Near and Middle East was finally on the cusp of a true 'Democratic Awakening' `a la 1848 or 1989. Some of course, like myself were quite skeptical and therefore was surprised by the quickness of events in both Egypt, Libya and indeed in Syria. Thereafter, the balance of forces and thus events seemed slowly but surely to tend towards elements of the status quo ante. First in Libya, which would have seen a Qaddafi restoration, without the military intervention by NATO. Then later on in the year in Syria, where the progressive deterioration of the situation for the regime, was gradually stopped and then reversed. So much so that the year 2013 and 2014 has seen the regime back in the saddle militarily speaking. Albeit at the cost of perhaps two-hundred thousand dead and the destruction of much of the country, with five-million refugees from the fighting. The arch, the highlight of the reversal of fortunes in the region, was of course in 2013, With the overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood President by the Army. Subsequent events have seen the Army entrench itself fully in power `a la the situation say in 1952. Which is not to gainsay the fact that as the bien-pensant commentator for the FT, Mme. Khalaf, further points out in her piece that regardless of the counter-revolution which has overcome the region, that it will be difficult if not impossible to turn back the clock:
"But Arabs are also likely to prove far more impatient and demanding of accountability than in the past" 2.
Just as, one may point out (and in this respect, the example of 1848 is indeed quite pertinent), the years after 1848-1849, were years in which in country after country, the forces of order, either ancien (the German Confederation, the Italian peninsula and the Habsburg Monarchy) or nouvelle (Napoleonic France), steadily asserted themselves. However the restoration of the 1850's, was not quite the same order as which existed circa 1847. Except perhaps in the Bourbon Monarchy of Italia and in the Papal States. Similarly, Mme. Khalaf is no doubt correct to surmise that the future of the region, however retrograde and indeed depressing it looks to be at the moment, will not be a replica of what it once was. If nothing else, it is highly unlikely that either the 'Presidency for life', with an option for dynastic succession `a la Syria, Egypt and Tunisia will ever occur again. Similarly, what the American commentator Thomas Lippman once called "long period of comatose politics in the Arab world", has indeed come to an end 3. With what results no one can so far say. Per se, there is nothing to prevent some of the more stable countries in the region from following (hopefully) Tunisia into a pluralist and democratic direction. The examples of Indonesia and Malaysia come immediately to mind as possible models. Unfortunately, to indeed proceed in that direction involves an almost complete break with regional politics as practiced in the past sixty plus years. The politics of 'winner takes all'. Not an impossible task but not an easy one either. As nominally 'democratic' Iraq proves all too well. Only time will tell if it proves to be possible or not for other countries in the region to break free from the dead hand of the past.
As someone in the Eastern Department of the British Foreign Office noted circa 1952:
"It is true that we cannot now put the clock back and that we can only hope that the sham democracy of to-day which by the passions it arouses is more dangerous than and as reactionary as the oligarchy or autocracy of yesterday, must eventually become a true democracy which will lead to government in the interests of the governed 4".
1. See for one example: Charles Coutinho, "Egypt: the Alternatives". Diplomat of the Future. 28 January 2011 in
2. Khalaf, op. cit. See also for a similarly optimistic appraisal of the Arab Spring: Katerina Dalacoura, "The 2011 uprisings in the Arab Middle East: political change and geopolitical implications". International Affairs. (January 2012), pp. 63-79.
3. Thomas W. Lippman,"A Politically 'Comatose' Mideast Awakens," The Council on Foreign Relations. 18 February 2011, in
4.Christopher Gandy, "Minute: Observations on Mr. Fellowes' Paper 'Nationalisation and Policy in the Middle East," 20 March 1952. FO 371 / 98244 XC14185, PRO, Kew (copy of the original in my possession).


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