Uprising in Arab states - By Shada Islam - Saturday, January 29, 2011

SHOULD the leaders of Egypt, Yemen and other Arab nations, as well as their authoritarian counterparts in other parts of the Muslim world, start looking for safe havens as an Arab Spring finally gathers momentum and more regimes face the wrath of the people?

My advice is yes. Pack your bags, contact travel agents and get those flights booked to Riyadh or Jeddah. Also, perhaps reserve some accommodation. It could get quite crowded out there. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution may not hit all Arab streets immediately, but popular discontent over lack of jobs, economic uncertainty, political repression and other deficits in the region is not going to disappear. In fact, despite government crackdowns and probable last-minute efforts to make concessions, the revolt will probably become stronger.

There are many reasons for this: for one, the suddenness of the Tunisian revolution and the flight into exile of former President Ben Ali has dealt a fatal blow to the ‘wall of fear’ that existed in Tunisia and many other Arab states.

Second, the conditions that triggered the discontent in Tunisia — unemployment, lack of political empowerment, repression, corruption, high inflation and food prices, and poor living conditions — exist in almost all other Arab countries.

But the most important reason for incumbent Arab leaders to keep a wary eye on their once-timid citizens is that this is a movement of young people. The revolt in Tunisia, and now those in Egypt and Yemen, are being spearheaded by the region’s disaffected, frustrated and angry young men and women with a thirst for freedom and a hunger for jobs. And they are using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites to achieve their aims.

If there is a common message from the region’s young people, it is this: the time for grumpy old men and their repressive regimes is over.

Of course much could still go wrong. There is a danger that the Jasmine Revolution could go the way of Romania’s anticommunist uprising of 20 years ago, with the old regime’s underlings expelling their bosses in order to stay in power. Or it could gain traction in much the same way the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe changed the political landscape of Europe.

Arab governments should not underestimate the power of young people or their dogged determination, fearlessness and appetite for change. It is the developing world’s ‘youth bulge’ or ‘demographic dividend’ — the term I prefer — that gives it an edge over old Europe. But providing jobs and a promising future to these young men and women remains a challenge for many governments, including, of course, Pakistan’s.

As leaderless young Egyptians demand an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, older opponents of the regime are rushing to catch up, a point that has been made by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who is fighting for democracy in Egypt. “It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” said Mr ElBaradei. “Young people are impatient.” In Egypt, in their eagerness to demand change, tens of thousands have braved tear gas, rubber bullets and police officers notorious for torture, upstaging for the moment traditional opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera and new media may have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is the people who have seized these opportunities.

The turmoil in the Arab world has also highlighted the shortcomings of the European Union’s foreign-policy outreach into its immediate neighbourhood. The EU is under attack for its failure to recognise the significance of the events in Tunisia and their fallout in other Arab countries. Critics say the bloc continued to support the region’s strongmen because of fears their departure could mean the rise to power of Islamists.

But as author Olivier Roy pointed out recently, “the novel characteristic of the first popular revolution to topple a dictatorship in the Islamic world is that there is nothing Islamic about it.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country is traditionally close to Tunisia, has admitted he underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people. France was supportive of Ben Ali right up to the moment he fled Tunisia.

In fact, throughout the early days of the protests, French ministers made comments in favour of the authoritarian regime. As human-rights groups condemned murders carried out by Tunisian police, the French foreign minister, Michèle AlliotMarie, said France would lend its own police ‘knowhow’ to help Ben Ali’s forces maintain order. The culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, said Tunisia was not an “unequivocal dictatorship” and the agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, said Ben Ali had done a lot for his country.

Clearly France’s intelligence-gathering network was out of sync with the reality on the ground. Not surprisingly, Paris has now replaced its ambassador to Tunisia with the country’s youngest envoy, Boris Boillon, 41, an Arabist who was previously ambassador to Iraq.

The EU, too, is now offering help in organising elections in Tunisia and has promised emergency aid to bolster the country’s economy. EU commissioners are urging restraint in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa has called for a summit of Arab leaders to calm the region. My feeling is that such a summit will achieve little — and may make matters even worse. If anything, images of dynastic Arab incumbents meeting in a posh location in a desperate bid to hang on to power are likely to make the region’s young people even angrier. ¦ The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

No comments:

Post a Comment