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Wednesday, June 20, 2012 

Too early to tell.

I was going to start this post off by quoting Zhou Enlai, who when asked about the effects of the French revolution purportedly said that it was too soon to say. Only, as such witticisms often are, it all seems to have been a misunderstanding based on translation. Enlai wasn't referring to the revolution of 1789, but to the student rising of May '68, some three years previous. Still a fair while to not be able to draw a judgement, but not quite as indicative of supposed Chinese reflection on history as has been implied.

So much for that then. Except it is about time we at least took stock of where the Arab spring has led, a year and seven months on. Only Tunisia, where the protests began, can claim to have experienced both genuine revolution, and then also succeeded in following the initial phase up with free democratic elections. Even so, it can't be pretended that everything there is rosy: the Islamist Ennahada party, having won the largest share of the vote in the elections, has been remarkably indulgent of Salafist opinion and direct action, prosecuting a cinema owner who screened Persepolis after protesters claimed the film was blasphemous, while last week it blamed "provocations and insults" after Salafis defaced works of art and then rioted in the capital, leading the government to order a city wide night curfew.

In Egypt, the counter-revolution by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces looks to have been timed to perfection. Having let elections take place that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and a Salafi coalition dominating parliament, it waited until Mubarak's conviction was certain before striking back. A ruling has since dissolved parliament, and this week SCAF issued amendments to the interim constitutional declaration drastically limiting the president's power. This came as the MB's presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed he had the won the run-off against the former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, something denied by the latter who claims he is in fact victorious. Tonight it's being reported that tomorrow's announcement of the official result has been delayed indefinitely, ostensibly due to complaints from both parties, but coming so soon after the other interventions from the military it's hard not worry about whether this is a further attempt at a power grab.

Libya, despite or rather in spite of the NATO intervention is in an even worse state. Elections that were due to be held yesterday were postponed earlier in the month until July the 9th, supposedly on the grounds of "logistical and technical" reasons, although more likely is the fact that vast swathes of the country are still in the control of local militias rather than that of the Transitional National Council. Gone almost unreported is that four International Criminal Court officials continue to be held by the militia in Zintan, on the ludicrous grounds that Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor was passing "coded messages" to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Far from condemning the seizure, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr seems ready to "apologise" about the mission in an attempt to free the four, who are stuck as much in the power struggle between Tripoli and the militias as they are due to disagreement with the ICC over where the trials of former regime figures should be held (can you imagine the protests if Syrian forces had taken into custody some of the UN monitors?). The battle at Tripoli airport only underlined how volatile the country remains, while Benghazi and Misrata, the two cities most associated with the revolution look as though they could go their own way, having already held local elections.

Little more really needs to be said about the disaster unfolding in Syria. In Yemen, President Saleh handed over power, but this seems to have only postponed renewed protests should any attempt be made by his successor Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi to serve longer than the two years the power transfer agreement laid out. Bahrain continues to prosecute those it claims took part in protests, the latest being an 11-year-old boy, the uprising of last year having been crushed by troops sent in from Saudi Arabia and Emirate states. With the wonderful John Yates in charge of reforming policing, having moved from deciding one group of crooks needn't be investigated to another, and the United States announcing that it will resume weapon sales to the country regardless of the continuing crackdown, things can clearly only get better for those demanding their rights in the country. Saudi Arabia itself meanwhile is mourning the death of Prince Nayef, with many governments across the world expressing their condolences. None however are likely to mention that today Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was executed having been convicted of "witchcraft and sorcery".

Certain patterns have emerged. As throughout history, those who first agitate for and succeed in overthrowing their rulers often find their revolution stolen from them or otherwise subverted, as in France (see above), Russia in 1917 with the February revolution being overtaken by the Bolshevik uprising in October, and Iran in 1979 when what had began as a rising against the Shah was transformed into an anointment of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Tunisia and Egypt the protesters were overwhelmingly young, secular and relatively liberal, and yet the main beneficiaries were Islamic parties. Partially down to the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groupings having long dominated the underground opposition movement, it was also partially down to the usual failure of the left, liberals and secular groups in general to unite around a common party or figure. In the Egyptian presidential election the MB's Morsi faced off against five main candidates opposing him and the so-called "remnants", the end result being the inevitable run off between him and a former regime figure.

More broadly, it showcases the continuing disaster of the belief that leaderless organisations and campaigns are the future of political opposition. Facebook and Twitter may well have been instrumental in the initial success of the Arab spring; they've certainly helped Western journalists to report on the views of protesters, as well as spreading unverifiable propaganda. What those using social networking have not been able to do is put together a coherent message after the first, and relatively easiest part of the process of removing a tyrannical government from power has been achieved, let alone organise themselves to the extent of being able to win anything approaching power themselves. The most obvious example of this failure is rather closer to home: heard anything from what was Occupy LSX recently? Nope, thought not.

The end result has been only marginally less repressive forces than those which were initially ousted have taken control. Tunisia is probably slightly better off than it was under Ben Ali, and Ennahada might take decisive action against the Salafis should their demands for Sharia escalate further. Elsewhere, the picture's fairly bleak. Egypt could almost be back where it started, even if Mubarak is close to death; Libya is likely to effectively break up into constituent parts; Syria is between the rock of Assad and the hard place of the Free Syria Army; and Yemen and Bahrain are nowhere nearer true democracy than they were in December 2010. It really is too early to tell how the Arab spring will play out, but it's not exactly looking good.

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