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One Year Of Countries Toppling Their Leaders – Analysis


By Gamze Coskun

Around this time last year, many Arab countries showed signs of a new wave of change in the region. The events which started in Tunisia spread their effect to many countries of the region such as Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. In nearly one year, the countries which achieved their primary goal of toppling their leaders have been Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. For Yemen, on the other hand, it is not yet possible to say that Ali Abdullah Saleh has totally abdicated.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya: They managed to push their long-acting leaders out of the system; however, did it bring a real change to these countries? What happened in these countries in 2011 and were these developments sufficient enough to transform the process into a “revolution”? Although it is quite difficult to find a response to these questions, an attempt to analyze the process may be useful.

Revolution or Transformation?

Middle East
Middle East

At the moment, considering we are at the very beginning of the ongoing process in the Arab world, it is too early to thoroughly discuss whether these events can be described as a revolution. Nevertheless, it would be constructive to examine the triggers and dynamics which started the process, the following developments and the differences between these countries.

Autocratic regimes, leaders acting according to their individual interests, a system which enables the supporters of the regime to have easy access to financial resources and be appointed to key positions, a limitation of rights and frequent declarations of state of emergencies by using internal and external enemies as an excuse, injustice, inequality, unemployment, the banning of opposition movements, cooperating with foreign countries in exchange for aid and investment… These kinds of problems have become chronic as well as being inured to in this region. However, the epicenter of the eruption of the wave of unrest and protests was Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which was also the indication that Arabs could not tolerate these chronic issues anymore.

Yet at this point, the question is whether the sole existence of such problems and an eruption of social movements can bring about a successful revolution. According to Jack Goldstone, for a revolution to succeed, the following factors have to come together: 1) “The government must appear so irremediably unjust or inept that it is widely viewed as a threat to the country’s future;” 2) “elites (especially in the military) must be alienated from the state and no longer willing to defend it;” 3) “a broad-based section of the population, spanning ethnic and religious groups and socioeconomic classes, must mobilize;” 4) “international powers must either refuse to step in to defend the government or constrain it from using maximum force to defend itself.” [1]

Within this framework, it can be seen that these requirements are met in a way or another in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya at different times. We have witnessed different segments of society pouring into the streets and taking action against their governments, which they no longer saw as the guarantors of their futures. Although the social unrest in those three countries had started as peaceful movements and protests, the lengthening of the process, violent and bloody pressure from Gadhafi and direct international intervention changed the peaceful feature of the unrest in Libya and made it more like a civil war.

Considering the elites’ (especially military elites’) alienation, we see three different processes in three countries which brought the same consequence. In Tunisia, neither Bourgiba nor Ben Ali allowed the military’s having a say in politics and getting a big share of the economy. Therefore, the Tunisian army, which was kept out of the political arena, did not seem so concerned about siding with Ben Ali when anti-regime protests started. The army easily took sides with the Tunisian people and did not try to acquire political power after the toppling of Ben Ali.

In the Egyptian case, quite the contrary of the Tunisian example, it is well known that the Egyptian army has a big share both in politics and the economy. That is why the army stood for Mubarak against the Egyptian people for a long time. However, when it became obvious that Mubarak’s days were numbered, the army changed sides, supported the people and got political power in the end. Thus the ongoing events in Egypt are the reflection of the power struggle between people and the army.

As Gadhafi was sort of the system itself in Libya, this country constitutes a totally different example. Libya has almost no institutional and political experience and it is difficult to discuss the existence of an institutionalized army as well. That being the case, it is almost impossible to see the army’s role in the developments. Under these circumstances, it is much easier to understand the logic behind Gadhafi’s use of mercenaries during the clashes.

On the other hand, taking the international powers’ roles into consideration, we see international support for people against their regimes in different phases of the events in these three countries. At this point, Libya is distinguished from the other two as there had been a direct operational foreign intervention besides anti-regime rhetoric. Despite many disadvantages of the operation, it also sped up the process leading to the toppling of Gadhafi. In this context, it is evident that the support of international actors is of vital and crucial importance in determining the course of events.

Emergence of Multiple Sovereignties

Charles Tilly emphasizes the necessity of the emergence of multiple sovereignties—referring to Trotsky’s dual power concept—which brings about the rise of an alternative power elite group against the existing administration. [2] In respect to the emergence of this factor, we see three different processes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The social movements started in neglected rural parts of southern Tunisia by unemployed youth and labor unions spread to the other segments of society in time. The leaderless protests with no specific ideologies led to Ben Ali giving up and leaving the country in a short time span. It was such a short time period that there was no need or time to create an alternative power elite challenging the existing elites. That is why some of the elites of the Ben Ali period were able to survive within the transition governments. Yet recently, especially after the elections, the disadvantages of the inability to create multiple sovereignties started to be eliminated and a relatively equitable and free period began in the country. In this context, the revolutionary situation in Tunis is one of the most probable among the three to result in a revolutionary outcome.

In Egypt, on the other hand, the situation proceeded toward a totally different direction. Public pressure and determination and even the army siding with the people resulted in Mubarak leaving power. However, an alternative power elite could not be created and Mubarak’s system continued to function without Mubarak. What we see from the developments so far is that the inability to create multiple sovereignties blocked the transfer of power and realization of the demanded changes. In order to overcome this handicap, the Egyptian people have to continue their struggle against the army’s efforts to strengthen its power and, so to say, start a second revolutionary process.

When we take a look at the Libyan case, it can be said that the rebels successfully directed the process, or at least the step to create multiple sovereignties was achieved in a way. The Transitional National Council (TNC), which declared its establishment in March 2011, could establish an alternative power against Gadhafi and was even recognized as the official representative of Libya by many countries in the proceeding levels of the conflict. The TNC has also been capable of managing the process after Gadhafi.

As it is seen, whether they toppled their leaders or not, the countries which took places within this wave of social movements have been experiencing different processes and facing different consequences, although the movements started for the same reasons and purposes. It looks like it is too early to put a name to these processes in any of the countries concerned, and we need to wait and see if they will be able construct a new system to meet the people’s demands. As it is not easy to reconstruct something from scratch, it is not possible to have concluded a revolution in one year’s time either.

Gamze Coskun

USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies

[1] Jack A. Goldstone, Understanding the Revolutions of 2011. By: Goldstone, Jack A., Foreign Affairs, 00157120, May/Jun2011, Vol. 90, Issue 3.

[2] Trotsky, History Russian Revolution, s. 224; Charles Tilly, European Revolutions 1492-1992, s. 10.

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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