The prevailing tendency to depict unrest in the Middle East as symptomatic of region-wide social and political injustice, exacerbated by suppression of dissent and a lack of democracy, is dangerously myopic. Using this template keeps observers from knowing the specific reasons for violent political demonstrations, by treating crowds as the rudderless, leaderless sum of their parts.
But crowds are not rudderless. They are governed — often by leaders who deliberately misremember the past in order to misconstrue the present, for better or worse — and those who govern them must be held accountable for their actions, especially when human life is sacrificed. So despite strong desires to forgive “unthinking crowds” for waves of destruction, especially when carried out for “progressive” reasons, individual accountability is key.
Too many political activists are allergic to self-reflection and tend to deflect calls for dialogue and moderation. They prey on the truth — manufacturing convenient politics with modern technologies and shrewd imaginations — to fulfill their own larger objectives. This has resulted in the proliferation of serial revolutionaries who upload decontextualized or manipulated pictures and videos to the Internet. Owing to the moral (and financial) austerity of many news agencies, such uploads are accepted, replayed with only scant warning that “independent verification” is impossible.
Within such a climate, how can accuracy be restored, and accountability applied, to balaclava-clad warriors who occupy the stern of revolutionary movements? The key is to deconstruct each crowd, reveal those individuals whose objectives are gaining power for themselves, and force them to practice democracy — not the democracy of votes, but of public accountability. Elections are just a part of democracy, dwarfed by bonds of social trust and a stable civil society. There can be no democracy without civil society, and civil society cannot exist in an atmosphere of political violence.
A criminalization of political violence must therefore be instituted, weighing each action on its merit so that assault is treated as assault, murder as murder, and arson as arson. In the Middle East, too many morally dubious actions are routinely categorized as legitimate political expressions, or suppressions, instead of crime. Whether committed by demonstrators or members of a state’s security forces, crime must be recognized as crime.
As these points become more widely grasped, broadly depicting Arab unrest as a “Spring” is becoming passé, and each demonstration has started to be viewed within its specific context. Members of crowds are finally being distinguished to see who is an honest demonstrator for economic and political reform, who is a radical, who is being manipulated by external actors, who is a criminal, and who a victim of circumstance.
Still, many in the media have not gotten the message. Misplaced shock accompanies reports that Libya’s Benghazi or Misurata crowds have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, and that the Syrian opposition is actually a motley crew of radical ethno-religious movements. Few have publicly explored the segregation of men and women in Bahrain’s demonstrations, or the tribal nature of those in Yemen. Few have sought to identify the members of demonstrations to understand the essence of what is actually occurring.