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The Great Arab awakening

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30 June 2011 17:02

Two of the biggest bits of 21st century political history have shown a strange willingness to divide neatly between decades.

On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his vision of jihad announced the shape of the decade. George W Bush embraced the vision from the opposite direction with his War on Terror.

Both the war and bin Laden have barely outlasted the decade they defined.The second decade of the century has been electrified by the Arab revolts. One of the many extraordinary elements in this amazing moment has been how little heed the revolts have paid to the claims of the previous decade, bequeathed by bin Laden or Bush.

Titles matter. Thus, the Arab Revolts or Jasmine Revolution or Arab Spring all have their attractions to describe these dramas. The one I find intriguing is the Great Arab Awakening.

The Awakening expresses the idea that, 'after decades of political stagnation and sclerotic leadership', politics has returned to the Arab world. A new generation has thrown off the stupor imposed by its leaders. Whether individual revolts win or lose, there is no going back to the old political somnolence. All change for a new Arab age.

When people power meets military power, however, the results are bloody and combustible. If the regime can keep its grip on the military, it has a fighting chance of holding on. This is my lesson from the revolt I reported on in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The other awakening of 1989 succeeded because the people of Eastern Europe had their way and the tanks did not roll.

Egypt and Tunisia reveal one side of this equation: the military hear the people and power shifts. Syria and Libya show what happens when the generals don't agree with the street. Yet it is never just about the army. Syria and Libya demonstrate that failing regime legitimacy and popular passion can stand in the balance against military might. You can do a lot of things with bayonets, but you can't sit on them.

Add to this mix the law of unintended consequences. Wars and revolutions can throw up strange winners and unlikely losers. The two American wars of the last decade are instructive. Who was the clear winner out of the US war in Iraq? My nomination for the player that gained most and lost least: Iran. As for Afghanistan, with the US speeding towards a 2014 exit, it will seek to both kill and negotiate with the leadership of the Taliban.

It would be a hell of a return on the US$3 trillion War on Terror if some of the main beneficiaries end up being Iran, the Taliban and a Pakistan that placed bets on both sides. 

In thinking about Arab awakenings, both the romantics and the realists agree that revolts seldom end at the place their originators were aiming for. Speaking for the realist team: Henry Kissinger. For the romantics: Lawrence of Arabia. 

Back in April, Kissinger laid out three rules to use in looking at the Arab Spring:

One is you cannot judge the outcome of a revolution by the proclamations of those who make it. Secondly, those who make it rarely survive the process of the revolution, and so that the second wave of the revolution is tremendously important. Third, the greater the upheaval that the revolution causes, the more likely is it that the — in order to restore order and a sense of legitimacy, that — that a lot of force gets used...So I think we are now in scene one of act one of a five-act drama that will develop over a considerable period of time and in which we have to determine our interests, our range of influence, and what conflicting motivations may be involved.

From Kissinger to one of the romantics who proved his own observation that 'the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.' TE Lawrence was on the scene nearly a century ago, seeking 'an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim'. Yet when Lawrence summed up the result, the old cynics trumped the young dreamers

The moral freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age.

Both the realists and romantics can only gasp at what the young have done in just six months. At the very least, the Great Awakening means the old political stasis is swept away. The battle is about what will be built instead.

Photo by Flickr user Kodak Agfa.

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