With the swearing in of a new president in Egypt last week, many were quick to point out that this step is just the beginning of the country’s transition towards being a functioning democratic state. This is true not only because of the emerging power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but also because of the challenges the new government will face in bonding former adversaries together into one viable nation.
The post-revolutionary states of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have exacted punishment on their previous dictators – be it through exile, imprisonment or death – but autocracies are made up of more than one man. The ousted presidents were held in place not just by the security infrastructures they built around themselves. They were also endorsed by significant proportions of the populations who supported them for a multitude of reasons, including economic benefit, political ideology, and tribal loyalty.
Consequently, the memory of abuses does not fade with the removal of the figurehead, and the existence of large numbers of supporters of the previous dictators is a considerable problem for the new governments. Seeking out and punishing all those involved in the oppressive machinery of the old regimes can crumble state institutions (as in the case of the ‘de-Ba’athification’ of Iraq), and breed further grievance and perceived victimhood amongst these sympathy pools. Conversely, a lack of public recognition of their roles in abuses will create dissent among those who suffered under the old regimes.
Lebanon’s long history of conflict serves as a powerful example of the danger of failing to reconcile former enemies. This country has never recovered from the divisions and mistrust, along axes of religious and political identity, bred by decades of war and foreign occupation. Enmity therefore continues to simmer, and each community here believes that they have suffered the most. This is a considerable part of the reason why political groups in Lebanon refuse to disarm, and why the country is seemingly never free from political crisis and violence. The recent clashes in Tripoli are as much a symptom of the failure to reconcile as they are anything to do with Syria. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the country’s only real attempt to deal with past political crimes. But by focusing only on the offences committed against one political bloc it breeds discord and grievance rather than building national unity.
Troublingly, despite encouragement from the UN there has been a similar lack of focus on reconciliation across the post-revolutionary societies of the Arab Spring. As the sheen of revolution starts to tarnish, the harsh realities of reconstructing a nation in the face of economic and social challenges will stir memories of suffering and abuse. Resentment will not just be held by those who suffered under the old regimes, but also those who lost out in the revolutions and even those revolutionaries who find themselves side-lined in new democratic governments. This is equally true for Tunisia and Libya, and should the rebels win in Syria, they would similarly have to placate Assad’s many supporters to have any hope of building a stable nation.
One way for new governments to walk the tightrope of competing grievances and victimhoods after such political sea-change is through the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. In South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994, the TRC provided a platform to air and admonish the crimes of both sides, and to grant amnesties for some of those who confessed their roles in abuses. Such an approach gives a platform to not only provide some restorative justice to victims, but also to highlight remarkable cases of personal forgiveness and build a new, inclusive and forward-looking national narrative.
If the revolutions of the Arab world are to succeed in building prosperous, egalitarian nations, then the revolutionaries must find a way to bond former oppressors and oppressed together in this process. The alternatives, a grievance-fermenting ‘victor’s justice’ or attempts to forget or repress the past, may doom states to emulate Lebanon and spiral into dangerous cycles of competitive victimhood and potentially even future violence.