We Are Mishandling The Arab Spring – OpEd


By Wim Roffel

In less than a month it will be a year since that series of protests that we call the Arab Spring started. Although we as Western countries are outsiders we have played an important role in shaping the results of these protests. And I believe our results are rather mixed.


In Tunisia all elements for more democracy were present. It is a prosperous country with a considerable middle class: a configuration in which a democracy is likely to develop and prosper. Wikileaks had undermined the credibility of its leader so that not much was needed for protests to break out. Too much has been made of the departure of president Ben Ali. As an old man he simply didn’t have the energy to lead the country through a difficult transition. But if he had been 30 years younger he might very well have led the transition to democracy himself.

Revolts are of all times. But usually they just bring another regime of the same type. A transition to democracy demands more than a revolution: it demands another way of thinking. Tunisia had the advantage that such thinking was already present. Other countries need lengthy negotiations before the key players are able to see how democracy can work in their country.

Western media and leaders love black-white thinking in which people are good or bad. However, real bad people like Hitler that are beyond the hope of salvation are extremely rare. The authoritarian rulers of the Arab world are simply products from another age when more forceful methods to keep order were considered acceptable. They have a sense of entitlement but so do most politicians who have been in power for a long time.

Many journalists have tried to explain the insurrections in the Arab world out of the mismanagement of the economy. But countries like Egypt and Tunisia had high economic growth before the protests started. A more likely explanation is the “revolution of the rising expectations”: when people are more prosperous they also expect a better government and things that they previously saw as inevitable are no now longer considered acceptable. The same phenomena could be observed in the West in the 1960 rebellions.

Another often repeated story is that the rapacious elites of the Arab world took all the wealth for themselves and left the rest of the population in poverty. But the economic statistics are clear: countries like Egypt and Tunisia have less inequality than the West – not more.

However, while that may explain the Tunisian revolt it does not necessarily explain the others. In the case of the others there was a lot of copycat behavior. But that may well mean that they have a much lower chance of success.


Egypt is a much poorer country with many local potentates who have considerable ability to direct the vote of the local population and an army that is used to a privileged position. It is a well known fact that democracy doesn’t work very well in poor countries. So it is doubtful how democratic Egypt can become. Most likely non-democratic forces like parts of the Muslim Brotherhood, the army, local strongmen and certain businessmen will keep playing an important role.

Obama made the error to think that the Arab spring is about regime change. That led to his push for the departure of Mubarak. This was a mistake. It directed the discussion away from the question how Egypt should change and democratize. The consequence is that that discussion now still needs to be held. And the bad influence of the Obama decision is still visible: the protesters on Tahrir Square are now asking for yet more people – mainly the army leadership – to go instead of discussing how Egypt’s government can be made more democratic.

There is another reason why it was not good for Obama to push for Mubarak’s departure: it puts Obama in the driver seat instead of the local opposition. This means that Obama robs that opposition of much of its power to negotiate with their regime. Later on that became a serious point in Libya and Syria.

Obama’s recent statement that the military should swiftly start a “full transfer of power” to a civilian government in a “just and inclusive manner” contains a similar problem. Democracy works when the main forces in a country believe in it as a political system and trust each other and the rule of law enough. When that trust is lacking one cannot expect people to just make the jump.

Arab authoritarian leaders – including the Egyptian army – like to forecast chaos when they are gone. Western leaders and media tend to discard such statements as propaganda and like to stages incidents where those authoritarians try to prove that they are needed – like the incidents with the Copts in Egypt. However, this does not take away that both these leaders and many citizens in those countries sincerely believe this point. The present chaos – and the preceding civil war – in Libya show that their fears are not totally unfounded.


The Libyan uprising was a typical copycat uprising. Once the regime became serious in its suppression the uprising collapsed like a house of cards. What “saved” it was the fact that the West took up its case. But this Western involvement had little to do with the internal situation in Libya. With his active and erratic foreign policy Gaddafi had made many enemies in the West and now they saw their chance.

The Western aversion went so far that it consistently sabotaged efforts to come to a negotiated solution. The consequence was that the conflict was fought till the bitter end and probably about 50,000 people died – about one percent of the population. In addition there was considerable devastation and the country is left in a state of near anarchy. There are still many Western leaders who advertise this operation as “humanitarian” but I think “war crime” would be a more suitable term. In this context we should also consider how deadly NATO bombings are: very likely they have killed over 10,000 people.

Western involvement in this type of cases knows a typical pattern of blowing up incidents and then crying for sanctions. These sanctions are an important psychological tool. By committing ourselves to sanctions we committed ourselves with the US against Libya. At first sanctions are typically very small and we tend to disregard their effect. What we forget is that their main effect is on us. We will become more likely to commit ourselves to more sanctions later on (psychologists and salesmen call this the “foot in the door technique”) and we will find it very difficult to withdraw sanctions as long as any conflict is going on. We are sold on each step with the message that with just a little more pressure the regime will topple – what obviously never happens.

In Libya this pattern started with the indictment of Gaddafi by the ICC for shooting some protesters. I think this was a bad mistake. Even in Western countries the police sometimes shoots protesters. This is something countries should handle themselves. The ICC should concentrate on more important issues.

The next step was the Security Council that asked NATO to protect Libya’s civil population. It was achieved by misrepresenting a threat of Gaddafi towards the rebels as a threat towards the whole population of Benghazi. There were no reports of large scale retaliations by Gaddafi troops in the large area that they had already conquered so it was no reason to explain his word as more threatening than they were.

It is amazing to see how many Western observers cling to the idea that the more a regime is removed the better. They consider revolutionary changes like in Iraq and Libya as better than partial changes like in Tunisia and Egypt. This view saw its summit in the disastrous de-Baathification policy in Iraq. What these observers fail to see it that even amongst the officials of the most ugly regime there are many people who just want to serve their country. Removing them creates a vacuum that is difficult to fill. With negotiated gradual transitions one can keep most of those dedicated people in place.

It would have been much better for Libya to have a negotiated solution. Gaddafi probably would have gotten a nice retirement somewhere near Sirte and his family would be absolved for any crime it had done during the regime or the war. But this would have been a small price to pay for saving ten thousands of lives, preventing a lot of devastation, anarchy and tense intertribal relations.


In many places in the Arab world the power is concentrated in the hands of some ethnic groups or clans but Bahrain is unique as the only case where ethnic discrimination is the main issue. Being part of the Shiite majority in Bahrain means that your chances for a decent job are considerably smaller. So unlike the other Arab countries Bahrain has a systemic problem.

In that light the disinterest of the West to the suppression in Bahrain looks specially bad. It highlights that Western interests – in this case an American basis in Bahrain – are more important than human rights.


Yemen had seen many false starts before president Saleh finally signed an agreement to leave. Yet I think this is how things should go.

Far going changes nearly always take a lot of time and negotiations. Belgium recently took one and a half year to solve a conflict between its main ethnic groups. So we shouldn’t be surprised when it takes a lot of time to negotiate the terms under which a dictator leaves. All the talking and thinking about the future makes the chance greater that the new political constellation will work and not disintegrate into anarchy or strife.

Such negotiations are not always nice. People will come back on what they have promised and sometimes they will lie and evade. At other times they will feverishly defend unreasonable positions. But often there is logic in the madness as “unreasonable” demands may hide much more reasonable concerns that may not be considered politically correct at the moment. Long negotiations also result in the main players learning – and sometimes trust – each other.

One should not underestimate the stress this places on the diplomats mediating in such conflicts. They should be nearly completely egoless to be able to deal with the endless setbacks. Forget the Dayton Agreements on Bosnia that were finished in a couple of days thanks to bulldozer diplomacy by Richard Holbrooke: that is not how it works and it is probably no coincidence that the implementation of Dayton is still mired in controversy. Too many details were not discussed.

Every time the West has tried to evade such lengthy negotiations it has resulted in a bloody mess. We saw it recently in Libya. And previously we saw it in former Yugoslavia where the West avoided real negotiations about how the country should be partitioned by declaring the inner boundaries as external boundaries and declaring previous internal Yugoslav agreements void.

Tunisia and Egypt had much less negotiations and yet no revolution. But that means that the transition is only partial and that a lot of subjects still have to be negotiated later on. That in Tunisia a further transition was possible was mainly an effect of stronger trust between the players.

Yemen has been saved from war because no country found it important enough to send soldiers and only its neighbors even bothered to try to mediate the conflict. If it had been a more important country we would very likely have mishandled it into a war.


The risks that Syria will fall into a civil war are well known. Given the size of its population and its ethnic fragmentation such a war might cost well over a 100,000 lives. Yet this aspect has suddenly disappeared from the discussion about how we should deal with Syria. Instead we see a pattern of blowing up incidents and demanding sanctions that looks very similar to that in Libya.

One often hears the figure of more than 3500 killed. What is amazing about this figure is that over a third of them are police and soldiers. This means that about 2 protesters and rebels have been killed for every cop or soldier. This figure is extremely low. When faced with an insurrection or guerrilla most governments are much more deadly. So – although there are without doubt excesses – we should also give the Syrian troops some credit for the prudent way in which they handle the situation: the US troops in Iraq were considerably more deadly when they faced armed opposition.

The Syrian opposition is united in two coalitions. One is the NCC (National Coordination Committee) that unites the groups in Damascus. The other is the SNC (Syrian National Council) that was only recently formed and unites a number of groups outside Syria. The NCC is prepared – under certain conditions – to negotiate with the regime but the SNC is only prepared to negotiate about the transfer of power. Many see the SNC as a creation of Western diplomacy. Very probably it will fall apart when its only goal is met. Lessons from the former Yugoslavia plea against too much involvement of emigrants: they tend to be more radical and more inclined to favor the use of violence.

The West has resolutely chosen for the SNC. US ambassador Ford went so far as to sabotage a planned meeting between the regime and the NCC by going to Hama a few days before and making some radical statements that spoiled the mood for compromise. US diplomats have also repeatedly said that Assad should go. Just as in the case of Libya negotiations with the regime seem to be out of the question for the Western leaders. That that may mean a civil war seems to bother no one.

Here just as in Libya global considerations play a role. Syria supports Hezbollah and Hamas and is considered an ally of Iran. But by clothing these goals in human rights rhetoric the West is turning the latter into a bad joke. It isn’t very good long term thinking either. A messy transition like in Libya generates a lot of instability that may lead sooner or later to the rise of another adventurous dictator.

In bringing Syria into its present spot at the brink of civil war the Arab League has played an important role. Consciously or unconsciously it has followed exactly the script that the West would like it to follow to drive Syria into a corner:

An example is the demand to Assad to withdraw his troops from the cities. This does not make sense in a situation where the opposition is armed. It would mean that the government leaves the cities to the opposition that would be free to declare them “liberated” areas. The minimum the League could have done to be impartial is ask the opposition to lay the arms down too. If you combine this with the fact that the SNC only wants to talk about regime chance the conclusion is that the Arab League is asking Assad to give up. This is not mediating or finding a solution: it is taking sides in a way that makes the conflict unsolvable and brings civil war nearer.

The same lack of impartiality can also be seen in the criticism of human rights violations. While the Assad government certainly has dirty hands the opposition has too. Yet somehow neither the Arab League nor the Western countries criticizes the opposition or is bothered that it might not be an improvement.

Their recent demand for observers is little better. Usual the function of observers is to look onto it that both sides stick to an agreed solution. But in the case of Syria there is no agreed solution: there is a low level civil war in which both sides not always respect human rights. When there is no trust between the parties and no will to make a solution work observers are worthless. We have seen in Kosovo that observers can be very partial and instrumental in bringing on a foreign intervention. It looks like the Arab League is aiming for a similar scenario.

Amazing was the statement by some diplomats that Assad by not following the demands of the Arab League had insulted it. It looks like these people don’t understand what mediation means.

In Syria the main opponents are the government that is dominated by Alawis and the opposition that is dominated by extremist Sunnis who have waged a guerrilla war before – the one that ended with the Hama massacre. These Sunnis are far from harmless: there are already numerous reports of Alawis being targeted for killing and of their flight from some cities. Only a carefully negotiated solution can avoid a deadly civil war. This will inevitably be a long and tedious process.


The similarities between the wars in former Yugoslavia and the Arab Spring are striking. In both cases Western involvement worsened the situation and resulted in much more deaths. If Syria descends into a civil war the number of Arab deaths will nearly certainly exceed that in the Balkans.

The elements involved are remarkably similar:

  • Western governments that try to inject their own political goals: in Yugoslavia anti-communism, in the Arab world anti-Iranian sentiments and an aversion to adventurist leaders who finance and arm guerrilla and political movements.
  • Impatience in negotiations. Incapability to understand that this is about subjects that may take many months to negotiate. Demonization of some parties that makes it difficult to take them seriously during negotiations. A tendency to impose solutions.
  • A contempt for the local population that becomes visible in a tendency to ignore their opinions and not to bother about violence. Most Western diplomats and politicians reason from the point of view of power politics. They seem incapable to understand that helping a country in its process towards democratization requires a fundamentally different point of view.

Wim Roffel is a specialist in ethnic affairs and democratization and maintain a small blog about it (http://nation-building.blogspot.com/).

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