The United States today is celebrating the declaration of independence issued by a murky group of dissidents in 1776, who, had they been rounded up by the duly constituted authorities, would have been summarily and ignominiously hanged. Their brief against their government — a government that claimed an ancient heritage and right to govern them — was that it acted high-handedly and tyrannically, with no regard to public welfare. They charged their king with warring on their economic welfare and of depriving residents of the Thirteen Colonies of basic rights expected by all subjects of the crown, including the right to be represented on bodies that set taxes.
The long series of complaints lodged against the British monarchy by the American revolutionaries bears a striking resemblance to the charges laid against Arab rulers by their people since last December. Interfering with their economic well-being, ruling arbitrarily, undermining any independence of the judiciary, rendering “the military independent of and superior to civil power,” and preventing them from being properly represented in the legislatures have all been complaints launched via Twitter and Facebook and satellite television interviews, rather, as in the 18th century, via printed broadsides, handwritten letters, and word of mouth.
It is little wonder, then, that Americans have been overwhelmingly positive about these developments in the Arab world, with 76% of them sure that the changes will be positive in the long run, and, bless their hearts, 56% in favor of democratization even if it ended up hurting us interests. (Americans are not in the main Realists, it seems). Despite the best efforts of Fox Cable News and the Israel lobbies, only 15% think the revolts are mainly about Muslim fundamentalists trying to grab power. (What is true is that in the second phase of the revolutions, when they go to parliamentary elections, fundamentalist parties will contest vigorously for seats and some may do relatively well).
So here are some recent developments in the Arab revolutions of 2011, to consider on this day, which in 1776 in many ways kicked off a new way of organizing peoples and governments. Ironically, the abuses of executive power against which the Founding generation of Americans mobilized, and against which Arab youth have risen up, are now all too frequently exhibited by the Washington elite of both parties. This comment is not made in the way of encouraging cynicism, but simply to signal to all concerned that achieving democracy is not a single time-bound set of activities; it has to be a permanent way of life among free peoples, to which substantial numbers of citizens have to give of their time, effort and wealth. Otherwise, the executive in a country over time has enormous resources with which to infringe against basic rights of citizens, as do major corporations who have an unfair advantage in dominating the political process. Checks and balances within the government, such as the separation of powers, only go so far. Ultimately, it is people power that keeps tyranny at bay, which is why security forces and officials are so afraid of it.
Thousands of Moroccans protested on Sunday that the reforms proposed in last week’s referendum (which passed by 98%) did not go far enough. King Muhammad VI will now accept that the prime minister must be from the party with the largest number of seats in parliament, and the PM will have the right to nominate cabinet members. These changes move away from absolute monarchy, but are clearly highly limited in scope, and the king retains most of the power in the state, and remains head of the judiciary, thus forestalling its independence.
The opposition Wifaq Party is entering talks on national reconciliation with the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain. The protest movement in Bahrain was brutally crushed by Sunni hard liners in Manama, but clearly a government cannot hope to govern successfully merely by repression of the majority. Despite great mistrust among the contending parties, some compromises would be relatively easy to achieve if there were the will, and that Wifaq is not so alienated as to simply refuse to negotiate is a good sign (it would have every right to be). Likewise, that more level heads in the monarchy are still seeking such talks is promising, since hard liners such as the prime minister (the king’s uncle) want to deal with the movement simply by having people arrested and, let us say, put under severe pressure. Some of the reforms just voted in in Morocco might help in Bahrain.
The community group Lam Echaml this weekend forcefully condemned the stone-throwing on Sunday June 26 by Muslim fundamentalists outside a cinema showing an avant-garde film, “Neither God nor Master,” about secularism in Tunisia. Secular-minded and progressive Tunisians are fearful of the growth of the fundamentalist al-Nahda (Ennahda) Party, ably described here by Mark Lynch, and many entertain dark suspicions that incidents like the attack at the cinema are actually planned by cells within the latter party (something al-Nahda denies). The al-Nahda response to the cinema incident was to deplore violence but also to deplore “provocation,” in response to which secular Tunisians insisted that art is generally provocation and one must have the right to provoke in a democracy. There is no evidence that, for all its smooth self-presentation, al-Nahda leaders actually understand or approve of this principle. Still, that secularists are insistent on making the public case for freedom of expression in uncertain times is a tribute to the spirit of the Tunisian revolution, the one that started all the others.
Yemeni rebels say that they will unilaterally form a transitional governing council, as talks drag on about the formation of a new government. Ali Abdullah Saleh is too ill and disfigured to ever return as president, but refuses to admit, and his highly placed family members and partisans in Sanaa are encouraging his delusions.
Syrian tanks pulled back late Sunday from the city of Hama, which had seen enormous protests this weekend. Tens of thousands of people came out again on Sunday despite dozens of arrests by secret police and despite the stationing around the city of nearly 100 military vehicles. Hama was the site of the 1982 massacre of thousands by the Baath military. It is hard to interpret the pullback, but one could speculate that international financial sanctions against high regime officials are beginning to bite.
Unrest continued Sunday at Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands gathered Friday to deplore police brutality. But worryingly, this weekend there was violence between the people in the square themselves. Some suggest that street vendors and others in the informal economy who depend on tourism in the square attacked the tents of long-term protesters for interfering with their livelihoods. Egypt’s tourism is way down this summer, even though security is probably still better there than in many major American cities.
Turkey has just recognized the Transitional Governing Council in Benghazi as the Libyan government and offered it $200 million in aid. Note that the United States still has not recognized this body, and it has not turned over to it the billions that it has frozen of Libyan assets. In contrast, France recognized the young United States and contributed $1 bn. livres tournois to the cause of its independence, intervening navally just as NATO is intervening from the air in Libya. While US contributions to the UN/ NATO effort in Libya are much greater than news reports typically suggest, Washington should go ahead and recognize the TNC and should do much more for the Free Libya population economically. Eastern Libya is suffering badly, as is Misrata and the Western Mountains, and the message must be reinforced that fighting for liberty from a brutal dictator will bring the good will and help of free peoples in the outside world.
The Arab peoples deserve their Fourth of July, and deserve the support of the American people in their quest to end decades of rule by strong men, secret police, and mafia-like cartels run by ruling families and their cronies, which have severely limited the human and economic growth of this key region in which 320 million people live.