By Ana Maria Luca, Now.
Totalitarian military regimes tend to react the same way when faced with a rebellion: they distract the population’s attention toward an even scarier enemy so that they can claim to be saviours rather than oppressors. And so whenever there is a revolution, there’s usually a counter-revolution, too.
It has been almost a quarter of a century since the Iron Curtain fell, and almost a quarter of a century of freedom in Eastern Europe as a result. Though the comparison isn’t drawn often enough, in many ways, the domino-like protests that swept the Arab region in 2011 mirror these earlier anti-communist rebellions in Europe. Indeed, the events in some of these countries hold many lessons for Arab states currently in transition, especially as people wonder what happened to their revolutions.
The Romanians, for instance, lived through the bloodiest of the anti-communist rebellions in Eastern Europe. In December 1989, over 1,300 people died in a mere few weeks. While most people correctly know that it was the communist crackdown on protesters that killed all those people, few grasp the full scale of the regime’s violence.
The Romanian revolution began in Timisoara, a city in south-western Transylvania, after intelligence agencies squashed protests at a football match. When people also took to the streets on 16 December 1989 to protest the decision to remove a Unitarian priest from his parish because of his criticism about the lack of religious freedom in Romania, more blood was spilled. Demonstrators then stormed the headquarters of the Communist Party and other state institutions; and on 17 December, the army declared martial law and commenced an intense crackdown.
The regime called the protesters “terrorists” and even armed the employees of a plant in a neighbouring region with wooden sticks, telling them that Timisoara was being taken over by Hungarians. The men, however, sided with the protesters.
On 22 December, more unrest erupted in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. A massive demonstration orchestrated in support of President Nicolae Ceausescu and the Communist Party turned into an anti-communist revolt. Protests swept across the country and they soon overwhelmed security services. (Ceausescu fled the next day after the Minister of Defence shot himself in the chest.) Seeing no other alternative, rank-and-file army members sided with the people.
The movement’s success, however, proved fleeting. A group of senior commanders had a different plan. Trying to absolve their direct role in the crackdown, they began a concerted campaign to spread misinformation. Generals called on the people to take up arms and fight terrorists that were allegedly wearing civilian clothes and donning revolutionary flags in order to pose as protesters.
The tactic worked to some degree. On 23 and 24 December 1989, Romanians opened fired at each other on the streets of Bucharest. Soldiers shot soldiers convinced they were fighting off these so-called terrorists. Officers even distributed weapons to civilians.
Chaos ensued. Army leaders and political activists, through televised addresses, began asking people to kill any potential enemies. Ceausescu and his wife, for instance, were caught and executed on 25 December following a mock trial where they were charged with genocide. The mob, however, was enraged that a full trial was not properly conducted to account for the entire spectrum of his crimes.
In the end, it took investigators two decades to understand the events and the counter-revolution in Eastern Europe. And for years to come, Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and Syrians will also struggle to cope with the counter-revolutions currently taking place across various Arab countries.
Regardless, many now view Islamists in post-Arab Spring countries as the greatest enemy, preferring military rule as the better alternative. Counter-revolutionary activities, for instance, are taking place in Tunisia and Libya. In Egypt, a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood mandate ended with the party becoming more unpopular than even the military – which subsequently retook control in a coup following the 30 June protests.
In Syria, the Assad regime is employing similar tactics. Al-Qaeda, a much scarier enemy than more moderate Islamist parties, has hijacked the Syrian uprising. This, of course, has proved useful for the regime, which created the conditions necessary for its growth. Now all Syrians – whether Sunni, Christian, Kurdish, or Alawite – live in constant terror.
And although the West doesn’t always seem too aware of these counter-revolutionary strategies, it was always Assad’s intent to frame himself as the only alternative to the Syrian rebels. While extremist elements of Syria’s opposition including various al-Qaeda affiliates do hope to take over Syria, they’ve certainly had a lot of help from the regime. Syrians now as a result are waging a bloody conflict that has already left 120,000 dead and millions more displaced. Western powers must therefore take note of the regime’s approach, because the chaos has left Assad as the sole remaining winner in Syria.
Ana Maria has been reporting for NOW English since August 2009. She is an experienced journalist specialized in conflict reporting and international affairs @aml1609
This post was originally published on Now.