When the weather changes from Spring to Summer in the MENA region, you feel it. The sun and heat shift into a different gear and more often than not, the change comes on the wind with the dust and sand making snakes along the highways. Once that shift happens, there is no going back, Summer is locked-in for next 5-6 months. In recent years Summers have been the time of escape. Oil wealth in many countries allowed citizens to bug-out for the maximum vacation time allowed during this oppressive period.
Some towns in Libya, for example, were known to look like ghost towns during this time. In the UAE, it is the only time of year you can be assured of a smooth and easy commute to work. In many parts of the Middle-East, the heat can be so oppressive that you don’t even want to move around during most hours between sunset and sundown. This is especially true in the Gulf Region where it regularly pushes 45+ centigrade every day. Over the last few months, the world has witnessed the Winter of Arab discontent, and the Spring of Revolutions. However, another shift has begun: the Summer of Counter-Revolution is upon us.
The heat always kills optimism and the forces of counter-revolution and oppression have come to control the story. In Bahrain, the heat came early with an invasion by GCC forces (mainly Saudi), the destruction of Lulu (Pearl Roundabout), and a brutal clampdown by the Al Khalifa regime. Since then, Bahrain has seen the disappearance and arrests of hundreds of activists, the destruction of Shia mosques, the arrest and intimidation of doctors, torture, and other forms of state terror. The American government’s reaction in the face of the invasion and the brutal crackdown has been almost silence on these issues. However, they are not the only ones keeping silent. There has been an almost total media blackout orchestrated (no doubt) by Saudis and others. When I was going the research for this article, there was a only a smattering of recent Western articles on what is going on in Bahrain. It is sad commentary when organizations like the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera are simply MIA when it comes to coverage. The only one who is covering it is Iran’s PressTV which has its own agenda.
In a recent panel at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, the prolific blogger of the Egyptian Revolution, Sultan Al-Qassemi, talked about a new-McCarthyism that was spreading across the Arab world. The more liberal parts of the Gulf Region (UAE,Qatar,Kuwait, Oman) have now (in many ways) are taking giant steps backward on the road to democratization. Social media which was once filled with the Tweets of democracy and revolution are now filled with the sounds accusation and counter-accusation. Anything less than total support of the ruling regimes is considered treason and dissent can lead to threats, insults and in some cases arrests.
This can clearly be seen in the example of the United Arab Emirates. To understand governance in the Gulf Region, you have to understand the Arab idea of the majlis. Majlis simply means tent, but it is much more than that. The concept is that the tribal leader, sheikh, is responsible for the welfare of his people. Not only is it a social obligation, it is a religious obligation under Islam. Any member of the tribe was allowed to directly petition the leader of the tribe with whatever grievance they might have. If the ruler was unjust, the ruler’s family and the people had the right to replace him. This system worked pretty well right up until the independence of the countries in the region. Most have been independent just over 30 years. Over that time, countries like the UAE have moved from a small-scale, village subsistence and small-time trading society to fully-developed economies many of them highly dependent on the export of oil. Good leaders, such as the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed managed to bridge the gap between the old system and the new. However, as the population has increased and development exploded, even a big-tent majlis, like Zayed’s, could no longer cope. The UAE’s Federal National Council was designed to be the answer to the problem. With only 40 member, the council is composed of 20 members who were appointed by the government and 20 members who are to be elected by an extremely narrow electorate. Only 6,689 emiratis out of population of just under one million are allowed to vote. It would be difficult to call the FNC experiment a success. With no real authority to make law and frequently finding itself at odds with official government positions, the FNC has done little to further democracy in the UAE. These issues recently prompted Professor Nasser bin Ghaith and several other emiratis to publish their dissent and criticism of the UAE’s rulers online. As of the writing of this article, bin Ghaith, and the others are still being held by the police without charge. Their whereabouts and condition are unknown. A call to explore parliamentary democracy and open political discourse in the country seems to have caused their disappearance. Unlike under McCarthy, you don’t even get a witch-trial.
All of this has a chilling effect on the media and society at-large. As I live and work here, I have to carefully measure every word that flows onto my screen. Every word here is self-censored and filled with my own self-nightmare of did I go too far? Will I get a knock on the door and a late-night deportation? But, that’s the point of counter-revolution. Fear is just one of the tools.
Since the Pearl was torn-down, the Arab Revolutions have entered a bloody phase. The number of dead in the Yemen protests numbers in the many hundreds. In Syria, the numbers escalated sharply this last week as the Syrian regime practiced lessons learned from the Iranians and the Saudis: live bullets and fear are pretty effective at shutting people up. The battle for Libya, even with NATO help, will likely drag- on for months.
Sometimes, the forces of counter-revolution are not always found within the entrenched governments. In several of the MENA countries, Salafists are undercutting legitimate democratic movements. Salafist groups have been directly involved in the revolt against Qadaffi. Jordan arrested more than a hundred Salafists who the government claimed were involved in leading a number of the protests in that country. While Syria is definitely more a spontaneous uprising, there is some evidence to suggest the Syrian government is correct in their assessment that Salafists were behind a number of the protests against the Assad regime. Even in Egypt, Salafists have been actively attacking Sufi muslim shrines and Coptic Christians. The anti-Western, and the pro-Sharia radical position of the Salifists clearly undercuts the calls for republican democracy by movements in countries across the region. It also serves-up a big helping of fear and loathing in the West. In the hot summer, the mirage of Al Qaeda hangs just out of reach for Western governments puzzling over how to handle events in the region.
The Summer of the Arab Counter-Revolution is upon us. The region is no doubt beginning to experience the first bloody push-back against the high-tide of democracy which has been sweeping from Tunisia to Muscat. Here, the lessons of history are important. On January 3, I published an article that his proven somewhat prophetic. In the article, I put forward an argument that the world was poised for a new age of revolution similar to those in Europe in 1848 as the conditions around the world are so similar. In the Middle-East and the world, none of the conditions I discussed have been alleviated. If anything the current new spike of oil prices, inflationary pressure, and food shortages will put new pressure on the system.
With Ramadan happening in August, and the prospects of a slim Eid to follow as things cool in the Fall we will likely see another shift in the tone of events in the Middle-East. The only question is, in which direction will things blow. The revolutions in 1848 failed miserably in a revolutionary sense (most totalitarian monarchies re-asserted themselves). However, by the end of the 19th century, the majority of people in Europe were enjoying the democratic liberties that the revolutionaries had fought and died for. What the democratic movements in the Middle-East need to remember is to keep their eye on the long-term goal of democracy and civil liberties whatever the hot and bloody fight of the present.