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Arab uprisings: is it best to do nothing?

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Robin Lustig | 11:52 UK time, Friday, 2 December 2011

I've been thinking some more about the Arab uprisings which surely will come to be seen as the defining events of 2011, just as the end of Communism in Europe came to define 1989. Soon we'll be marking the first anniversary of the death by self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-seller who sparked the uprisings, so perhaps it's a good time to try to take stock.

(Incidentally, you may remember that when the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the French revolution, he replied: "It's too soon to tell." This was in the early 1970s, but unfortunately, it now turns out that he was referring to the events of 1968, not 1789, which rather ruins the story.)

The trouble with revolutions is that they tend to be processes, rather than events. In the words of Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard university, writing in Foreign Policy this week: "If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process."

He offers three examples. First, the French revolution: the Bastille was stormed in 1789; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed four years later; Napoleon didn't come to power until 1799. In other words, a full decade of turmoil and terror followed the initial uprising.

Or how about the Russian revolution? The Tsarist regime was overthrown in March 1917; the Bolsheviks came to power several months later, but then there was a grim civil war which didn't end until 1923. And there was, of course, continued turmoil - pogroms, massacres, and purges -- for many years after that.

His third example is the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. The Shah was desposed in January 1979; Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France a month later, but then there was a prolonged period of political unrest and uncertainty. The country's first post-revolution president, Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, was impeached in 1981 over his resistance to rule by the clerics - and you could argue that the debate over the role of the clerical establishment in Iran remains unresolved to this day.

All of which, I suppose, tends to lead to the conclusion that no, this is not yet a good time for a definitive assessment of the Arab uprisings. For one thing, in some countries the uncertainty is far from over: in Syria, most obviously, but also in Yemen, despite the transition of power agreement signed last week, and in Bahrain, where strains between the Sunni ruling family and the Shia majority continue to fester.

A sense of history may also be useful when outside governments consider how best they can shape events that are still in a state of flux. Professor Walt argues: "History ... warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course ..."

I spoke a few days ago to the Syria analyst Peter Harling, of the conflict resolution think tank the International Crisis Group, who takes a very similar view. He warned in his most recent report: "At a time when the international community is feeling a compulsion to do something, the overriding principle should remain to do no harm."

Don't rush to impose tighter economic sanctions, he argued, because they risk turning Syria into a pariah state and would enable the Assad regime to galvanise support against an "international conspiracy" - and don't rush to legitimise the Syrian political "opposition", who may have little, if any, support among the actual protesters on the streets of Syria's towns and cities.

Politicians hate doing nothing. They are genetically programmed to act, to intervene, to initiate, because they are convinced that if they get it right, they can help to make the world a better place. After all, who'd vote for politicians who just sat on their hands all day, gazing out of the window at the mayhem all around them?

But sometimes, the wisest of them could be the ones who do least. So in my dreams, one day, when I ask a minister what s/he intends to do about the latest outbreak of violence somewhere, I'll get the reply: "You know what? I think for now the best thing to do is nothing."


  • Comment number 1.

    Arab uprisings: was/is it best to do nothing?
    Ask yourself, if the situation in Britain became pugilistic among Lib Dems, Conservatives & Labor, would the Coalition Govt welcome the intervention of the United States to say - bomb those Labor areas into submission?
    Professor Stephen Walt, of Harvard University: "If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process." To this I would add, especially when you are dealing with various established religions/cultures such as the Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Coptic Christians…
    This is not yet a good time for a definitive assessment of the Arab uprisings. For one thing, there has been too much external intervention, especially in Libya & Syria, but also in other countries, like Yemen. In the Arab countries much tension stems from great inner discord between Shia & Sunni Muslims. (Did the intervention in Iraq reduce, increase, leave untouched the sectarian violence? And still the poeple of Iraq, after all these years of US intervention, have not established the Government they want.)
    Outside governments have absolutely no right to shape events; the people of these Arab states ALONE HAVE THAT RIGHT. So, every intervention - even if "just" military equipment or advice - is wrong. In the western process of colorful revolutions, they have left the many countries (not just Arabian) black & blue, and continuously unsafe. Why? Because western-backed Governments did not allow the people to freely decide. "Benevolent neglect" is the road to follow, but often times, western governments follow the road of self-serving greed...and that has made all the difference.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think I can safely say that ALL of the time, outside communities are acting for themselves. What is Syria if not the stepping stone to Iran - for those who would attack Iran? What is Libya if not a geopolitical victory coupled with oil - for western Governments? The overriding principle has been to back whatever side (Sunni, Shia, Christian, atheists...) just as long as the west can exploit the resources and/or location.
    Sanctions are never appropriate because, in a "civil" sort of war, sanctions bespeak bias.
    Politicians hate doing nothing: when a country is being weakened by strife, where there is profit to be made…Don't ever believe that western countries intervene for the sake of Human Rights. They are politically programmed to react wherever they see profit - a market for the military equipment, oil, employment for the military, oil, geopolitical positioning that will help future attacks...OIL. There is NO western power who enters these situations for Humanitarian Purposes, & for this very reason, you can hear true revolutionaries crying out: "We do not want foreign intervention!" Does the west listen? Does the badly-needing reform UN listen?
    The most democratic, caring countries do the very least they can - may some medical assistance, food, but never bombs, covert penetration, & resource theft. By God, I swear, I cannot think of one country that has intervened anywhere aiming to do the least damage possible...and that is a bloody shame!
    I support you're ending 1,000%: "You know what? I think for now the best thing to do is nothing." Let the people decide. Stop, stop, stop with the so-called Humanitarian Intervention because most of the world knows this as a blatant lie.
    "Benevolent neglect" is the road to follow, but often times, western governments follow the road of self-serving greed...and that has made all the difference

  • Comment number 3.

    Best to do nothing?

    Best for whom? No country and no people is ever without history. The peoples and nations of the planet are all interlinked that is unavoidable. This is both the problem and opportunity. Is what we choose to do, best for salving our conscience over past perceived or believed misdeed or best for some idealised desired outcome? And best for whom I ask again? I really don't think the question has an answer and anyone who thinks there is 'an answer' does not understand the question!

  • Comment number 4.

    Well, the politicians in a number of countries sat on their hands and did nothing while the banks ran their scam that wrecked the international economy, and have done little worthwhile since.
    Oppressed people's have little organization because those in power ban such organizations that might be in opposition. The sorting out of positions and ideas takes time and finding leaders is a process. Where there is disorder the people want order and from that order the details about laws and rights evolve. It is very unfortunate that the democratic nations participated in the facilitation of the banks robbing the people and now have little moral currency to offer nations in transition. As these very nations tax their people and reduce services to satisfy the continued greed of the bankers the arguments against a democratic process gain adherents. Hopefully the Arab nations will develop a political system that controls the influence of the wealthy in the political process and seek a more democratic system where the interest of the people are protected against the consolidation of wealth by the few. The Arab nations know this experience and is the major cause for the discontent. The nations of the West will also find that their people may be expressing dissatisfaction with their own political processes as the banking caused national debts come due. I don't see a big difference in decisions made by some cleric and those of some board chair of a major banking institution when those decisions become political policies.


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