Confusion, Delusion, Revolution.

Yes, there is a fresh spirit of expressing popular discontent with their governments evident in the Arab world. No, this is not something new. Between 1950 and 1970, Arab governments installed by Western imperialists went down like a row of ninepins unless, like the Yemeni or Lebanese government, they were actively propped up by direct Western intervention.
But after 1970, Arab governments stabilised. Was this because they suddenly became more likeable? Not exactly. The answer is twofold; the victory of Israel over Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and an intensification of Western intervention. Western support helped keep Jordan afloat (the Israeli invasion had wrecked the country), propped up the monarchy in Morocco and the dictatorship in Algeria, and attempted to prop up the right-wing tyranny in Lebanon (which helped promote the civil war there); most particularly, the dictatorship in Egypt was sustained with Western money (especially after it signed a peace agreement with Israel).
In Libya, Syria and Iraq, highly repressive (but relatively wealth-redistributive) dictatorships established a stultified culture where all utterance focussed on glorifying the regime in exchange for hard cash. These states were tolerated by the West in part because they served as useful tools sometimes (Syria in offering military aid to crush Palestinians in the chaotic Lebanon, Iraq in trying to overthrow the Iranian government through the first Gulf War — significantly, in both cases, the West eventually turned on their tools, using Israeli power against the Syrians and directly crushing the Iraqis). Basically, between Western agents and intensified tyranny financed by a higher oil price, the Arabs were almost politically paralysed. It didn’t help that the secularism fostered by Nasser had failed, and that its sponsor, the Soviet Union, was essentially chased out of the Arab world by America and its oil companies.
None of this, however, means that the people of the Arab world were happy with their rulers. The interesting question is why they waited so long to object to them. 1989-91, when the West was constantly banging on about the global revolution, passed with scarcely a bubble of discontent in the Arab world. After 1999 there were uprisings all over Latin America (though these, significantly, were largely driven by democratic reformism rather than by revolutionary action, even though the reformism was spiced with revolutionary rhetoric) but not in the Arab world. Maybe this was because the Americans showed themselves so very willing and able to drop bombs with pinpoint accuracy on the menacing creches, orphanages, museums and health facilities which were endangering Western security from Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. But in fact the only Arab revolution during this period was the one in Palestine, and this one sputtered and died, doomed from the start because it was led by the hapless Palestinian Authority, and then crushed like a snail under the Zionist jackboot.
So why has 2011 been the year of Arab revolution? We can write off all the claptrap about “social media”, as if there never ever was a real revolution before people could tweet about it. People who talk about such things should be confined. Rather, we have to ask what people’s motives are — and the answer is that they appear to be the same motives which people have had for the last sixty years; they don’t like being ruled by a gang of corrupt goons working for Western big business. (Much like in South Africa, in fact — except that the realisation that this is the nature of the current government has not become universal yet.)
So the real question is, why now? Have people become more aware that they are oppressed than before? It seems difficult to believe. The difference, therefore, seems to be that people have become aware that they can do something about it.
A variety of factors may have converged on this. The dictators are getting old and weak and their followers are more and more corrupt. As a result, their popularity is declining while their capacity to strike fear into their enemies is not increasing. When the dictator of Tunisia went too far in his corruption — and it was a trivial matter which sparked the uprising against him — ultimately he lacked support, and the cruel tenacity to make use of what support he possessed. Hence he went.
When the dictator of Egypt found himself faced with an uprising, he lacked the authority to use effective force against it. He was too old and feeble to wish to control the country for much longer, and yet he was sufficiently egotistical to be reluctant to hand over to anybody else. Hence he dithered and prevaricated until his generals told him to go. But, of course, handing power over to the military after the fall of an unpopular, undemocratic, corrupt regime, at best takes us back to Nasser (who together with his fellow junior military officers overthrow Farouk). At worst, takes us to every corrupt military regime which has misruled in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia for the benefit of Western imperialism. In other words, the grand revolution in Egypt may have led virtually nowhere.
As for the events in Libya, this seems to have been a combination of tribal revolt and attempted military putsch. It has already led to a civil war in which Western countries are trying to get directly involved. Assuming that this succeeds in getting rid of Gadaffi (which would at least make African Union meetings marginally more sane in conduct if not in content) it is far from clear that this will lead to a substantial improvement for the Libyan people.
So the actual performance of the revolutions which have been most strongly foregrounded in Western propaganda has not been terrific. On the other hand, there have been plenty of other uprisings which Western propaganda has chosen not to foreground. So there does seem to be something happening, but it isn’t just that dictators are getting old and incompetent.
There have, however, been a number of empowering events recently. The American invasion of Iraq might have been expected to encourage Arabs to be docile and submissive (which was almost certainly its intention) but the incompetence of American action and the remarkably successful uprising against the occupation bred an unexpected pride in Arab resistance. Then, the remarkable success of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, surviving PA putsch and Israeli invasion (they may not be brilliant performers, but they’re still there), almost certainly energised the Arab resistance to Israel; so, undoubtedly, did Hizbollah’s startling performance in fighting the Israeli army to a standstill on the Lebanese border, which was more than anybody else had managed in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, of course, Bush’s War On Terror just happened, coincidentally, to be a War On Muslims. Most Arabs tend to be Muslims. Therefore, to the sense that Arabs had more potential than they were using, came the other sense that the most powerful country in the world wanted to kill them in sufficiently large numbers to be worried about.
And then, of course, Obama was elected. For a start, everybody thought that he was going to be a good guy. Then he turned out to be a lot like Bush. But — a timid, cautious Bush, one who was dependent upon a splintered base and therefore needed to suck up to his opponents. Also, he started a couple more wars which tied down the U.S. military even more completely than Bush had. Suddenly it must have seemed that it was possible to challenge governments which were historically subservient to U.S. interests, because the U.S. was no longer able to do much to support those governments.
Indeed, so it has proved. Not that the U.S. can’t do anything, but it can’t do as much as it used to be able to do, and it can’t do nearly as much as it would like to do. Hence, in a way, what we are seeing is the possibility of decolonisation in the Arab world, for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But — of course — it’s only a possibility. The U.S. may not be able to send in the Marines any more, but it has plenty of comprador elites to work with in the Arab world who are just as happy to shoot down the locals as the Marines would have been. Therefore the Arab revolutions have not, thus far, succeeded — although the turmoil happening almost across the Arab crescent is certainly welcome news for democratic freedoms in the region — and there may yet be immense clampdowns coming.
Some speculate on whether the revolution will spread south. Well, to be precise, some hope and pray that there will be a revolution in South Africa, because they have no prospect of winning power through democratic elections. This is not likely, quite simply, because the energising effects of Arab radicalism do not exist in central or southern Africa. If Africa is going to have any revolutions, we are going to have our own revolutions in our own way. The idea that revolutions happen as an imitation of other countries having revolutions is as absurd as the idea that revolutions happen because someone suggests having a revolution on Facebook. Revolutions happen when there is a perceived need for them, and if there is going to be a revolution in Zambia it will be because the Zambians don’t feel there is any other way to get what they need.
What we really need in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa, is change we can believe in. But that is another story altogether.

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