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The Arab revolution

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host Matt Smith. With me today is Dr Luca Anceschi of the Politics Program at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me, Luca.

Luca Anceschi:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today to talk to me about the Arab Spring and the developments that have been happening in the Middle East and around Northern Africa. In the past year we've seen a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests across the Arab world. In your opinion, what has been the motivation for this change and why has it been happening now?

Luca Anceschi:

Before we start, a little thing about the actual name of this movement. My friends in the Middle East tell me that we shouldn't use the expression "Arab Spring". The first reason for that is a funny one, because they say it didn't happen in spring, it happened in winter, but also because their idea of what was going to happen wasn't just bring a little bit of fresh air into the politics of the region, but it was much more about totally changing the system. And in this sense the expression that they use in Arabic is the Arab Revolution, which in turn leads me to your question about what was the main causes. The main causes of this revolution, which started in Northern Africa and then spread across the region, was at the same time political and economic. It started essentially as the ultimate act of a population that could not stand the yolk that was imposed on them by the regimes, but it started in fact in December 2010 in rural Tunisia, where this Mohamed Bouazizi guy, who was a vendor at the local market, could not overcome the red tape that was associated with this activity and set himself alight. So that's the symbol that brings both the political claim and also the economic grievances of the revolutions in the Middle East.

Matt Smith:

That one catalyst event. So do you think without that event the Arab revolution still would have happened?

Luca Anceschi:

The event is highly symbolic but it's also indicative of its essence, which is both political and economic. It's not just about political rights here, not just about voting, not just about having access to social rights and demonstrations – it is also about the right to live a dignified life, in terms of whatever the state can provide the populations. So it is in that sense that Mohamed Bouazizi's gesture was the catalyst and spark.

Matt Smith:

One thing that I should ask then, is where did the term Arab Spring come from? Is that something …

Luca Anceschi:

It's a Western label, because we like to compare it to 96 year Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring, which wasn't very much of a system, of an idea of changing the system in Czechoslovakia, it was much more having a human face, socialism. So we associate that movement with '68, but in the Middle East it's not used, they use the word al-thawra, which means revolution.

Matt Smith:

Recently, President Assad has warned the West that any meddling in his country would carry the risk of setting the whole Middle East on fire. How has the West reacted to these uprisings?

Luca Anceschi:

Pretty badly, in the way in which we have delayed support, which we saw in the Egyptian case where President Obama, which was Mubarak's best ally, was very late in shifting field and supporting the population rather than standing up with the regimes. That was the same attitude that we saw with European patrons, in inverted commas, in the Tunisian case, where Sarkozy did not react as quickly as he should have when the uprising started in Tunisia. And the same when it comes to Italy in relation to Libya. So that's the first apology of bad Western reaction, to delayed support to the democratic and popular uprisings. Then we had the intervention section of the way in which the West has reacted. We saw in the case of Libya, the West decided to get involved in this revolution by taking clearly sides in a direct way and in that sense they contributed to topple the Gaddafi regime in the longer run, although it took them much longer than it expected in the plans of NATO. But interestingly, the second kind of reaction, which is the direct intervention, was not motivated by interests in the local politics, it was the power politics in France and the UK that had repercussions on the way in which the West meddled with the situation in Libya. And then we had a number of sort of shades in Western reaction to the region, which for me, the most interesting one is the total absence of any significant reaction to the crushing of the revolution in Bahrain, which the West allowed Saudi Arabia to do pretty much whatever they wanted in the Bahraini scene, in a way in which it shouldn't have. The violence that happened in Bahrain was the symbol of a regime that did not want to be opening to the world, and in fact, that actually happened. They successfully prevented the revolution to go ahead. So we have, in short, three kinds of reactions. A delayed one, a more direct intervention one, and a total absence in other cases.

Matt Smith:

Is it a case of, they'll support whoever seems to be in power at the time?

Luca Anceschi:

It really depends on the implication that regime change in the region would have for the foreign policy of that Western actor. Getting rid of Mubarak or Ben Ali in Tunisia, that was much more problematic, especially since long term ties established with those regimes. When it came to Gaddafi, the West had an easier way to get around its former alliance with the regime, because Gaddafi was always seen as the mad dog of Arab politics, so they differentiate who was easier to get rid of, it was in Libya more complicated and we saw that in the Syrian case. In the Syrian case the voice of intervention has never been raised convincingly by the West – Kevin Rudd is the exception in that case, because they know that that regime will be very difficult to topple. The wider implications are going to be the discriminate that the West will use to decide whether to intervene or not.

Matt Smith:

Has the West been implicit in keeping unjust governments in power?

Luca Anceschi:

That's a tricky one.

Matt Smith:

Now that Gaddafi has been toppled in Libya, it's come out that quite a lot of the weapons that he had were supplied from the UK for example. As long as somebody's in power, they'll get support from Western countries, especially if they're oil countries.

Luca Anceschi:

Let me try to answer this. The West has been particularly responsible in ensuing authoritarian stability in the region. We over-associate the idea of instability with non-democratic politics but in the case of the Middle East we have realised that the more authoritarian the regime was, the more stable its grip onto power was. So the West has perhaps not been instrumental in these regimes emerging, but giving legitimacy, extending legitimacy to Ben Ali or President Mubarak to the same extent to which the legitimacy is extended now to the regime in Saudi Arabia, which doesn't have much of a democratic façade either. It was perhaps the biggest tool that the West used to prop these regimes. So I would say that our idea of governance in the region, when we had these regimes that were both stable and authoritarian as being challenged successfully by the Arab Revolution in a way in which our perception of what the politics of the region are going now, is very difficult to shape because we are moving in uncharted territory.

Matt Smith:

But that goes all the way from Libya getting weapons from the UK through to Saddam Hussein being given the key to the city of Detroit.

Luca Anceschi:

It does go all the way, as you said. It is a matter of extending different types of support to different regimes in different junctures, which actually complicate the relationship now between those who were the Opposition before the revolution and the Western states involved in the region. What sort of ties would be able to see? I give an example. Before coming to La Trobe I used to teach in Italy, in Naples, and we organised this conference in 2006 on the idea of Muslim Democrats and we invited Rasheed Al Gannushi which is the winner of the Tunisian election, his party, Ennahda won the election last week. The Italian government did not grant Gannushi a visa, so we could not have him on board. Now Gannushi will be a key player in Tunisian politics. How that sort of relation with the West which used to be looking at Gannushi as an enemy – well, we don't know how this thing is going to shape. So we have these new roles emerging in the region with actors that have to forge new relationships with those that used to be their opponents.

Matt Smith:

Do you think social media such as Facebook and Twitter has had a big effect in the Arab Revolution, or has its prominence been overplayed?

Luca Anceschi:

I think it depends on the case. Like when we think of Libya, there is not much material in Facebook going around, it was much more a civil war that was fought and it is similar to some extent in Syria, where it is actually censored by the regime. I was speaking with someone when I was the last time in Damascus and they told me that they used to connect onto a Lebanese server to use their Facebook account, so within the country it was actually successfully banned, or very much controlled. In the case of Egypt, yes, social media did play a major role. And the best way to understand the impact of that kind of media onto the revolution is just to highlight the fact that throughout January the Egyptian government introduced a law that forbid people to send the same SMS to more than ten recipients. That was the law that was enforced because they were scared that if you would send all those SMSs to many people you could actually have larger numbers to demonstrations. Of course that law didn't work. We have seen that with the use of Facebook and Twitter, the Egyptian population did go into the streets and stay there for a long time.

Matt Smith:

The Arab Revolution has been successful in bringing down unwanted regimes. What do you think they need to do now to establish political order?

Luca Anceschi:

That's a tough question, but an interesting one. I am slightly pessimistic of the outcome of these revolutions. We've seen in Egypt that almost ten months down the track not much has changed in terms of the way in which stability is perceived throughout the country and in fact the army is still playing a key role – I can't see any possible way in which they will decide to be more marginal in that context. And the whole issue of the inter-confession, inter-religious violence between Muslims and Copts – some people have said that it was fermented by the army itself. So the Egyptian case still doesn't have an easy way out from the transitional government that we saw in the last ten months. The Libyan case, well if the government wants to establish a democracy, they haven't started with the right foot. We saw the way in which the Gaddafi killing was perpetrated. It wasn't really a good start for someone to embark on a peaceful democratic transition. In the case of Libya I think that it will be the combination of political rights and a fairer distribution of wealth when it comes to oil revenues that will make the difference. Tunisia so far is the case that we could look at with more interest because they have held an election. It seemed to be a bit orderly now, although there have been a few instances of problems in different parts of the country when they come to the election procedure. Although to establish democracy you don't just need to vote. That's the minimum requirement. You need to establish procedures, checks and balances, institution making, that will have to look at different kinds of policy. In the case of Tunisia especially it would be the economic restructuring of the country that will make the difference, because they struggle over there, the people were very distressed by the poor economic conditions they were experiencing. So the outlook is starting to get better, I seem to be pessimistic, but it will take a bit of time. If we do the same interview in twelve months down the track we will have a better picture.

Matt Smith:

What countries do you think are in risk of toppling next in the Arab Revolution?

Luca Anceschi:

For me the key uprising is the one that's happening in Syria, because Syria, it is a key player. When it comes to the geographic position, the geo-politics of the region, very active foreign policy, so it is a major player in the region, unlike Egypt that before, in the experience of decline in the last decade of Mubarak. So it was marginalised in a sort of meaningful discussion in the region. And also, most symbolic because Syria, it still has not signed the peace with Israel. So Syria is an actor that should experience some sort of regime upheaval, you will have major implications for the region as a whole. It could even get to a point in which Syria will actually be sub-divided into different entities. It is a fairly fragmented political landscape, and I believe that the regime will do anything in their own capability to try to keep crushing upheaval, especially because Syria is the case in which a minority does rule the majority of the country in terms of confessional politics. But it is by far the most important of the upheavals. I think it's probably as important as the Egyptian one. The Egyptian one was very important in terms of the symbolic because Egypt used to be the cultural centre of the Arab world, at one stage was even the political centre, and it's a big country in terms of population. Eighty million plus. Whereas Syria, it is the major actor when it comes to foreign policy.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr Luca Anceschi, thanks for your time today.

Luca Anceschi:

Thank you.

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