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Armies of the Arab Spring

By Scott Sharon

Three years ago Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, doused himself with gasoline, lit a match, and set himself and the Arab world on fire. The Arab Spring, spearheaded by youth, sought to address long-term problems such as high unemployment, rampant injustice, and social inequality. Dictators in a number of Middle East countries were compelled to resign. Some were overthrown, or managed to cling to power against a determined population eager to force change. While Presidents Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt succumbed to intense pressure and left office, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has remained in power.

World Policy Institute’s recent political salon, featuring Huffington Post Live producer Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and freeance journalist Maytha Alhassen, focused on a simple question: what has happened since Tunisia? Three years have gone by, and not one solid answer can be universally agreed upon. However, two Arab countries may provide some vital insights into the current state of revolutionary affairs. Egypt and Syria represent examples of how two different Arab countries’ governments dispatched their militaries to deal with the uprising. Shihab-Eldin and Alhassens’ recent book, Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions, examines the movement from the perspective of those who witnessed the first crowds gather in Cairo and Damascus.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak ruled for over 30 years. With the backing of the United States, he kept peace with Israel, held Islamic extremists at bay, and presided over rampant corruption and human rights. Years of abuse at the hands of the Mubarak regime finally came to a head in January 2011. Muhammad Radwan, an Egyptian-American industrial engineer, was living in Syria when he first learned about the protests in Cairo. Eager to watch history unfold, he flew to Cairo. His experience was the first narrative documented in Shihab-Eldin and Alhassens’ text: “I witnessed police forces being over-powered by thousands of freedom-demanding Egyptians. I witnessed protestors sacrificing for themselves and their fellow countrymen. I witnessed the downfall of one of the longest-serving and most reviled dictators in the Middle East.” Radwan later stated he had told his employer that he would not return to work until Egypt was liberated; he finally returned to Syria in February 2011, less than a month after crowds first gathered in Tahrir Square.

Dina Sadek, another featured writer in the Demanding Dignity anthology, was an English Literature major at Ain Shams University in Cairo when she received Facebook invitations to join a protest against Mubarak’s government. Like many who had responded, “yes,” Shaims later remarked, “I woke up that day like any other day and checked the news. I saw the images of tens of protestors, and then the number rose to hundreds. By the time the number reached thousands, I was in Cairo’s now famous Tahrir Square.” Sadek found herself among the many protestors, shouting until her voice became hoarse. She quickly saw that the people were much more powerful than the police: “The people had finally stepped back outside of the fear box, and nothing could be done to hold them back. The regime had tried to break us down with weapons, but they could not compete with us, who were bolder, stronger and more determined.” Sadek discovered that the police, with their batons, tear gas, and stones, were no match for the determined citizens, and the will of the protestors proved enough to break the back of the Mubarak regime.

Throughout the protests, the Egyptian military chose not to intervene on behalf of the government. They saw themselves as a symbol of stability and presence, not a police force. Mubarak finally stepped down on February 11, 2011 and the transition to a democratic government began. The fact that the situation did not deteriorate into civil war can be seen as testimony to the army’s commitment to preserving the peace, not firing on civilians to scare them into submission. During the salon, Shihab-Eldin noted, “Egypt has always been viewed as an example of prosperity and progress in the Arab world.” This notion can account for the fact that Egypt, while currently in a state of flux, has not devolved into chaos. Even though former president Mohammed Morsi was removed from office, a year after he became the country’s first democratically-elected leader, and there have been fears of Egypt falling prey to a brutal insurgency, the army appears to have held the country together, cementing its status as a powerful institution capable of keeping Egypt afloat during uncertain times.

Despite the chaos in Egypt, it has not devolved into the devastating war in Syria. Protestors who were convinced that the success in Egypt would translate into quick victory in Syria were now forced to take up arms in a brutal civil war that has lasted to this day. Radwan, upon his triumphant return from Cairo, found himself at a mosque in Damascus, watching an imam deliver a pro-Assad sermon. Soon after, a group of people began chanting anti-Assad remarks inside the venue and, while trying to document the entire event on his cell phone, Radwan was apprehended and taken to an interrogation room with ten other anti-Assad protestors. He was accused of spying for Israel and was severely tortured. Sadly, Radwan’s experience at the hand of Syrian security forces is but a microcosm of the greater horror that has plagued the country. Approximately 126,00 people have been killed in the conflict thus far, and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime turned the region’s tragedy into the world’s nightmare.

Rami Jarrah, a Syrian-British political activist, also took part in the movement in his home country. He states in the book, “Assad said that his country was immune to what was happening across the Arab world, insisting that the Syrian people were satisfied with the country’s development and progress.” Months after Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi had been overthrown, the Syrian protestors were engaged in an all-out war against pro-Assad forces. Unlike in Egypt, Assad employed his military power forcefully and launched large-scale military operations in the early months of the protests, using tanks, aircraft, and artillery. And while there have been some defections in the Syrian government and military, the bulk of Assad’s forces have remained intact, allowing them to continue their daily brutal onslaught against their countrymen. Some rebels have even left rebel-held territory for government land, after witnessing the brutality of the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition group.

The Syrian civil war rages on—long removed from those early protests in 2011 at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, where Radwan and other civilians had witnessed its inception. The conflict has taken on multiple identities as well. In Syria, there is now a proxy war between Shia-Iran and Sunni-Saudi Arabia, and the conflict has served as a hotbed for foreign fighters, eager to sow the seeds of chaos.

The political implications of Egypt and Syrias’ revolutions are still to be determined. The Egyptian military recently lifted a nationwide state of emergency, but then imposed a ban on street protests. A peace conference between Assad’s government and rebel forces has been scheduled for January 2014, but there is little likelihood of a cease-fire. And though Egypt and Syria are two different countries with disparate populations, both share a commonality—the significance of their armies. Their armies determined whether their movements advanced, stalled, or disintegrated. It is important to note the power of the military when dealing with nationwide upheaval, and that the success or failure of a movement may ultimately depend on the varying use of force. 

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Scott Sharon is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Ramy Raoof]

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