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Irish Lessons for the Arab Spring

By Paul Sullivan

In the middle of a speech by the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, pushing unification to a nation on the brink of war, the opposition sent a team of horses stampeding through the crowd. Almost 90 years on, during the early days of this year's revolution in Egypt, someone organized an eerily similar camel-horse attack on the crowds of Tahrir Square. 

The times are different, the cultures are different, and the reasons for dissent and protest are also different, but both countries have something in common—and it’s not just the crowd-dispersing tactics. There is one key lesson the post-Mubarak Egypt and the countries of the Arab Spring should learn from the tumultuous days of the early Irish Republic, and more recently, Saddam Hussein's Iraq: the importance of unifying a country around a clear purpose.

As the story goes, after Collins came back from England in 1921 with a treaty establishing Ireland as a self-governing entity, the Irish parliament narrowly passed it. However, a minority, led by Eamon Di Valera, opposed the treaty and left parliament, exacerbating tensions that led to a vicious civil war. Many lives were lost during the year-long war, including Collins who was gunned down by a rogue element of Eamon Di Valera’s anti-treaty groups.

Hopefully, Egypt will turn out to be a different story. However, there are now more than 28 political parties vying for office with numerous candidates from various backgrounds and ideologies likely to run for president. Recently, there seem to be growing splits between the Islamist parties and the secular parties, and also within those groups. Plus, the youth from the Tahrir demonstrations are starting to feel left out of the political process as better-organized groups like the Muslim Brotherhood show their strengths in bringing people out.  Then there is the lurking minority of conservative Salafis, who are the ones most likely to generate violence and inflexible ideas.

If these divisions widen and ideas continue to harden, civil peace in Egypt may be at risk. The example of the Irish civil war clearly illustrates why Egypt needs a unified leadership and a set of purposes in order to move forward.

That is not to say that all should follow one specific ideology. In democracies, people have differing views. However, with so many parties battling out for power, and with so many, sometimes vastly different viewpoints, Egypt runs the risk of creating a lasting and dangerous divide. If such scenario were to unfold, major problems could be left unresolved as politicians bicker at important moments (like here in the US). A divided people and government that can no longer work together will always lead to misfortune. Egypt needs to find its own way, but it will also need to understand the importance of establishing a unified nation.

The consolidating force for Egypt now is its vast history and culture, and the sense of Egyptianess shared by all citizens. Nationalism is strong in Egypt. It is far stronger than that found in Libya, Yemen, and even Syria. If the economy of Egypt continues to decline and unemployment worsens, or should ideologies and political slogans become fixed—making compromise less likely—there could be big trouble ahead for Egypt. The question is whether the strong sense of Egyptian nationalism will continue as the pressures and tensions mount.  It is vital for the leadership in Egypt to make sure that this sense of Egyptianess is continued to be used as a glue for the country. If the bonds weaken, the entire region is in trouble. Sadly, some of the other Arab Spring states, such as Libya and Yemen, don't have the strong sense of identity or history that Egypt has. And this will work against them, ripping them apart into pieces.

Of all of the Arab Spring states, Egypt probably has the best chance of moving forward as one. Yemen may be the one with the least favorable odds, while Syria is a complete wild card on this issue. If ethnicity and sectarianism take over the Syrian identity, there will be very big trouble. Libya could quite readily split into two, three, or more battling camps.

What can the Arab Spring states learn from Iraq about unification? As another Middle Eastern nation facing political realities after ousting a long-time autocrat, Iraq provides plenty of lessons to be learnt. One worth mentioning is drawn from Iraq's process of de-Ba'athification in 2003. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) removed Saddam Hussein's Ba’ath party from power and had Ba’ath members essentially fired from their positions, many vital Iraqi companies and ministries like the electrical and water companies had few people left to competently run them. Likewise, hundreds of thousands in the Army—people who knew how to strategize for conflict, shoot guns, and cause mayhem—were left unemployed and on the streets.

The jobless—especially ones with violent skills—can be dangerous. When the Ba’ath people were fired from their jobs, they departed with the technical expertise needed to exact revenge. It was no coincidence that crucial underground utilities were hit in Iraq. They knew where the infrastructure was, and they knew how to destroy it. Instead of integrating its society, Iraq was divided and paid the price. 

Again, as with the lessons from Ireland, the countries most likely to fall into this trap are Libya, Syria, and Yemen.  In Tunisia this seems to have already occurred—the reverberations from “cleaning out” those connected with Ben Ali have hardly started. Yemen is a bit more complex given not only its highly fractured tribal structures, but also the religious divide between its Sunni and Shia sect, which became much clearer to the world with the Houthi rebellions in northern Yemen.

Egypt is considering preventing people connected to Mubarak's National Democratic Party from running for office, and there are some who would like to see anyone associated with the party taken out of their government jobs. I’m not predicting former NDP members will cause havoc as the former Ba’ath party members did in Iraq, but it is important to keep some of the most skilled and experienced people in place. This will not only allow a better transition but also keep them off the streets. Competence, not Ideology, should be the test for running complex engineering and administrative systems. The Iraqis and the CPA learned this the hard way. 

I can understand to a great extent the anger of some of the people in Egypt. These last few decades have been hard for most Egyptians. There was a corrupt bureaucracy that used force and brutality to crush those who threatened the power and wealth of the authorities. To top it off, the country’s poorest experienced a stagnating economy, even if things seemed to be going well on the macroeconomic level.

The leaders of the Arab Spring can learn a lot from the mistakes of other countries. Ireland and Iraq would be just a starting point, and there is a lot more to those stories. These leaders would be wise to examine the transitions in Eastern Europe and the revolutions of the past to learn from their mistakes. They could also look into into civil wars and other violent events that occurred after revolutions (such as in Russia, France, and China where efforts to avert potential uprisings back-fired).

I hope these leaders take the many lessons of the past to heart. With over 70 percent of the world's known conventional crude oil reserves found in the Middle East and North Africa; with so many essential trade, communication, and finance lines traveling through the area; and with continuing Palestinian-Israeli disputes, learning from the past is vital for the future of not just the region but the world.


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Paul Sullivan is a professor at Georgetown University and The National Defense UniversityAll opinions expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the National Defense University, or any other organization he may be associated with.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user KayVee.INC]

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