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From Arab Spring to American Winter: 2011-2021


Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

In recent times, the notion of ‘American exceptionalism’ has come under severe attack . . . and the American Empire that had been built up in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union (1991) and the 9/11 attacks (2001) is now almost on the verge of collapsing. Still, in the past decade, the American influence around the world has been palpable and much-criticized as well as welcomed by others.

The American footprint has been particularly large in the Middle East over the years. The United States had been in large part responsible for maintaining the status quo in the region. But then, suddenly ten years ago now, the Middle East went through a violent convulsion, a (supposedly) spontaneous eruption of people power threatening that very status quo throughout the region. Popular protests that quickly received the name “Arab Spring,” a moniker that purported to describe a “wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2010 and 2011, challenging some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes,” as told in the words of the online version of the much-revered Encyclopedia Britannica (under the heading ‘Arab Spring. pro-democracy protests’). The violent spark that set these events in motion was the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010, which led to his death on 4 January 2011.

Facebook Revolutions All Around

The 26-year old’s suicide attempt acted as a catalyst that inspired Tunisians to revolt and unleash the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ The street vendor set himself alight out of desperation after having, yet again, been threatened and mistreated by the police. A week before his hopeless act, Mohamed had confessed his utter despair to one of his cousins, a man called Lasaad, saying ‘I’m so fed up and tired . . . I can’t breathe anymore.’ And by sheer happenstance another cousin of his, this one called Ali, was present right after the young man had lit himself up. Ali’s subsequent moves arguably changed the course of history. He owned a camera and had set up a Facebook account just two months previously, and he made a video recording of the crowd, consisting of dozens, “perhaps hundreds,” that had gathered to voice their displeasure and then he posted it online. As is quite common these days, the video was next widely shared on Facebook and beyond. In the following days and weeks more and more protests erupted over the country and eventually, following an ‘intensive 28-day campaign of civil resistance,’ on 14 January 2011, the “regime fell and President Ben Ali fled the country,” as gingerly recounted by the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera.

Ali Bouazizi’s Facebook post set a precedent. As the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had told WIRED in 2009: his goal was for the website to create a “world that was more open. [Facebook] believed that people being able to share the information they wanted and having access to the information they wanted is just a better world.” Going down to the nitty-gritty, Zuckerberg explained that “people can connect better with the people around them, understand more of what’s going on with the people around them, and understand more in general.” And Ali Bouazizi had proven him right, in a way that the “Harvard Dropout” would never have imagined, or at the very least, would never have imagined on his own. The relatively small-scale incident perpetrated by one individual in one country – the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia – became a global phenomenon, a global phenomenon sweeping the region and inspiring youngsters all around the world. All of a sudden, these desperate and hopeless young weren’t all alone anymore, instead they had become all alone all together, members of a virtual crowd that was able to effect change in the real world – these Arab youths were suddenly connecting “better with the people around them,” with other disaffected youths locally as well as farther afield. From Tunisia, Zuckerberg’s vision flew to Egypt, where another young girl, Asmaa Mahfouz, also posted a video message (or “vlog,” a term popularized on YouTube) on her Facebook page on 18 January 2011. A little more then a month later, I asked this question in an English-language Turkish newspaper: “[c]an it really be the case that a video message (or vlog) posted on a Facebook profile by a young Egyptian, Asmaa Mahfouz, was the impetus needed for the protests on Tahrir Square to explode?” (27 February 2011).

Behind the Scenes: The Bush Plan to grow Democracy around the world

The answer appears to have been provided by none other than the recently non-extradited-but-still-imprisoned Julian Assange: “A cable dated Dec. 30, 2008, indicates that a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement [in Egypt] –  a Facebook-driven opposition group – informed U.S. officials that opposition groups had come up with a plan to topple Hosni Mubarak before scheduled elections in September 2011. The cables also indicate that the U.S. authorities helped an April 6 leader [tentatively identified as Wael Ghonim, then-Google head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa] to attend an ‘Alliance of Youth Movements‘ summit at Columbia University in New York on Dec. 3 -5, 2008. At the time, the U.S. government promoted this event as an occasion bringing together ‘Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School and the U.S. Department of State . . . to Find Best Ways to Use Digital Media to Promote Freedom and Justice, Counter Violence, Extremism and Oppression.’ The participating youth leaders were expected to ‘produce a field manual for youth empowerment,’ adding that this document ‘will stand in stark contrast to the al-Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism, found by Coalition Forces in Iraq’,” as I wrote in 2011. In fact, on 24 November 2008, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman introduced the press to the Egyptian participants during a ‘Special Briefing To Announce the Alliance of Youth Movement’ in the following manner:

Let me mention the Egypt group, which is among the best known of the groups that we will be there, the Shabab 6 of April, which has emerged as Egypt’s largest pro-democracy youth group. And last April [2008], the group staged a countrywide protest that led to some crackdowns by the government that led to some arrests and even deaths. And some of the leaders were tortured, severely beaten, and an effort that was – that backfired somewhat when pictures of their injuries were posted online. There’s actually a good piece about this group in the current issue, or last month’s issue of Wired. And we will have some members from this group coming as well.

This press conference shows that the U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush administration (20 January 2001-20 January 2009) was quite open about its overt and covert goals around the world. In fact, the State Department appeared to doing what the President had pledged during his second inaugural address (20 January 2005):

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

The 2005 words are in stark contrast to the remarks Bush made when sparring with Al Gore in the run up to the 2000 election, saying loudly and happily, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation building,” or encouraging democracy around the globe. In 2008, on the other hand, the State Department quite openly advocated the use of Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, and also a website called Howcast, that has somehow managed to evade the limelight but that still fulfills the vital task of providing “The best how-to videos.” The Columbia associate professor of law Matthew Waxman was prominently present at the event, giving this regime change conference a nice academic veneer of credibility. Also present were ‘such luminaries as Whoopi Goldberg, actress and host of ABC’s “The View,” Dustin Moskovitz,’ co-founder of Facebook and the just-mentioned Glassman. It took a little more than a year for Ali Bouazizi to make his now legendary Facebook post, which acted as the catalyst that initiated a domino effect in the MENA region. And then, the Bush plan got into overdrive for real. The Tahrir Square protests led to Mubarek’s downfall (11 February 2011), the sudden rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi (elected on 24 June 2012 and arrested on 3 July 2013), and the subsequent re-establishment of the status quo under Abdel Fatah el-Sisi (3 July 2013). The Bush-supported ‘democratic movements and institutions’ in the MENA region clearly instigated, if not downright perpetrated, these social media-led mass movements to spring up all around – notably leading to the violent death of Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi (20 October 2011) and the outbreak of Syria’s not-so civil war aimed at unseating Bashar al-Assad (March 2011) . . . and basically leading the whole of the wider Middle East into a state of turmoil, a state of turmoil that had already started with the Bush invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003.

Ending America’s “endless wars”

President Obama (2009-17) all but continued Bush’s foreign policy, as the “not-so veiled campaign against ‘Islamic militancy’ euphemistically called the War on Terror-renamed-the Overseas Contingency Operation continue[d] unabated” under his watch. As a matter of fact, as I pointed out in 2016, this whole military campaign amounted to a veritable “Crusade Against Islam,” with its roots in Carter presidency (1977-81) and the machinations of the infamous National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017). Whereas Bush was famously guided by Dick Cheney and his faith as a born-again Christian, Obama simply tried to revive Cold War “Christian realism,” in the mould of Reinhold Niebuhr’ (1892-1971). His successor, on the other hand, did not at first sight disclose any religious inspiration – the media-friendly-yet-clearly-somewhat clueless atheist Sam Harris even publicly stated that Trump could “be our first atheist president,” months before the election. Trump’s running mate and the election victory itself clearly showed that he would be anything but an “atheist president,” as “Trump’s most loyal supporters were and are white evangelicals,” in the words of the sociologist Dr Philip Gorski. Though Trump’s term was far from a peaceful period – we need but remember the dropping of the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) on an “ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province, along the border with Pakistan” (13 April 2017) and the spectacular assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad (3 January 2020). But, he did not continue the Bush foreign policy and famously talked a lot about bringing an end to America’s “endless wars.” While, at the same time, nevertheless outdoing his predecessor, “increas[ing] drone bombing by 300% since the Obama admin[instration,] resulting in many more civilian deaths,” as expressed by the journalist Derrick Broze on Twitter.

On the domestic front, President Trump (a “Crappy Businessman, Great Con Artist” according to frequent MSNBC and CNN contributor David Cay Johnston) proved much more divisive, with his detractors oftentimes calling him a ‘fascist’ and even comparing him to Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Following last November’s elections, however, it seems that the business of American politics will revert to the accustomed status quo of yesteryear. Still, Trump and his supporters are more than unwilling to accept defeat and recognize Obama’s erstwhile Vice President as the legally elected incoming new President. This inability to accept the new reality on the ground has now led to the so-called ‘Capitol Riots’ on 6 January 2020, in an attempt to disrupt (and possibly thwart) the joint session of Congress’s official counting of the electoral votes (“306 for Joe Biden and 232 for Donald Trump”), and even leading to the deaths of five individuals. From China, Dr. Emily Jane O’Dell tweeted that the “US Capitol riot was a targeted mob hit — ordered from the top.” And the media have even started speaking about a coup attempt. But, the veteran contrarian journalist John Pilger tweeted matter-of-factly that the “made-for-media theatrics on Capitol Hill was not an attempted ‘coup’, pointing out that real Coups are what the CIA stages all over the world. Neither was ‘democracy’ in peril. What democracy? And Trump is no more than a caricature of a system of which Biden, Obama, Bush etc are the embodiment.”

An Insurrection on Capitol Hill?!

Rebecca Klar, The Hill‘s tech reporter based in Washington, D.C., opined that “[s]upporters of President Trump mused openly on social media about the possibility of violence in the days leading up to the riot at the Capitol, using various mainstream and conservative-leaning sites to organize.” Adding that “[p]osts on websites including Parler, a Twitter-like platform with minimal content moderation, and TheDonald.win, a message forum that sprung up after Reddit banned a ‘subreddit’ of the same name in June [2020], were rife with posts about storming the Capitol in the days leading up to the deadly riot that prompted a lockdown and forced lawmakers to evacuate. But posts on mainstream platforms, including Twitter, also mused about a potential attack.” In fact, looking at the social media landscape, the most amazing things can be found, like a TikTok video showing a distraught young woman, “Elisabeth, from Knoxville, Tennessee” who tells the camera, “we’re storming the Capitol, it’s a revolution.” Or, a picture of a man present on the Capitol and wearing a hoodie with the inscription “CIVIL WAR January 6, 2020.” Or, another TikTok video showing two MAGA hat-wearing men having the following exchange: ‘MAGA hat wearer 1: “We can take that place” MAGA hat wearer 2: “And then do what” MAGA hat wearer 1: “HEADS ON PIKES”!’

According to various video messages posted on the internet, a Texas-based self-described “conservative” activist named Ali Alexander (a man who is admittedly a known scam artist and wily publicity opportunist) claims responsibility for the so-called Capitol Riots, (though at present his personal accounts have all been suspended). Alexander is in fact a black man, thus putting a bit of a dent into the oftentimes voiced accusations of “White Supremacy” at the heart of the Trump movement. That said, the Washington Post’s national correspondent Philip Bump has characterized Alexander as a “right-wing personality who has worked with a rogue’s gallery of notorious characters in that world: Alex Jones, Roger Stone, Jacob Wohl, [and] Laura Loomer.” Bump indicates that Alexander had been at the fringes of the Conservative movement previously, but that at present, “he identifies himself as ‘national organizer’ for ‘Stop the Steal,’ an organization which adopts the tagline of President Trump’s ploy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.” In his now suppressed video message, Alexander all but confesses his guilt: “I was the person that came up with the January 6 idea with Congressman Gosar [R-AZ], Congressman Mo Brooks [R-AL] and then Congressman Andy Biggs [R-AZ].” Alexander continues that “[w]e four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress, while they were voting, so that who we couldn’t lobby, we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body hearing our loud war from outside.” And as indicated by Rebecca Klar, to that effect, these co-conspirators put various social media platforms to good use, although on a much smaller scale, in a way that is more than reminiscent of how the State Department ten years ago engineered the Arab Spring to supposedly bring democracy to the Middle East and North Africa. Following the Capitol riots, “[a]fter being targeted by #ANTIFA, @Ali  Alexander forced to flee DC,” tweeted an affiliated-and-now-also-disabled Twitter account (@StopTheSteakUS).

In fact, in another video posted on the internet, the notorious Alex Jones tells the camera that the White House had told him beforehand that “we are going to have you lead the march” to the Capitol. Whether this is but hyperbole on the part of a media personality prone to engage in histrionics or an indication that President Trump himself supported the Alexander-engineered social media revolution transported into the real world is an open question at this point. At the same time, though, the internet also provides space for people pushing quite another narrative. On Twitter, a certain Brian Wendt, calling himself The ANTIFA Hunter, posted that he “hacked the ANTIFA headquarters to get a list of their infiltrators,” tweeting a number of pictures of people participating in the events with some explanatory captions underneath. Adding that “[t]his is all the proof needed,” insinuating that agents provocateurs had orchestrated the violence and mayhem in D.C. Another interesting development is the involvement of a supposedly former Black Lives Matter (BLM) firebrand activist John Sullivan, heavily active on Twitter before and during the protest, and was one the lead agitators who first entered the Capitol Building. Sullivan has since been arrested in Utah and charged by a District of Columbia federal court with “one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, and one count of interfering with law enforcement engaged in the lawful performance of their official duties incident to and during the commission of civil disorder.”

For his part, President-elect Joe Biden rebuked Trump supporters “domestic terrorists.” During an during an on January 7th event in his home state of Wilmington, Delaware, to introduce some of his Department of Justice cabinet nominees, he called the incident at the Capitol “one of the darkest days in the history of our nation,” and a “unprecedented assault on our democracy,” talking a clear political line that, “They weren’t protesters. Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists. It’s that basic. It’s that simple.” Subsequent proclamations were made by leading Democrats and papers of record – to treat the Capitol incident as ‘domestic 9/11’ watershed moment, and a clarion call for federal and state agencies to refocus their efforts on what they believe is a new scourge ‘right-wing domestic terrorism‘.

The primacy of social media activism behind the emergence of the events that are now being called the Capitol riots (or “The Putsch of January 6, 2021,” in the admittedly quite flowery language of the lawyer James D. Zirin) seems to indicate that the State Department’s Alliance of Youth Movements strategy has now also penetrated the psyche of homegrown disenchanted masses, albeit that these masses are not necessarily made up by youngsters . . . If anything, the Trump presidency has given the disenchanted (many of whom now believe themselves to be disenfranchised) courage and momentum. Alas, the disenchanted masses now seem to have, for the moment, brought a premature end to Trump’s political ambitions, as he has now been impeached for a second time (13 January 2021). Albeit that the Senate trial will probably happen under a Biden White House: “Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial will be the first ever to extend beyond a president’s time in office, creating a novel legal question that ultimately could require Supreme Court resolution.”

Have the chickens now really come home to roost in the waning days of the Trump presidency?  And, what will Biden do in the face of ongoing opposition and protest on the streets? Will armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington, D.C on the day of Biden’s inauguration mark the beginning of a Second Civil War or will they merely be the final throes of Trumpism and the Trumpist movement?

Time will tell.

***
21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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