It’s the Popular Sovereignty, Stupid

The logic of the Arab spring is about popular sovereignty. The people power being displayed in the streets, on twitter and Facebook, is intended to sweep away impediments to the expression of the will of the people, mainly presidents for life. The Arab crowds are investing their hopes in a new era of parliamentarism, in elections and constitutions, in term limits and referendums, in the rule of law and the principle that governmental authority must derive from the people. It is not that they are John Stuart Mill liberals. The crowds have a communitarian aspect, and demands jobs and for free formation of labor unions and the right to bargain collectively form a key part of the protest movements. But such labor organizing is also seen by movement participants and part of the expression of the popular will.

That the movements have been so powerfully informed by this Rousseauan impulse helps explain their key demands and why they keep spreading. The progression is that they begin with a demand that the strong man step down. If they get that, they want a dissolution of old corrupt ruling parties and elites. They want parliamentary elections. They want term limits for the president and reduction of presidential powers. They want new constitutions, newly hammered out, and subject to national referendums. They want an end to corruption and croneyism. They aim for future governments to be rooted in the national will.

In Yemen, strongman Ali Abdullah Salih’s offer to step down at the end of this year,was met with demands that he do so immediately, as some of his officials resigned. Salih’s troops shot down dozens of demonstrators in downtown Sanaa last Friday, provoking many defections from his government this past weekend, including among high military officers.

The demands have spread to Deraa, southern Syria. Syria is ruled by a one-party system, the Baath Party, and the reins of power had been passed dynastically from dictator Hafez al-Asad to his son Bashar. Aljazeera English has commentary on the situation.

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has promised to allow the prime minister to be elected by parliament rather than appointed by himself. He also pledged that the PM would have more prerogatives and that there would be a separation of powers.. Thousands came into the streets of Casablanca on Sunday to put pressure on the king to follow through on his pledges. But the crowds added another demand, of a new constitution to be approved by the people.

In Libya, people were trying to hold out in Zintan as pro-regime forces bombarded the city. Likewise, Qaddafi’s military subjected the large city of Misrata to intensive bombardment.

In Algeria, President Abdel Aziz Boutefliqa and the generals that back him have been forced to lift a state of emergency that had curtailed constitutional rights, and the president is promising as yet unspecified “reforms.”

Michael Hudson surveys the wreckage in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority had demanded constitutional reforms in aid of popular sovereignty from the Sunni monarchy, but got imported Saudi Wahhabi troops instead. The Bahrain monarchy’s rigid refusal to compromise has turned the reform movement into a sectarian issue. Thus, the Bahrain Shiites are attracting support from Lebanon’s Hizbullah (which represents that country’s Shiites) and from Iraq’s Shiites. Bahrain airlines has been forced to cease flying to Beirut because of threats. Arab Shiism has often been denied political expression on the basis of its weight in the electorate, since the majority Sunni societies view that branch of Islam as a heresy, and link it to Shiite-majority Iran.

Aljazeera English has video on Tuesday’s Shiite protests in Manama:

21 Responses

  1. Mr. Cole,

    Why do you in Bahrain stress on the division between Sunnis/Shiites while is Syria which is essentially ruled by an Alawi Shiite minority is glossed over and there is an emphasise on the Baathi nature of the regime?

    I have noticed that you always gloss over these kind of facts when it comes to shiites.

  2. It was wonderful while it lasted, that Arab Spring. We were all enthralled and enthused by that genuinely populist movement for democratic reform and recovery of pride that swept through the Arab World, from Morocco to the Gulf, and has borne fruit in Tunisia and Egypt.

    Now it’s in effect all over. The West has swept in with its military intervention in Libya and has appropriated the Arab Spring, making it now all about us once again and about how exemplarily moral and humanitarian we are, how generous and kind we are with our unbridled fire power.

    We so admired the Arab Spring that we just couldn’t resist stealing it from the Arab nation and making it all about us, subordinating it to our conceited assumption of that incredibly racist, patronizing and supercilious White Man’s Burden.

    Oh yes, a few of the Libyan tribes will be grateful to us in the short run and might even give us easier and cheaper access to Libya’s oil if they ever manage to seize power and manage to run the country. In the long run the whole Arab World will hate us even more.

    • While I completely appreciate the sensitivity of American-Arab relations these days, I completely disagree that this action will harm diplomacy.
      First off, the Arab League fully supported this enforcement. While a lot of Republicans chastisted Obama for waiting too long, he did what was right: he waited for the okay of the people who actually live in the region.
      Secondly, the coalition is in full defence mode, and is not interested in toppling a regime: they only want to protect freedom of speech without fear of slaughter.
      Tough to differentiate considering the past 10 years – but this situation IS different.

  3. In case you missed it. Robert Cooper one of the senior members of the Ashton EU ‘diplomatic’ establishment, and an old Blairite, is defending the Bahrain government’s crackdown and justifying the Crown Prince’s actions.

  4. While the “rule of law and the principle that governmental authority must derive from the people” may have helped the communitarians way-back-when, it doesn’t really help deal with the rule of money which is a major force today.

  5. TheRealNews once more shows real news!

    “U.S. Defends Bahrain Dictatorship”
    by Husain Abdulla: Hypocrisy defending rebels in Libya but supporting regime in Bahrain.

  6. The West needed to do something in the ME. Libya seemed like a gift from God: identifiable boogieman killing civilians, oil, business generally, refugees to Europe. How lucky they were. Of course, Professor Cole is right about the popular sovereignty. But he can’t be optimistic about America/EU meddling, jockeying for maximum benefit to themselves. The only question is: will the Axis (US/EU/ISR)have success in the long run? In the short term it must look pretty good to them.

  7. That’s the problem with the intelligentsia. When a basic statement of fact is presented to them they over analyse the situation looking for hidden agendas, conspiracy, spelling mistakes, theories, vested interest activity and smoke and mirrors.
    In the case of Libya a bloody massacre has been avoided by the no fly zone. End of.

    I see no one stealing anything from anyone. No military intervention by greedy imperialists.

    I see the Arab league asking for help and receiving it.

    I see Gaddafi out hopefully and eventually and the rebuilding of a nation with a gradual withdrawal allowing citizens to govern themselves.

    Any other ‘script’ interpretation is really a sad form of intellectual masturbation.

    • The problem is, that’s up to the rebels. There was no rebel coalition to forestall occupation in Iraq, and we screwed over the rebel coalition that we’d help conquer Afghanistan. But they have to win on the ground.

      Ironically, their very lack of unity is proof that they’re not a US-manufactured fraud; and the US’s lack of a coherent strategy is proof that this wasn’t an imperial project of long duration but an improvisation out of panic over the consequences of Gadaffi’s victory. But all of that wears down on the odds of a quick peace.

    • In my opinion no. We may have it in weak form, the populance can be seriously misinformed, largely by the deliberate efforts of the kleptocracy, and can be lead to be their inadvertent water carriers.

    • Popular sovereignty in the US? Not a chance.

      The Arab Spring began when the police in Tunisia refused to fire on the peaceful protesters. As one Tunisian put it, “Tunisia is a peaceful country, we don’t shoot each other, the robbers don’t even use guns.”

      While the US has a small elite that oppresses the masses, America is a violent country where shooting each other is an accepted dimension of American life.

      Remember Kent State. Wisconsin Governor Walker recently admitted that he considered planting terrorists among the peaceful protesters in Madison. Besides, if the police refused to fire on us, Blackwater would gleefully pull the trigger and then cash their checks from uncle Sam.

  8. Where is Zintan? Google maps shows a place called Khuraymat az Zintan, empty desert about 5 miles NE of Dirj, which looks to be a modest oasis. Maybe everybody is writing about Zlitan, which is about 30 miles E of Misrata.

  9. War is commonly defined as “a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.” By that definition, the United States and its allies have been at war with Libya since late last week. “At my direction,” President Obama told Congress, “U.S. military forces commenced operations” in Libya.

    Article I, section 8 of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power … to declare war…” Since Congress has not declared war on Libya, is American involvement in the Libyan war unconstitutional?

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