Two years ago today, frustrated and angered by the layers of corruption in Tunisia, despairing of ever being able to change his life and provided better for his mother, stepfather and siblings, humiliated by his treatment at the hands of a municipal official and her aides, twenty-seven year old Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi sat down in the middle of a street in Sidi Bouzid, a small city approximately 140 miles south-south-west of the capital of Tunis, poured gasoline on himself and struck a match. It was 11:30 a.m., local time, 6:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time in the United States.
With second and third degree burns over 90% of his body, Bouazizi lay in a coma for eighteen days, transferred twice to better medical facilities than those available in Sidi Bouzid, before finally succumbing on January 4, 2011.
Americans like to say that our revolution was started when the first shot was fired at the British by a colonist, that famous “shot heard round the world” which really wasn’t heard anywhere but France and Haiti. Bouazizi’s match, however, was really a spark that ignited a region.
Ten days after Bouazizi’s death, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his family. Denied landing clearance in France, Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia, where he and his family were settled in the city of Jeddah, the Saudis’ favorite place to stick deposed dictators. Ugandan despot Idi Amin lived there from 1979 until his death in 2003.
Calls went out all over the Middle East for anti-government protesters, passed from activist to activist, from student to student, from young professional to young professional over Twitter and Facebook. Successive Fridays were chosen for post-midday prayers Day of Rage protests in different capitals.
The second leader to fall was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Following a mass protest movement that began on January 25, 2011, Mubarak was forced from power on February 11, after thirty years as a virtual dictator. Mubarak and his sons were tried and convicted by an Egypitan court and Mubarak is serving a life sentence for the killing of at least 300 demonstrators during the revolution. Gravely ill, he’s been pronounced dead once already, but refuses to die.
The fight lasted much longer in Libya, where Col. Moammar Qaddafi unleashed his military on the rebels and fought back for months. The United Nations and NATO intervened with a no-fly zone that lessened Qaddafi’s ability to use his Air Force to attack rebel cities like Benghazi. Without that tactical advantage, Qaddafi’s forces were driven back to the capital, and he was captured and summarily executed by the rebels in his home town of Sirte on October 20, 2011. Qaddafi’s sons Mutassim, Saif al-Arab and Khamis died during the revolution. Three of his remaining sons (none of whom had roles in his government), daughter Ayesha, grandchildren and second wife Saifa Farbash are in exile in Algeria and Niger. Second son, and presumed heir, forty-year old, Western-educated Saif al-Islam was captured and is in the custody of the Zintan militia in the town of Zintan. The International Criminal Courts had sued for jurisdiction over Saif, but that was rejected by the Libyans. The Zintani will not turn him over to the main government for fear he will not live to stand trial. He is expected to go on trial in Zintan in February, 2013.
Qaddafi’s resistence was straight-forward. President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen played games with the rebels for a year. Saleh had been President of North Yemen since 1978 and unified Yemen since 1990. The demonstrations against him began in February of 2011. For a year, Saleh kept promising to resign. He was seriously injured in an RPG attack in June, and still refused to leave office even while receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Finally, on February 27, 2012, he formally resigned.
With the exception of the King of Bahrain, the monarchs of the Middle East have tried to handle the protests and demonstrations with reform. In Bahrain, where a Sunni minority aristocracy rules a Shia majority population, King Hamad bin Isa al-Kalifa responded to the protesters with violent suppression. Aided by the Saudis, King Hamad has maintained an uneasy control over the people of Bahrain. Protests flair and are suppressed. King Hamad ascended to his throne in 2002, at the age of 52. His resistence to reform and a greater role for the Shia majority in Bahrain is based in the Sunni distrust of Iran, where the Shia majority ceded control of the government to the Grand Ayatollah.
In Morocco, 49-year-old King Mohammed VI, who has ruled since 1999, instituted some reforms and held a new parliamentary election which didn’t change much of anything in Morocco. But the people of Morocco had not pressed for extensive reform.
The 88-year-old Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Adbul Aziz is the fifth son of King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman to sit on the throne, part of a complex line of succession that must wend its way through the numerous sons of King Abdulaziz (aka Ibn Saud) ranked in accordance with the ranks of their mothers. As the guardian of the twin Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, he rules a country deeply influenced by the will of fundamentalist Wahabi clerics. Any revolution that impacted the Holy Cities would ignite the entire Middle East. King Abdullah’s response to the Arab Spring was bribery. He announced that Saudi Arabia would dig into its billions of dollars of oil money to start infrastructure projects, increase welfare payments to the people, reform educational opportunities and hopefully open employment opportunities for young Saudis. These two years have not, however, been without certain issues and confrontations involving the rights of women. Women are fighting for the right to drive cars and work in places where they would come into contact with men. While King Abdullah supports greater freedoms for women, the clerics oppose them and there have been attacks on the women who are protesting for their rights.
Jordan’s 50-year-old king, Abdullah II, has spent all of his 13-year reign caught between the powerful, very conservative tribal leaders who were influential in his father’s time and his own desire for reform and modernization. Jordan will shortly hold new parliamentary elections based on the new constitution King Abdullah has negotiated with the reformers. The changes have not completely satisfied the reformers and protests have been held during the past two years, but of all the leaders in the Middle East, King Abdullah is the one the United States needs the most. His country is not floating on a sea of oil, America’s greatest “national interest” issue in the region. It is the man we must stay invested in because King Abdullah has been a voice of moderation and modernization in a region too often clamorous with conflicting goals. (King Abdullah’s and his brother’s interviews with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show are worth watching for an understanding of this royal reformer.) President Obama has pledged increased economic aid to Jordan to assist King Abdullah in his plans.
Finally, there is the nightmare of Syria. For 21 months, starting with localized protests against a lack of government assistance with the crisis of droughts in the South, and progressing to a full-blown, city-by-city, street-by-street, village-by-village guerilla revolt, Syria’s President Bashar al Assad and an entrenched Alawite minority parliament have refused to enact meaningful, timely reforms. At least 40,000 Syrians have died and millions are refugees inside Syria and in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. The country’s economy has virtually collapsed. Humanitarian aid has not been possible. All attempts at establishing a cease-fire with monitors have failed. The Syrian government has progressed from mass arrests and torture to snipers targeting protesters to tanks to helicopter gunships to fighter jets and bombers to Scud missiles to stop the rebel army. The infrastructure damage in Syria is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Whole neighborhoods have been leveled. Historical landmarks have been bombed. When this is finally over, it will take at least a generation to rebuild and restore Syria.
As Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood have usurped the Arab Spring, as revolution has failed to bring about a peaceful transition to reform and democracy, America’s right wingnuts have claimed that President Obama engineered the Arab Spring to give the Middle East to his “Muslim brothers” and spread Sharia law preliminary to re-establishing the Caliphate and turning the United States into a Muslim nation where Sharia replaces the Constitution. That’s easier for them to understand than the real reasons behind the way Islamists have been gaining majorities in these newly liberated countries – our invasion of Iraq.
America’s support of Israel has always made us an enemy of certain portions of the Arab population. But opposition to us has multiplied vastly since 9-11, an event that had initially elicited sympathy for us among Muslims. We might have gotten away with invading Afghanistan. We had been supportive of the Afghans’ fight against the Soviets, the Taliban weren’t particularly popular throughout the region, and those of an imperial mindset have been shitting on Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. We invaded Afghanistan to catch Osama bin Laden, and at that point, bin Laden was not widely considered a hero among Muslims.
We had no valid reason to invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein had been contained by the no-fly zone imposed by President Clinton. The Kurds in Northern Iraq had established their own independent government. The invasion was bad enough. What we did after that was what turned the Middle East further away from the United States and more toward Islamic fundamentalists.
Instead of allowing the Iraqis to rebuild the nation they built, we handed out contracts to companies like RGB which had no expertise in the things they were doing. We created and then exacerbated a huge unemployment problem. We ignored what the Iraqis wanted, three nations, based on the ethnic and religious divisions of the country – Kurds in the north, Shia in the south and Sunnis in between. We refused to “allow” it, forcing the Iraqis to accept a central government where sheer numbers gave the Shia an advantage. We unleashed an ethnic civil war as bad as the one that followed the end of communist rule in Yugoslavia. Ten years later, the Iraqis still don’t have reliable electrical service, have “new” schools that are falling apart and have buried up to 300,000 men, women and children. They are still dying almost on a daily basis. In short, we treated Iraq the way the West has been treating the people of North Africa, the Near East and the Middle East for over two millennia – as a place to invade, occupy and exploit.
And even though President Bush tried to maintain a civil attitude towards Muslims in general, the under current in America was filled with anti-Islamic rants and ratcheting hatred. The Internet truly is the World Wide Web, and that hatred was picked up and spread across the Muslim world, used as recruiting tools by jihadists.
The Obama administration has used a very different policy in the Middle East. It is dismissed by the right wing as “leading from behind,” but it is a policy of deferring to the choices made by the people in each country where the Arab Spring has resulted in the overthrow of an old regime. The results have not always been beneficial to us. The administration hopes to erase the resentments left by the Bush administration and rebuild relations, but that is steep uphill slog. For the time being, the Islamists are winning. They have used the revolutions started by the young, the educated, the sophisticated, the idealists and modernists to assert their dominance over these nations, and the revolutionaries are fighting back.
Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi lit a match two years ago, and ignited a spirit of reform and revolution that has reached from Morocco to Yemen. It took France from 1787 to the second half of the 20th century to evolve into a reasonably stable republic. Haiti still hasn’t gotten it right after 200 years. There is no way to predict how long it will take the Middle East to evolve.