Tahrir and Change Squares: Two Models of Subverted Revolts


Con­tin­u­ing demon­stra­tions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Sanaa’s Change Square rep­re­sent the pro­tract­ed strug­gle for pow­er in the Mid­dle East-North Africa region: one against the dom­i­nant mil­i­tary, the oth­er against the rein­car­nat­ed regime of an oust­ed pres­i­dent. Both also show how Sau­di-led efforts to sup­port Egypt’s mil­i­tary-led regime and Yemen’s new­ly appoint­ed gov­ern­ment have deprived pro­test­ers of the fruits of their revolt. 


THE POPULAR revolts in Egypt and Yemen have been put on the defen­sive by a com­bi­na­tion of Islamist elec­toral suc­cess and Sau­di-led Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) sup­port for Egypt’s mil­i­tary and Yemeni Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh. Despite being under siege, Saleh has been show­ing an uncan­ny abil­i­ty to neu­tralise a GCC-nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment that would ease him out of office by February. 

Islamists have suc­cess­ful­ly exploit­ed Egypt’s first post-revolt elec­tion to mar­gin­alise the pro­test­ers on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who bat­tled with secu­ri­ty forces last month, result­ing in 42 dead. The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and the Salafi Al Nur move­ment togeth­er won an absolute major­i­ty in the first two of three rounds in the first par­lia­men­tary elec­tions since Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak was oust­ed last Feb­ru­ary. The final out­come will be deter­mined in a third round of vot­ing in January. 

From square to bal­lot box

The intial elec­tion result has posi­tioned the Salafis as the main com­peti­tor of the pro­test­ers on Tahrir Square in chal­leng­ing estab­lish­ment polit­i­cal par­ties and forces, whether rem­nants of the ancien regime, the country’s mil­i­tary rulers or the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood (MB), with the MB being viewed by many as the oppo­si­tion wing of the old estab­lished order. The new par­lia­ment is expect­ed to appoint most of the mem­bers of the com­mit­tee that will be tasked with draft­ing a new con­sti­tu­tion in advance of a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in June 2012. 

The elec­toral suc­cess of the MB and their rivals, the Salafis – a het­ero­ge­neous move­ment of fun­da­men­tal­ist Mus­lims who want to return to the prac­tices of Islam’s 7th cen­tu­ry Caliphs — has shift­ed the bat­tle against the old regime, the mil­i­tary rulers and estab­lished polit­i­cal par­ties, from the square to the bal­lot box. 

The mil­i­tary, despite con­tra­dic­to­ry state­ments on whether it would recog­nise the elec­tion result by allow­ing par­lia­ment to exer­cise pow­er, sought to rein­force that shift in bit­ter bat­tles with pro­test­ers camped out in front of the new­ly appoint­ed prime minister’s office. At least 10 peo­ple were killed and more than 300 wound­ed in ongo­ing clash­es. The mil­i­tary is try­ing to move the pro­test­ers away from the prime minister’s office and out of the square in the belief that a major­i­ty of Egyp­tians, by cast­ing their vote, have opt­ed for elec­toral politics. 

The Egypt­ian mil­i­tary and the Salafis may be on oppo­site side of the fence, but they both in their respec­tive ways serve Sau­di-led Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Coun­cil (GCC) efforts to blunt the edge of pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the Mid­dle East that have also top­pled the lead­ers of Tunisia and Libya, forced the exit of Yemen’s Pres­i­dent Saleh and pushed Syr­ia to the brink of civ­il war. Both the mil­i­tary coun­cil and Salafis are sup­port­ed by the Saud­is through US $4 bil­lion in assis­tance to the mil­i­tary regime and report­ed fund­ing for the Salafis through pub­lic and pri­vate donations. 

The Salafis elec­toral suc­cess how­ev­er con­sti­tutes a mixed bless­ing for the Saud­is. The par­tic­i­pa­tion of a strand of Islam close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with that of the king­dom implic­it­ly chal­lenges Sau­di asser­tions that democ­ra­cy con­tra­dicts Islam. 

Back­fir­ing in Yemen

While the Sau­di strat­e­gy is effec­tive­ly ren­der­ing the Egypt­ian pro­test­ers mar­gin­al, it is back­fir­ing in Yemen where a GCC-nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment for Saleh’s depar­ture from pow­er has enabled him to main­tain his grip even though he has offi­cial­ly hand­ed over to his vice-pres­i­dent. Since his return from med­ical treat­ment in Riyadh Saleh’s agree­ment to leave office fol­low­ing an elec­tion sched­uled for Feb­ru­ary 2012 leaves him enough time and space to con­sol­i­date his pow­er instead. He has also autho­rised his vice-pres­i­dent to appoint a new cab­i­net — in vio­la­tion of the constitution. 

Under the GCC agree­ment Saleh gets to remain in Yemen with immu­ni­ty from pros­e­cu­tion, while his fam­i­ly mem­bers retain con­trol of key mil­i­tary units and his vice-pres­i­dent becomes pres­i­dent for the next two years as a new con­sti­tu­tion is drafted. 

All this has stiff­ened the oppo­si­tion of the pro­test­ers on Sanaa’s Change Square who reject the deal. Unlike the pro­test­ers on Tahrir Square who have fad­ed from pub­lic view, the protests on Change Square have been rein­forced by the recent award­ing of a Nobel peace prize to a Change Square leader Tawakkol Karman. 

Their resolve is fur­ther strength­ened by the fail­ure of the ener­gy-rich Gulf states to alle­vi­ate the eco­nom­ic suf­fer­ing in the Arab world’s poor­est state. Though Yemen, far more than Egypt, is depen­dent on for­eign aid for relief, the Gulf states have refused Yemen’s repeat­ed appeals for improved access of Yemeni work­ers to GCC labour mar­kets. These have been restrict­ed since the expul­sion in the ear­ly 1990s of one mil­lion Yeme­nis from Sau­di Ara­bia in retal­i­a­tion for Yemeni sup­port of Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hus­sein. Open­ing up labour mar­kets would allow labour­ers to send remit­tances back to a coun­try in eco­nom­ic collapse. 

One strik­ing excep­tion, and a mod­el for what Sau­di Ara­bia and oth­er GCC states could do to pre­vent fur­ther desta­bil­i­sa­tion of Yemen and a poten­tial threat to Gulf secu­ri­ty, is an ini­tia­tive by a foun­da­tion head­ed by the wife of the emir of Qatar, Sheikha Moza. Her foun­da­tion acts to cre­ate jobs in Yemen, whose labour force is large­ly under-skilled and where youth unem­ploy­ment is esti­mat­ed at 50 per cent, to increase voca­tion­al train­ing in Yemen and incu­bate start-ups. 

Islamist tide

Nonethe­less, on both Tahrir Square and Change Square, pro­test­ers have found them­selves mar­gin­alised. The main fac­tors behind this mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion are the estab­lished polit­i­cal forces with the polit­i­cal machin­ery and expe­ri­ence to exploit the tran­si­tion for their own ends, and the Sau­di-sup­port­ed Salafis who are rid­ing the Islamist tide sweep­ing the region. The fate of the Tahrir Square pro­test­ers will depend on whether the elec­tions, due to end in mid-Jan­u­ary, are per­ceived as hav­ing advanced the revolt’s cause. 

By con­trast, Sanaa’s Change Square still has wind in its sails. There is a grow­ing per­cep­tion that the GCC agree­ment has failed to oust Saleh while Yemen’s wealthy neigh­bours stand by as the coun­try sinks into a deep­er morass. As a result Change Square seems to have a longer lease of life than its more famous coun­ter­part in Cairo. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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