COMMENT: A revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East — I —S P Seth - Monday, January 31, 2011

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In Tunisia, the army that should have been the bedrock of Ben Ali’s dictatorship decided to stand aside, refusing to slaughter civilians to save his political hide, leaving him no choice but to find asylum with another kindred dictatorship in Saudi Arabia

Tunisia is becoming a byword for hopeful resurgence in Arab countries. Who would have thought that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, its president, who had mastered ruling by dictate for 23 years, would just fall by the way in a matter of days? Not only that the people’s power brought him down, they do not want any vestige of his regime. They want them all to go lock, stock and barrel and start the new era with a clean slate. The country is in the midst of great anticipation and expectation from a new order that has still to arise.

However, the developments in Tunisia have created a new wave of people’s power sweeping or threatening to sweep much of the Middle East. In a sense, the Arab world is experiencing a surge of revolutionary expectations. In other words, it is not just a national movement affecting Tunisia, but has regional ramifications.

But let us put all this in the context of the recent Arab history. In the post-colonial period around the 1950s, there have been tumultuous events in some of the Arab countries, the most important, perhaps, was the overthrow of Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952 led by a group of army officers under the nominal leadership of Brigadier Mohammed Naguib. The real leader behind the putsch was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who managed to depose Naguib in 1954.

Nasser was not only the new hope of Egypt but also the trailblazer for Arab nationalism. It looked like the days of Arab monarchies were almost over; such was the political environment of the time. And this period also saw increasing hostility toward the newly created state of Israel that had annexed more territory to its domain following the defeat of Arab forces in the late 1940s.

But what created a wave of Arab anger (and in much of the world) was the joint invasion of Egypt by Anglo-French-Israeli forces in 1956 to undo the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by the country’s Nasser-led government. Nasser became an instant Arab hero with his determination to stand his ground against, what looked like, insurmountable odds of facing three powerful enemies.

Nasser was unwittingly helped by the US because it came out against the joint attack, forcing the aggressors to withdraw. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was enraged that the UK, France and Israel had the audacity to undertake the invasion without the knowledge or approval of the US, still harbouring dreams of their colonial days. The US was now the undisputed leader of the ‘free world’ as the Cold War started to hot up between the Soviet Union and the US and its allies.

The Suez Canal saga, with Nasser leading the charge of Arab nationalism, emerged as a unifying force of sorts in a region that had not seen anything like this before. Such a surge of popular enthusiasm scared the daylights out of the region’s monarchs. At the same time, Nasser’s Egypt got sucked into the Cold War, having to depend more and more on the Soviet Union for economic and arms aid as it was not forthcoming from the US.

Arab nationalism was also perceived as a serious threat to the US oil interests concentrated in the oil producing countries ruled by kings and the like. In the same way, the US commitment to Israel started to become more pronounced as the US’s most reliable ally in the region, beefed up by the work of the US Jewish lobby in the US.

Even as this surge of Arab nationalism was worrying the US, Nasser was feeling increasingly confident riding a wave of popular support after his success in nationalising the Suez Canal and the humiliation of its attackers. And in his rallying cry for Arab solidarity, Israel increasingly appeared as the next challenge to restore Arab pride.

Nasser was a great Arab leader but also a demagogue. His 1956 success had given him a false sense of confidence, hoping that such feats can be replicated again without the necessary military preparations to take on the Israelis. The resultant six-day war in 1967, with Israel launching a surprise attack, finished off the Egyptian air force as it lay exposed on the ground. As part of the then rising Arab nationalism, Jordan and Syria were Egypt’s military partners. They all suffered humiliating defeats, with Israel occupying large chunks of their territories and creating the new issue of occupied Palestine.

The six-day war put to rest, for the time being at least, the surge of Arab nationalism triggered by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Israel emerged from this a much stronger power than it ever was, and its support base in the US expanded, further embellishing its credentials as the US’s most reliable and strongest ally in an unstable region.

By the same token, the region’s reining monarchs got a new lease of life with the US as their protector. Another attempt at rescuing the Arab pride also failed disastrously in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, with the Arab forces once again suffering a humiliating defeat, which finally convinced some of them, like Egypt and Jordan, to make peace with Israel.

The Arab world has been in the doldrums ever since, ruled by aging kings and despots clinging to power at any cost. During such times, the events in Tunisia have an entirely new meaning. Although it is still early days, the collapse of the first Arab dictator under popular revolt is the first of its kind in the Arab world for as long as one can remember. And the message is uplifting for all Arabs. It also shows how thin and frayed are the threads that tie together the different arms of every repressive regime. They tend to buckle under when enough popular pressure is applied.

For instance, in Tunisia, the army that should have been the bedrock of Ben Ali’s dictatorship decided to stand aside, refusing to slaughter civilians to save his political hide, leaving him no choice but to find asylum with another kindred dictatorship in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt, Yemen and Algeria are also under pressure, with popular demonstrations seeking the removal of their rulers. After Tunisia, Egypt appears to be the next domino to fall. Its dictator, Hosni Mubarak — now 82 — has been in power for 30 years, and reportedly has plans to engineer his son’s succession. His government seems determined to tough it out, even if it means killing its own people. Imagine the prospect of another scion of the Hosni Mubarak lineage ruling over Egypt for another 30 years.

(To be continued)

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at

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