Revolution, Schmevolution: America’s Struggle To Define The Arab Uprising

The rapidly changing political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East has posed a number of challenges for the Obama administration, the most pressing of them being to simply understand what is going on.  Initially caught off guard by the events on the ground and then pressed in between two competing narratives – the urge for "democracy promotion" and a fear of Islamic radicalization following the destabilization of friendly regimes — the administration is now desperately guessing which of the available options would better serve U.S. national interests in the region.

This confusion is perfectly reflected in agonizing attempts by the American media to appropriately label the nature of the ongoing (and apparently still spreading) Arab uprising.  Sure, certain established guidance is being followed: extreme caution is used in reports from the countries run by U.S.-friendly rulers, while the harshest language is reserved for unfriendly or outright hostile regimes.  Thus, Saudi Arabia, which Washington Post's editorial has accused in encouraging "both the Egyptian and Bahraini governments to put down protests by force", is called in the same editorial a "seemingly stable kingdom."  Bahrain, where 7 protesters were killed and dozens wounded after armed forces fired on them — but which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet (if someone has forgotten) — is defined as "business-friendly."  In contrast, Syria, where so far no protests have taken place, was labeled a "repressive police state."  (The readers of this blog know me as being no fan of Freedom House, to say the least.  Yet, even the FH folks saw no difference between Saudi Arabia and Syria when assigning to them exactly the same ratings.)

After certain hesitation, the U.S. media have finally decided that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt is to be described as a "revolution."  A revolution?  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "revolution" as "a fundamental change in political organization; …the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed."  Now, let me see.  For almost 60 years (since 1953), Egypt has been ruled essentially by the military (with a servile parliament on the side), with former officers serving as front men (a.k.a. presidents): Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and, finally, Hosni Mubarak.  Since Mubarak's ouster, on Feb.11, Egypt has been governed directly by a junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.  What then has changed?  Nothing.  Oh wait, the parliament was dissolved.  Revolution, schmevolution…

But the real tightrope to walk turned to be reporting about events in Iraq.  As we all know, after liberation from the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq was solidly on its path to democracy (actually former president George W. Bush already called Iraq a "young democracy"), obviously eliminating any need for another revolution.  Yet, on Feb. 25, Iraq had what was dubbed as "Day of Rage."  According to Stephanie McCrummen of the Post, thousands of people across the country went on the streets demanding "adequate electricity, clean water and a decent job."  And they were not simply "demanding."  McCrummen reports that "crowds stormed provincial buildings, freed prisoners…[and] forced the resignation of the governor in southern Basra and the entire city council in Fallujah."   

Sounds like a "revolution" to me.  But not to McCrummer who hastened to assure us that:

"The protests…were intended to call for reform of Maliki's government, not revolution."

She later elaborated:

"The Iraq protests were different from many of the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in that demonstrators were calling for reforms, not for getting rid of the government."

Now, let me get it straight.  If protesters are calling for reforms and storm buildings and free prisoners and force the resignation of government officials, this is only "protests."  In order to upgrade these "protests" to "revolution", we supposedly need a banner "Down with Maliki's government" flying over the crowd.  No banner, no revolution!  Schmevolution, revolution…

(– Hello, sir!  How may I help you?

— Well, I'd like to order some…uh, mass protests.  You know, some economic demands, like electricity and clean water, plus some calls for reforms.  Also, perhaps, a bit of storming of government buildings.  But nothing radical and no blood, of course!

— Not a revolution, sir?

— Oh God, no!  Just a nice, peaceful revolt.

— Certainly, sir.  Check or plastic?

— I'll pay cash.)

It seems that this "revolutionary" smokescreen was used with the only purpose: to deflect our attention from the way "Day of Rage" ended.  Iraqi security forces fired on the crowd killing at least 29 protesters.  The following day, soldiers from an army intelligence unit detained hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals.  They were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution.  So much for the "young democracy!"

Given the lingering memories of "Day of Rage" in Iraq, it's little wonder that the violence in Libya came almost as a blessing for the White House, helping it to regain the clarity of its messaging.  Gaddafi was immediately called "war criminal" and his security services were described as "mercenaries and thugs."  Yet, some terminological issues remain.  For example, as reported by the LA Times, the White House has no "clarity on a key issue: Who's in charge of the Libyan revolution?"  For now, the people fighting Gaddafi are labeled with rather neutral "rebels."  Should they prove to be unsympathetic to Western interests, the "rebels" will be promptly downgraded to "insurgents", "guerrillas" or, worse, "terrorists."  If, however, they profess allegiance to the Western "values" — and, even more importantly, provide uninterrupted flow of Libyan oil to the world markets — promotion to "freedom fighters" will follow.  We have been there before.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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20 Responses to Revolution, Schmevolution: America’s Struggle To Define The Arab Uprising

  1. Luis Alcalá says:

    I always surprised the ineffectiveness of the American foreign policy, especially to understand the mentality of the Muslims. It is true that the absence of general culture, history, geography, etc, of most of the American people spreads at high levels, but with the money and the universities that they have they could choose better to the elite that directs the pentagon for example. The number of persons who knew the dialects of the different tribes of Afghanistan was really scarce for example.
    The different denomination for the American media of the different popular movements of the Moslem countries is an interesting semantic exercise but with brief term of expiration, in fact little imports that the American media name revolutions or another term to these movements.
    What is clear is the surprise of the United States for these movements and even the most neutral persons they have realized their hypocrisy( of USA and UE ), after supporting during more than 40 years tyrants now, they support the “democrats movements”.
    It is more, the increasing threat of intervention of USA in Libya it is seen with hostility by most of the population of the European countries, what demonstrates that in these times of rapid communication by Internet , nor the tyrants nor the imperialists have it easy
    The fundamental question is. For how many years more a potency in a slow slope like the United States would able to operate without having in consideration the population of the countries who invades not even the international public opinion?
    By the way in Kabul after many years of occupation and a lost of money spent tha fundamental services, water, electricty, etc, don´t work well too.

  2. Thanks Eugene.
    A related and just released piece:
    Different folks from different parts of the world with different interests bring into play the different dynamics involved.
    Your geopolitical bias point reminds me of how Sadat’s image changed after Camp David. There was a time when it was customary for Israeli government officials (like Israel’s UN ambassador around the time of the 1973 war) to note how Sadat openly admired Hitler. After Camp David, this particulsr was pretty much hushed up. If mentioned after Camp David, a follow-up would note that Sadat was expressing admiration for how Germany rebuilt itself and not Nazi ideology.

  3. Eugene says:

    Dear Luis,
    I’m amazed with the “experience gap” that I witness in the US with regards to foreign policy. On the one hand, a lot of well educated, knowledgeable and independently minded pundits who seem to understand what’s going on in the world, including in the ME. On the other hand, incompetent, stubborn and ideologized politicians — like McCain who can’t memorize the difference between Shia and Sunni and yet is considered and “expert” in international affairs.
    The problem is obviously in the political system. International issues, more than anything else, demand experience and patience. Neither is provided by the system where the next election is always around the corner.
    Best Regards,

  4. Eugene says:

    Thanks for the link Mike!
    Yeah, a “your terrorist is my freedom fighter” performance nonstop all over the world…

  5. Виктор Кривчун says:

    Уважаемый Евгений, полностью разделяю Ваше саркастическое мнение о СМИ США, ничтожно сумнящиеся в присвоении ярлыков в зависимости от насущных меркантильных интересов власть предержащих в Разъюнайтед Стейс оф Америке, придерживающихся знаменитого известного принципа: “Он, конечно, сукин сын, но это НАШ сукин сын!”

  6. Eugene says:

    Спасибо, Виктор!
    Я Вам так признаюсь: пинать американские СМИ – дело нехитрое. Ребята они в вопросах внешней политике в целом малообразованные, языков не знают, путешествуют мало. В одной стране работают не более 2-х лет, а если не знаешь языка, то откуда информация берется? Правильно, из посольства. А посольство откуда берет? Правильно, из газет. Вот так и живем.
    Я обратил внимание, что у Вашингтон Пост по Ливии работает команда из 3 человек: один пишет из Туниса, а двое иа Лондона. Так что сами можете понять, как много они знают о том, что там происходит.
    А относительно “сукиных сынов”, то наметились сбои в самой системе. Администрация Обамы, например, считала Мубарака “своим сукиным сыном”, а многие обамовслие критики — “тираном” и “деспотом.” Разборка между ними и объясняет замедленную реакцию Белого Дома на события в Египте.
    Приходите еще.
    С уважением,

  7. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    I see you are trying a new, more straight-forward delivery style 🙂 …
    Hard to argue with the post – all is true & just reflects hard life of the reporters: they might want to write the (objective) truth, but few people would want to pay for reading it.

  8. Luis Alcalá says:

    Dear Eugene :
    As usual I´m agrre with you,I think that one of the secret of a good foreign policy is to have a good administration of foreign affairs that consist of professionals that don´t depend of the change of every election.
    In this way you see countries with a lot of less money that USA and had made it considerably better.
    Anyway we´re now in very interesting times but as someone said many years ago, “God frees us of living in interesting times”.

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “more straight-forward delivery style”, but thanks anyway:)

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Dear Luis,
    We are living in interesting times indeed.
    Best Regards,

  11. Mark says:

    Why, Zhenya – you are sounding almost like a revolutionary yourself! It is delightfully refreshing to see some realism in journalism, whereby to criticize the way the United States not only executes foreign policy, but sells it to its own electorate, does not mean you hate it and hope for jihad to wipe it out.
    So it has ever been, from as far back as when the USA became big and powerful enough to think about exercising its appetite for “improvements” beyond its own borders. Each time, it’s necessary for the product to be packaged in such fashion that the public can be outraged or misty-eyed with sympathy, as the situation dictates. In this case (brave, peaceful protesters being fired upon with anti-aircraft guns by Ghadaffi loyalists, cruel dictator clinging to life by a thread, bla bla bla), it’s easy to see what impression the public is supposed to get – and in large part, does.
    The downside, not advanced much by the press, is that sky-high oil prices brought about by uncertainty – while they add to the usurious profits of Big Oil – nurture and support Russian power as a net exporter. Similarly, the west is beginning to realize that if it doesn’t wrap this Libya thing up quickly, (1) the new price levels could enndure for some time, and (2) it could find itself negotiating oil futures with a polyglot of tribal leaders, many of whom will not recognize others’ territorial claims, instead of the strongman they’re used to dealing with.
    In which case it will be necessary to impose a new strongman on the people, under the banner of “unifying Libya’s people for peace and prosperity”. Cue inspirational music.

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    No, Mark, I’m not. We Russians (at least of certain age) are pretty immune to revolutions:)
    The U.S. reaction to the events in Libya was all too predictable. If you’re anti-American, you’re a dictator; if, in addition, you have oil, you’re a bloody dictator — just as Gaddafi. No matter what Obama may think deep down, the domestic pressure is too strong to do nothing. It’s so nice to be Robert Gates: he’s on his way out and can now tell the truth.
    As to the effects all this mess will have on Russia, I’m writing about it.

  13. Mark says:

    I’ll await your next post with great interest! Meanwhile, with respect to the ongoing “crisis” in Libya, a highly entertaining account of a covert SAS mission to hold “secret talks” with opposition leaders that ends in comedy as they are captured by farmers-turned-rebels.
    Oops – did I say “captured”? Apparently (as you’ll see if you read it, although you could be forgiven for just skimming it for the photos, which are quite good) the politically correct term for “captured” now is “has issues of freedom”!
    I found the link on the excellent blog, “Truth and Beauty”, accessible here;
    I don’t mean to make fun of the SAS (insurance against them killing me in my bed as I sleep) as they are and have always been a very professional outfit, and were probably operating under very strict Rules Of Engagement. But still, it’s pretty embarrassing.

  14. Poppy says:

    Hope you didn’t miss me at all.
    Just to build on your last para:
    I also find it stupid to label the national Lybian army as ‘Quaddafi regime armed supporters’.
    To me ir’s pretty much like calling US Marines ‘Obama regime-controlled forces’, or NATO Navy ‘Rasmundsen-loyal fleet’

    • Cristina says:

      I’m studying Malta in my art hiostry class!They were obsessed with their fertility goddesses, and made statues of huge bulbous women with red ochre painted on their legs to symbolize the blood of childbirth.

  15. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Poppy,
    Just in time when we all began wondering where you are:)
    It’s kind of telling that the U.S. position oscillates roughly between two options: to get rid of Gaddafi by arming the “rebels” or make one step further and remove him by NATO force. Characteristically that the idea of just stopping the military actions on both sides and deal with the growing humanitarian crisis isn’t considered at all.
    In today’s WP, George Will asks a couple of good questions. Is Gaddafi’s removal in our vital national interests? And if yes, then why nobody talked about that just a month ago?
    Here is my response: it’s so sweet to remove a tyrant when this tyrant holds anti-American views. Just like Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

  16. Poppy says:

    Eugene, mille gracie.
    By me all this ‘tyranie’ BS doesn’t worth a pfenning.
    1. America desperately needs ‘Mr. WE HATE YOU!”. Miloshewitsch, Saddam, Castro, Ortega, Khomeini, Aliende, Stalin, etc. Someone on-duty to be called evil.
    Quaddafi is just such a nice fit for this purpose, who could ask for anything more.
    2. I feel US is kinda struck by the pace of things happening,- as anybody else, though.
    3. Last but not least, speaking of the drivers: there’s an articulated need to catch the train of all this uprisings (shall those succeed), maintaining the image of global liberty advocate – on the other hand there’s a contrary need to support Sauddits et al, protecting the footstep on the oily soil, which makes the fun greater.
    Oh, yeah, there’s also domestic issues like electoral cycle, internal politics and all these bloody Boston Tea drinkers who make such a stink about how it all smells…

  17. Mark says:

    I don’t think the pace of things is much of a surprise to the U.S. The Libyan “resistance” formed in 2005 in London – so much for the theory that the sudden spike in food prices pushed the people over the edge. Since then the National Front for the Salvation of Libya moved to Washington, and its leader, Ibrahim Sahad, sometimes does television spots with the White House in the background. The organization supporting (and acting as webmaster for the “spontaneous revolution” is the Alliance for Youth Movements, which is backed by Jared Cohen (former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton), Jason Liebman (CEO and co-founder of Howcast)and Roman Tsunder (co-founder of Access 360 Media.
    It’s just like Ahmed Chalabi and Iraq all over again, because destabilizing Arab governments is kind of a western hobby.

  18. Poppy says:

    Not my turn but-
    @The Libyan “resistance” formed in 2005 in London@
    London’s being an international garbage dump for quite a while. Name me the country and I’ll find you ‘resistance’ right there, within M25.
    I suspect it actually was Karl Marx who established this tradition some time ago when he was fighting his clap somewhere… errrr… East End, I guess.

  19. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mark, Poppy-
    Your comments are rapidly becoming better than the original post.
    Mark, Thanks for the info: I didn’t know that. And yes, Chalabi all over again. Do we ever learn?
    Your referral to Marx made my day (being a closet Marxist myself…).

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