Hidden hands of old regimes did not go away

World View: The unholy alliances forged in the revolutionary Arab Spring uprisings are beginning to crumble

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Has the Arab Spring turned into a complete debacle? Is the Arab world returning to its state in the 1950s when state authority was weak, different parties and groups struggled for power and foreign intervention was frequent and easy?

If political and social developments today have much in common with half a century ago, will the result of the turmoil be similar? The outcome then was authoritarian rule that usually began with military regimes installed by a coup, which by the 1970s were transmuting into police states. The justification was that a strong state was necessary to suppress chronic divisions at home and guarantee national independence in the face of threats from Israel, the US, Iran or the old colonial powers.

Two-and-a-half years on from the uprisings of 2011, the countries where they had their greatest successes are witnessing counter-revolution, civil war or government breakdown. In Egypt secular activists cheered the army's overthrow of President Morsi on 3 July and against all the evidence denied that it was a military coup. Subsequently, the army has largely ignored them, and the tainted functionaries of the Mubarak era are confidently back in business. Those great proponents of democracy and human rights – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – have shovelled in cash and credits worth $12bn to keep the good ship Mubarak II afloat.

Look at Syria in the last few days. Commanders of the Free Syrian Army, absurdly denominated as "moderate" rebels by David Cameron and Senator John McCain, are calling for the swift dispatch of arms by their Western and Arab backers so they can fight their own intra-rebel civil war against the al-Qa'ida-affiliated fundamentalists. Confrontations between the two have been increasingly violent, and last Thursday the FSA commander Kamal Hamami was shot dead at a checkpoint outside Latakia. Another FSA commander who survived the ambush denounced the killers afterwards in an interview with al-Jazeera: "The foreign fighters have come here under an alien agenda and we demand that the international community supply us with arms to get rid of this disease."

The mention of al-Jazeera is deliberate because it is responsible for so much of the best and worst of media coverage of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. I remember in the summer of 2011 al-Jazeera was such a power in Libya that it was appropriately housed in the building in the centre of Benghazi from which earlier conquerors such as Mussolini and Rommel had addressed crowds in the square below. It is also in Egypt and Syria that al-Jazeera has had its great downfall. At a news conference held by the spokesman of the Egyptian Interior Ministry on 8 July, Egyptian journalists chanted "Barra! Barra!" ("Out! Out!") at an al-Jazeera correspondent, forcing him to leave. They accused the station of remorselessly twisting the news in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood, though the bias of Egyptian state-controlled or state-influenced media in Cairo towards its replacement is even more extreme. In Syria, likewise, al-Jazeera has ruined its reputation by uncritical repetition of the wilder claims of the opposition and the FSA.

There is an obvious reason for the defeat or frustration of the radicals and revolutionaries. Their early successes against police states in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen came because there was a powerful coalition of different and previously antagonistic forces against the status quo. Bahrain is a little different, because state repression backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies was so brutal and immediate. In Egypt and Libya liberal intelligentsia collaborated with Islamic fundamentalists, who in other circumstances might have chopped their ears off. Many Copts welcomed the overthrow of the Mubarak regime which had alternately protected, repressed and manipulated them. Class barriers in Syria between the prosperous middle class of the cities and the impoverished farmers of the countryside and the urban shantytowns temporarily failed to prevent collaboration. But these liaisons were always fragile and vulnerable to the re-emergence of real political, social, ethnic and religious differences, a process of disintegration inevitably egged on by the government as it recovered its nerve.

Old regimes fell or tottered because they were moribund, corrupt and caught by surprise. Free market economics did their bit to destabilise the status quo through privatisations that amounted to grand larceny, benefiting an inner circle of regime cronies. Inequality increased. It is the impoverished underclass that remains the core support of the rebellion in Syria.

All revolutions contain very different people who momentarily close ranks against the status quo and look to foreign allies with whom they have little in common. Would the Americans have won the War of Independence without the support of a great French-led alliance? Suppose the German military high command had not put Lenin in that sealed train so that he could make his way to Russia? The American and Russian revolutions would still have taken place, but their outcome and legacy would have been different.

Revolutions require an element of self-deception on the part of their protagonists – they do not look too closely at the motives and intentions of their temporary allies. But in the Arab Spring the differences between the opponents of the status quo were ludicrously great from the beginning, and the divide got worse. In Syria, liberal, secular democrats find themselves on the same side as the most authoritarian, conservative and sectarian monarchies in the world. The US, Britain and France froth with rage against the human rights abuses of Bashar al-Assad's forces, but are only mildly critical of torture and imprisonment in Bahrain.

Revolutions, like battles, are won by those who make the fewest mistakes, and in the Arab Spring uprisings everybody exaggerated their role, over-estimated their own strength and over-played their hands. Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood displayed a genius for self- destruction that would make lemmings whistle in admiration. Their only excuse is that the hidden hand of the old regime never went away and sabotaged their efforts at every turn. In Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world the dire problems of the 1950s are back with a vengeance.

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