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From Despite to Because – The Black and White Politics of Arab Revolutions

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From Despite to Because – The Black and White Politics of Arab Revolutions

There is a radical and wronge idea spreading around in post-revolutionary Arab countries that all Arab dictators are equally abusive and guilty. It is adovacted by the same people who tolerated dictatorship for one or another reason and despite of its obvious shortcomings. 

Photo: Sallam from Yemen

Rarely anybody would now admit that, in the early 1980s, Mubarak was uncorrupted and a man of the people or that, only 10 years ago, Ali Saleh was regarded by many as the unifier of Yemen and a historic leader. These initially popular leaders prolonged their expiration dates in politics through a system of nepotism and repression. This ultimately led to their political downfall in a revolutionary cascade. So much so that few dare to defend any part of their legacy or to hold a differentiated view on each deposed Arab leader on his own. Instead, a black-and-while-rhetoric rules the day in the Arab post-revolutionary politics.

One might have noticed such over-simplification in listening to analysts or activists on Arab media who blame Arab dictatorships for everything that went wrong in the last 30 or more years. Arab dictators are not only responsible for all misuse und mismanagement and have been abusive and corrupt from the get-go, they are also equally guilty and repressive.

This is a fraud conception and a radical spin-off of revolutions. Certainly, the majority did not see it this way all along.

We only need to remind ourselves of the hope people had when Mubarak came to power in 1981. In fact, he was a decorated war hero with no pronounced interest in politics. In recently disclosed files of the UK government, Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, was briefed by officials who described Mubarak as to be “the coming man” and “free of corruption”.

Throughout the 1980s, Mubarak was rather popular as he was seen to be a down-to-earth politician who increased investments in housing, clothing and medicine and spoke a common-man language. Only since the 1990s, Mubarak became more authoritarian and political corruption increased significantly.

The same story can be told to the Yemeni president, Ali Saleh. He was considered to be the only politician able, or rather willing, to govern the difficult Yemeni affairs during the 1980s. After the Yemeni reunification in 1990 and the civil war in 1994, he was applauded for achieving and defending Yemen’s unity. And when Saleh formed a unity government with the Islamic party (Islaah) after the war, he enjoyed unconditional support of the tribes and the opposition for many following years.

The late influential and most important tribal leader in Yemen, Abdullah bin Husain al-Ahmar, backed Saleh all his life – he only died in 2007. Although Sheikh Al-Ahmar was the leader of the Islaah party – the main opposition force, he was a close friend of the president and a guarantee for the survival of his regime. He even held the position of the speaker of parliament, even though the parliament majority is controlled by Saleh’s People General Congress and not by the opposition.

The late Sheikh al-Ahmar has always been gracious toward Saleh and used to speak highly of him as being very capable of steering Yemeni internal affairs. Even during last couple of years when criticism of Saleh grew louder and some of the Sheikh’s sons became leading figures in the opposition movement to Saleh’s consolidation of powers, he did not abandon him. Interestingly, in one of his last interviews with Al-Jazeera channel, the famous Sheikh answered a question about whether he supports the nomination of Saleh for another presidential term by simply stating a Yemeni saying: ‘A devil you are acquainted with is better that an human being you do not know’.

This quote of late Sheikh al-Ahmar and the comparison between Mubarak and Saleh are indeed very telling in two ways: First, these presidents have recently lost popular support only after being so attached to power, and thus allowing corruption and favoritism. In a sense, otherwise not dictators by nature, they were corrupted by unchecked powers.

Second, some of the now hated, former Arab leaders enjoyed a wide political support based on a more differentiated, but essentially resignatory, notion that, ‘despite of them being not-optimal or bad, they have their good side and moments’.

Nowadays, it seems that everybody wants to blame the ‘bloody dictators’. It is because of them we did not grow or enjoy freedom for the last four decades. In reality, the picture of that time had different colors and shades and many of today’s revolutionaries remained silent for many years and repeated the resignatory slogan mentioned before.

The true curse was the absence of functioning democratic systems, regardless of reasons; and as a matter of fact, it was rarely few persons to blame.

Of course, the story of the rise of fall of Mubarak and Saleh do not apply to other troubled or ousted leaders. Not even the two leaders can be compared irreproachably. Yemeni’s tribal reality and its mountains with rugged defiles prevented Saleh from developing such an elaborate system of secret police and torture similar to Mubarak’s; and Mubarak, unlike Saleh, was checked by a powerful, independent army.

It does not make any sense to keep advocating a blinkered attitude toward democratic change in Arab societies. People do not want to separate themselves from satanic personalities, but rather from corrupt and authoritarian systems, which were heterogeneous in terms of power structures.

In the course of the revolution, many put all Arab leaders and regimes in the same draw; although, some were less, others more brutal. If we have a look into recent history, the Arab world had different types of repressive regimes. There were the one-man or one-party military dictatorships (Qaddafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria or Saddam’s Iraq); the police-states with largely independent army (Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria); the authoritarian monarchies with loyal militaries (Jordan, Morocco or the Gulf countries); and the ‘ungovernables’ as those countries with difficult religious, social or natural realities (Yemen, Sudan, Libanon).

It would be quite unfair to compare, for example, Yemen under Saleh with the repressive, one-party system of Syria. Even among the military dictatorships of Saddam, Hafiz al-Assad and Gaddafi, there are differences in power legitimation, the society’s fabric and the military’s structure.

The black-and-white reflection on change in the Arab world leads to advocating the same solutions for different problems. Now more than ever, we are reminded of the shortcoming of such politics as countries like Yemen are on the brink of an unnecessary, all-out civil war while some Arab media keeps on doing the same inconsiderate news reporting. This is also dangerous as it tampers with people’s perception of their past and current realities and, thus leads to adverse results of change.

Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi

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