Contrasting yet similar situations in Syria and Egypt illustrate the risks of popular uprisings against autocratic regimes
Two and a half years ago the western world looked on as the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring unfolded and massive protests swept the Middle East nations of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. There was a definite feeling, however widely held, that a once-in-a-lifetime shift was occurring; that a stubbornly regressive part of the world was finally grasping a more representative, rights-oriented future. Fast-forward to the second half of 2013, however, and it is clear that any initial notions of a peaceful and orderly transition were naïve in the extreme. International headlines over the summer have been dominated by situations in Syria and Egypt which can be described as fundamentally different yet depressingly similar. Middle East citizens in their millions have made clear that they desire balanced and democratic societies over autocracies. It is nothing less than a tragedy that the socio-political structure of the region has led to many deaths in the pursuit of this ideal, and means that many more will die before it can at last be realised.
The vast majority of ‘Arab Spring’ deaths have occurred in Syria. In April 2011 President Bashar al-Assad reacted to demands for his resignation by employing the Syrian army to fire on protestors across the country. His brutality ensured that the uprising escalated into a civil war which to date has claimed the lives of well over 100,000 people, and displaced millions more. Russian and Iranian military support for the Assad regime has given it the upper hand in the conflict; the government has recently been accused of firing chemical weapons at thousands of its own people, killing hundreds. International reaction to these developments, meanwhile, has been muted due to the more cautious foreign policy outlook of the Obama administration in comparison to, and largely in consequence of, its predecessor. The appalling bloodshed highlights the danger of uprisings against a dictatorial establishment that has no wish to be unseated.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, conversely, stepped aside at the behest of demonstrators in February 2011 comparatively willingly. Ensuing events have been anything but straightforward. In the aftermath of the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organisation, won presidential and parliamentary elections in which turnout was low. Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader in June 2012, winning over many secularists in the absence of an organised liberal movement. What followed led to the deeply polarised Egypt that we see today. After months of government mismanagement and attempts to impose religious law on Egypt’s constitution, popular demonstrations at the end of June and beginning of July prompted an army coup. Both sides have since been unwilling to compromise: hard-line Islamists believe they have been robbed of their democratic legitimacy and demand Morsi’s reinstatement, while the interim administration’s line that Morsi activists are terrorists plotting to bring down the country has been swallowed by many. Over the last few weeks religious attacks and numbers of Muslim Brotherhood detainees have proliferated. Frantic international efforts to ease the tension came to naught when the Egyptian security forces violently cleared two demonstration camps a fortnight ago – in all likelihood over a thousand people died in that event alone.
The situation in Egypt differs from that in Syria, fairly obviously, due to the contrasting levels of success enjoyed by protestors in ousting autocratic leaders. All too similar is the tragic bloodshed in both cases. Both events demonstrate the danger of attempting democratic transitions in countries in which repressive dictatorships, and religious extremism, have lingered. Established autocratic regimes generally do not give up easily; even where they do, the unfamiliar void left behind is all the more potent in societies split along deep sectarian lines. The reality is that religion should have no role in the running of states: beliefs in religious law, which can lead to impassioned rejection of other views, do not sit well with democracy, which is dependent on compromise.
The unravelling of the Arab Spring in Syria and Egypt illustrates how the fair, balanced societies coveted by millions in the Middle East will not come easily to the region. Indeed, the recent military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi risks setting a dangerous precedent that democratically elected yet disapproved of governments can be removed at any time. This precedent would be undesirable given that the democratic process largely holds together populations and averts social unrest. More seriously still, the coup risks further alienating hard-line Islamists and stoking religious violence.
These problems, however, should not necessarily signal an end to attempts to secure progress in the Middle East. The comparative peacefulness and stability of much of the western world demonstrates that proper inclusive, representative democracy is the best way of ensuring lasting prosperity for societies. At the same time it cannot be doubted that structural issues in the Middle East have thus far rendered the shift chaotic and bloody. It is for the region’s citizens to decide whether the associated medium-term suffering is offset by their long-term goal.