The spectre haunting the Arabs - Irfan Husain - January 19, 2011

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FOR millions of Muslims, good things seldom come from the United States, unless they are from Microsoft, McDonald`s or MGM. So when Hilary Clinton, the American secretary of state, lectured the Arab world on the need for decent governance and greater respect for human rights, her words were greeted by a stony silence.

However, Ms Clinton was prescient in her attack, as within a couple of days, the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was on the plane to Saudi Arabia, and a lifetime of exile. Few tears will be shed for him. Over the 23 years that he ruled his country with an iron fist, he robbed with impunity, with his family amassing an obscene amount of money.

In a sense, Ben Ali`s might well be the first scalp claimed by Wikileaks, as one of the triggers for the popular uprising that finally drove him out were leaked cables from the US embassy in Tunis. While Tunisians hardly needed Julian Assange or the US State Department to tell them about the corruption and mismanagement they lived under, the details that surfaced in the unflattering Wikileaks about their leaders might well have driven them to the street protests that finally kicked Ben Ali out.

These demonstrations were organised largely through Facebook and Twitter, the social networks that are proving to be highly potent tools of protest. As we saw in the aftermath of the rigged election in Iran nearly two years ago, authorities no longer have a monopoly on mass communications.

Responding angrily to suggestions that his country might be next, and to Clinton`s speech, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said: “We hope the Arab League will adopt Egypt`s proposal which would be a message from the Arab to the Western and European worlds saying `Do not dare interfere in our affairs`.”

His defiance would have carried more weight had Egypt not been so dependent on American aid: since Anwar Sadat signed the peace accord with Israel, his country has received around $60 billion from Washington in military and economic assistance. Mostly, Gheit had been angered by Hilary Clinton`s words at the Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar on, 13 January:

“In too many places, in too many ways, the region`s foundations are sinking into the sand. Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries` problems for a little while but not forever. Others will fill the vacuum…”

These words might sound inappropriate, coming as they do from the secretary of state of a country that has done so much to prop up dictators across the region. Ben Ali was a valued American ally for decades. And yet to blame his kleptomania and his despotism on Washington is to oversimplify the picture. The reality is that the Arab world is full of leaders like Ben Ali, and they aren`t all American stooges by any means.

In the entire region, dictatorship is the norm, not the exception. Arab leaders often say that the West has no right to foist democracy on countries with different cultural values. This implies that Muslims are somehow condemned by their faith to be ruled by despotic generals, politicians and kings. This is self-serving rubbish put out by thuggish rulers seeking to justify their unending grip on power.

One of Tunisia`s neighbours is Libya where Muammar Qadhafi has been ruling for over 40 years. Since he grabbed power in 1969, he has acquired a reputation for bizarre behaviour that has made him a laughingstock around the world. One of his sons was arrested in Switzerland for assaulting a member of his staff, and Qadhafi himself does not travel anywhere without his Ukrainian nurse.

In many of these dictatorships, succession is from father to son. Of course, kingdoms like Jordan and Saudi Arabia have legalised this method of keeping power within the family, thereby allowing looters to hang on to their ill-gotten wealth.

If these dictators had provided their people with development and good governance, perhaps they could have justified their lengthy grip on power. But given their resources, they have little to show for their years in high office, aside from bloated Swiss accounts and lavish properties. With high unemployment and a crushing inflation rate, ordinary people have been pushed over the edge. And the knowledge that their leaders were living in luxury while they struggled to make ends meet provided the spark to the powder keg.

Although the situation in Tunisia is still in flux, it is clear that people will not tolerate the kind of government they have suffered under for decades. Currently, the ruling party has managed to retain the key portfolios of finance, defence, interior and foreign affairs, while accepting three opposition members into the cabinet. It is not certain that this power-sharing arrangement will hold. The crowds have tasted blood, and are unlikely to settle for a crust.

Interestingly, none of the Islamic groups have been included so far. The opposition represents a wide spectrum of political beliefs, ranging from socialists to Islamists, and only a general election will throw up a truly representative government. While Tunisia comes to terms with the consequences of its `Jasmine revolution`, other Arab regimes are bracing for the contagion to spread to their countries.

The truth most Arab rulers are unwilling to face is the sheer iniquity that has taken root under them. Study after study has underlined the gender inequality, the lack of opportunities, and the poor education available to young Arabs. In Tunisia, the Wikileaks emphasised the fact that because of the rampant corruption, Tunisian entrepreneurs were reluctant to invest. This resulted in fewer employment opportunities, and increased frustration.

Much the same pattern is evident across the Arab world. Apart from going into the pockets of the ruling class, funds are wasted on armies whose only purpose is to protect the government. But as Ben Ali has discovered, even a well-fed and well-armed army is no guarantee of perpetual power. One of the questions Tunisian demonstrators taunted soldiers with was: “Why aren`t you in Jerusalem?”

These are heady times for young Tunisians, but they are about to face political and economic realities. However, whatever the future holds for them, it won`t be as bad as their past.

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