With the floodgates of rebellion wide open, the revolting masses easily deviate from the rosy promises of change.
APART from legal and ethical issues, a problem with foreign intervention against any national polity is that conditions often worsen rather than improve for all concerned.
That is clearly a given with military intervention, even if the bitter lessons are seldom learned. The US invasion of Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan produced catastrophic results, until the unspoken consensus became withdrawal as the best or only option.
Still, the US remained a serial military interventionist with Afghanistan and then Iraq. It exposed as mere bluster Madeleine Albright’s warning to an uncooperative foreign leader that Washington had a “long memory.”
But while the various problems of military intervention are habitually obscured by the perceived imperatives of state, however fleeting, self-seeking or illusory, the challenges of non-military intervention are as serious without being well-discerned.
Theocratic autocracy: The demands of an Islamic state suggest that Tunisians want something other than what is available through the ballot box. — AP
Non-military intervention takes several, less conspicuous forms, from Congressional funding of dissident groups to covert financing, arming and training of insurgents, agents provocateurs, NGOs and opposition figures, to outsourced ad hoc assassinations of foreign leaders. But as with overt military action, its goal is foreign regime change.
The current trend is to combine the work of contracted NGOs or agents provocateurs with official diplomatic pressure at UN level. The military option comes only as a last resort, for reasons of public image, moral high ground, cost and “deniability”.
However, the resulting problems of a non-military option are just as unavoidable even if they are more easily concealed. The consequences of all efforts at regime change can be just as intractable, with the costs being as prohibitive.
As the so-called Arab Spring continues to unwind unremittingly, whether or not accompanied by bombing sorties against government positions, it is generally heading from corrupt autocracies to the absolutism of an Islamist theocracy.
However, it would be wrong to characterise the revolts as failures, much less betrayals. Undemocratic forms of regime change tend to produce unpredictable and unsavoury outcomes as a natural consequence.
In Tunisia during the week, where it all began in December 2010, a crowd gathered in central Tunis demanding an Islamic state. Police on duty estimated the demonstrators as up to 10,000.
Demonstrators also turned their anger towards perceived offences against Islam. Ethnic strife is on the way, with signs of Salafi-Jewish conflict in the capital since last weekend.
If the Arab Spring means democratic governance where a sizeable majority had freely and knowingly opted for an Islamic state, then the country deserves what it gets as a result. But the demands of street demonstrations suggest that the demonstrators want something other than what is available through the ballot box.
Western supporters of these revolts have begun to be disappointed, if not also soon to be shocked and appalled. After investing in these “revolutions” through money and weapons, the foreign sponsors are finding that the supposed objective has veered from a liberal democracy to something approaching theocratic autocracy.
It was plain naivety from the start to assume or expect that any street revolt would go according to “plan”. Neither the rebel nor the rabble exists to service any foreign interventionist’s wet dream.
Egypt also began the week with similar propensities. From last Sunday, it emerged that 60% of Islamists had come to dominate the 100-member panel assigned to draft the country’s new Constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) now effectively lead mainstream public opinion, with representation for liberals, Christians and other minorities shrinking to a new low. The only visible bulwark against creeping religious extremism is the interim army-backed administration, which the FJP accuses of dragging its feet on the transition.
The scheduled presidential election is in May for a new government to take power by July 1. Meanwhile the FJP, which has just under 50% of parliamentary seats, has been grooming its presidential candidate while attacking the military council and the Cabinet over a variety of alleged failures.
It is not insignificant that the military council is being targeted by its chief political opponents for alleged sins of omission rather than of commission. For those with fewer vested interests, the ruling council is merely doing a difficult job in difficult times.
The FJP itself remains strategically vague about its intentions, particularly in relation to making new laws. Coupled with the announcement last weekend that Islamists had won a majority in the Constitution-drafting body, this has begun to worry liberals and minorities.
The hardline Salafi presence in particular has heightened anxieties about Egypt’s political future. Salafis are now pressing for tough new laws to “reflect properly” Egypt’s new status as an Islamic state.
The military council itself is not helping to balance the equation by unwittingly aiding the FJP in sidelining liberals and secularists. In the medium and long terms, the military and all its permutations will not even amount to a counterweight to a theocracy.
On present form, the military would readily morph into an appendage of a full-on Islamic state. The alternative of being marginalised politically simply as dispensable ballast helps to make the military more pliable.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has criticised Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s Cabinet as being worse than ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s. For demonstrators, this in effect means that the interim government itself deserves to be toppled even before the May election.
Analysts see the MB as trying to pressure the military to stage a coup to replace Ganzouri’s government with the FJP’s line-up. Impatience and the lust for power have combined to erase any earlier commitment to democratic change.
Liberals have cause for concern on other fronts. An MP’s proposal to ban online porn has now become a priority for the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology.
What usually starts out as a virtuous-sounding effort can easily lead to other forms of censorship and surveillance, particularly of political dissent. Tunisia earlier considered a similar ban but abandoned the idea out of concerns about political abuse.
However, that has apparently not bothered Indonesia, which has asked BlackBerry to help censor Internet porn. And for the first time, BlackBerry’s Research in Motion has in recent days agreed to the request.
Now the Indonesian government is trying to monitor the online use of BlackBerry owners by seeking to access and track the information they send. Whatever the language used, whether “Arab Spring” or “reformasi”, there is a pervasive deja vu after much initial noise and action.
The resulting reality seldom matches the early promise of the idealism expressed on the streets. But have the clamorous crowds in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli or Jakarta learned anything from recent experience?
Indonesia today is unlikely to drift towards any theocracy. But deepening government controls amid widening corruption can only encourage a return to the bad old days and ways.
Theocratic and secular regimes differ little when both subscribe to stringent state controls, intolerance for social and political diversity, and an overpowering sense of self-righteousness. They also share a similar fate of decline and demise, but not before inflicting widespread hardship.
Among the lessons still to be absorbed is that some political habits like autocracy can be hard to break. And why would any new theocratic or other state born at street level be more liberal or liberating than anything before it?
- Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara