I am grateful to Evan Leibovitch, Byron Holland and Maria Farrell for their comments on the draft of this piece. Any remaining errors or inconsistencies are mine. JJS
So I was wrong.
Wrong when suggesting, in a previous article on this blog, that after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the movement might spread rapidly to Teheran, Algiers, Manama, Damascus. In addition, I was short-sighted when limiting my field of vision to Middle-Eastern cases of dictatorship, while neglecting other seeds of wrath, such as the shameless greed in our own democracies.
Teheran? Since the article mentioned above, friends have pointed out to me that, in fact, an Iranian Spring predated the events in Tunis and Cairo. In 2009, the protests following the elections, in which Mousavi had been cheated out of victory, were precursors of the 2011 Arab Spring. In spite of the confiscation of the election 2 years ago, Ahmadinejad is no longer invulnerable, even on his conservative flank. Societal change is pushing reality in urban Iran, in spite or because of so many excesses committed in the name of obscurantism, which some ayatollahs still uphold as national dogma. The compulsory adulation of clerics is backfiring sharply. Women, who are emerging in higher education, are less subservient to males than previously in everyday life, and are also gaining ground in professional circles. I don't know if Iran will experience its own Persian Spring, but the writing is on the wall.
Algiers? Alas, the system set in place during the revolt against the French occupation, and which led to independence, was quickly corrupted by its essentially military leaders, who have fattened themselves on oil income, crushed social reform, apportioned the economic cake into slices to their sole benefit, and placed a majority of university graduates in the position of permanent job-seekers. In Algeria where reform is needed even more urgently than in Egypt, those in power are standing on the brakes, and seem prepared to brutally repress any attempt at democratization, so that the likelihood of an Algerian Spring appears, at this stage, unpredictable and remote.
Sana’a? The steadfast courage of the opposition was recently given a welcome boost by the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Ms. Tawakkul Karman, the civil rights activist. In a few weeks, the situation has changed so much that President El-Saleh now openly accepts the prospect of being driven out of his palace and into exile.
Damascus? The events in Syria are skewed because Al-Assad has powerful allies: two sponsors (Iran, Russia) and one client (Hizbullah and, by inference, segments of Lebanese politics). Also compounding the situation is the fact that, unlike Egypt and Libya, but like Iraq, Syria is split along tribal and sectarian lines. Ousting the Libyan dictator from Tripoli was not easy, but at least the UN Security Council resolution benefited from Moscow and Beijing looking the other way. But this time, both Russia and China have used their veto to oppose a Western-led resolution in the Security Council aimed at bringing Al-Assad to international accountability. With more than two thousand people killed by his forces since early 2011, Syria is in a critical condition, and yet the likelihood of a Syrian Spring seems as remote today as it was three months ago, if not more so.
Israel? Massive political demonstrations have taken place, first on economic grounds, but now a large part of the population considers that the country is being run by extremists and that the democratic system is failing its citizens. Superficially, this does not seem to have a link with the issue of statehood for Palestine, but exposing the internal political process as being controlled by the wealthy and by religious extremism, certainly brings about enhanced awareness of the challenges for Israel in the region, and will no doubt have wider ramifications in the context of future elections.
Saudi Arabia? While not apparently under short-term threat, the kingdom appears not to be taking any chances. The granting of some civic rights to women (voting rights in municipal elections starting in 2014) is a major shift from past doctrine, and can only be attributed to the restless mood in the region, as the BBC recently pointed out.
I was also wrong in not having seen that some of the causes leading to the "Arab Spring" could produce similar effects in the West, in spite of vastly different circumstances. We tend to consider that our own societies cannot experience such fundamental turmoil, for the simple reason that democracy was spawned not in China, not in the Islamic world, not in the Slavic tradition, but in the Western cultural mould. We consider that because democracy is ours, we may instruct other nations, yet can hardly imagine being tutored by them. As Naomi Klein recently said while taking part in the Occupy Wall Street march in New York, "In the US media, they keep saying What are their demands, why are they protesting? But in the rest of the world, people are going What took you so long? Welcome to the club!" (DemocracyNow!, 6 October 2011, Ms. Klein's interview is 1 minute 30 seconds into the programme). There was an influential fore-runner of the New York movement, earlier in 2011 in Wisconsin, where large and peaceful protests were staged against the Republican governor. These demonstrations took place at the same time as those in Tunis and Cairo, and seem to have been directly inspired by them.
Analyzing the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement may require stretching conventional views quite a bit. For instance, can we consider the march on Liberty Street (leading to Wall Street, itself cordoned off by the New York Police Department) as just a North-American replay of the protest movement which has gone on for months in Greece? Yes, the protest on both sides of the Atlantic is in part against the degradation of public services, the shrinking of revenue in the lower-income bracket, and impunity for boundlessly greedy bankers (in the West) or autocrats (in the Middle East). But the differences must not be glossed over when considering the situations of the US and Greece. In the US, OWS is partly a reaction to the success of the “Tea Party” movement, and in that sense its motives seem far removed from the Arab Spring. Indeed, Tea Partiers and Occupants of Wall Street both criticize Congress as ineffectual, out of touch, controlled by vested interests, and prepared to favour big business to an unreasonable degree. Because Tea Party started earlier, it is for the time being better organized and more focused than OWS. One of the underlying problems is that mainstream media in the US are instructed to avoid the deeper debate about how they are financed and what interests they represent, and as a result the OWS movement is treated with condescension, if not worse, by most mainstream media. The US debt is now largely dependent upon China and other foreign holders of dollar-denominated bonds, whereas a solution to the Greek debt depends mainly on continued EU solidarity, even though China has been cautiously willing to absorb some of Athens' high-yield obligations. Average Greeks face a substantial loss of earnings but, because their country is a member of the European Union, they still have the benefit of basic public health care, considered as a social right. In the US, even under Obama, that is still far from being the case, with ultra-conservative lawmakers and some big media trying to discredit the very notion of public health care by conjuring up images of Stalin-era communism.
Another striking feature of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the way it is dealt with as a social phenomenon in the US. One new anchor at CNN denigrated the marches taking place in New York by entitling her programme "Seriously?" inferring that the participants must be simply ignorant. During a press conference at the White House on 6 October 2011, President Obama was asked how he viewed Occupy Wall Street, and as expected he saw this movement as a reaction to the financial downturn (my underlining): "I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel -- that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place." This contradicts a statement he made earlier in the same press meeting, when his analysis was somewhat broader: "A lot of the problems that this economy is facing are problems that predate the financial crisis -- middle-class families seeing their wages and their incomes flat, despite rising costs for everything from health care to a college education. And so folks have been struggling not just for the last three years; they’ve been struggling for over a decade now. And at a time when so many people are having such a hard time, we have to have an approach, we have to take action, that is big enough to meet the moment."
In spite of the principles of equality and fairness Obama declared he would uphold (inaugural speech, January 2009), the current US President has not implemented a system of oversight and regulation capable of truly protecting the people from the excesses of corporate greed. The Cheney presidency and its predecessors were responsible for creating an atmosphere in which "regulation" became a dirty word, but Obama has not brought to a halt the indecent practice of extravagant bailouts, which are quickly followed by billions in extra earnings for the bankers who proved to be unworthy stewards of hard-earned savings. By stating that the Occupy Wall Street movement is in response to a financial crisis, Obama implies that the overall construct of American society remains what it was meant to be under Madison and Jefferson, and that however unpleasant its consequences in the short term, the current crisis is limited to the financial sector.
The demonstrations in New York and about 800 other cities in the US beg a question: is this phenomenon going to grow into something bigger? Are US activists willing to revisit some of the features which set the Fifty States and the Federal District quite apart from other large democracies, and which have gradually undermined the credibility of the US message to the rest of the world? In which other large democracy is the chief of a powerful Executive branch elected by an anachronistic electoral college? In what other large democracy is representation limited, for all practical purposes, to two parties? When Iraq and Afghanistan were subjected to military occupation, how many elected representatives in Washington challenged the decision of the Executive, knowing that the Constitution grants powers of war to the Congress, not to the President? Do these same elected representatives honestly think they can hold forth on the model of US democracy when visiting, say, Turkey or Indonesia, Colombia or Nigeria?
Some observers will disparage the marchers in New York and elsewhere, with the intent to belittle the agenda of Occupy Wall Street: they will sneer at this "thing" without a leader, they will mock the style of the participants, they will pontificate on the comfort of being a protester in a "far too tolerant" society, and most of all they will not permit the debate to focus on the larger picture of systemic inequality. If a true debate emerges, they will try to keep it within the confines of arguing about the “financial” crisis alone.
Of course, there are huge differences between some Arab states and the US, between political upheaval aimed at ousting a dictator, and the call for profound reform in a vibrant democracy such as the United States. Nonetheless, the question is no longer unutterable: After Tunis and Cairo... New York?
commenter cet article