COMMENT: A revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East — II —S P Seth - Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The mess in the Middle East, where people have no say in how they are governed, has created a sense of hopelessness and utter frustration. One great positive of the Tunisian uprising is that it has shown that the people can overthrow their tyrants if they put their collective minds and energies to the task

Mubarak’s only claim to fame/notoriety is that he has presided over his country’s stagnation and brutal political repression. He is, in so many ways, the King Farouk of today, and his people need redemption from a relic of the past. If his people overthrow him, this could be similar to the beginning of a new resurgence in the Arab world, not unlike the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. But the US would hate to lose him. Over the years, he has fitted ideally into the US regional strategic plans, including support for Israel. An important example of Egypt’s docility is that it has kept effectively closed its border with Gaza to help Israel choke up its people.

And in Yemen, it is the same old story of a dictator, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, presiding since 1978 over his country’s journey to nowhere. In Algeria, just when the Islamists were about to win elections in early 1990s, the military stepped in to quash any such prospect and have been presiding ever since in an on-off fratricidal war.

While a popular movement is building up in the Arab countries against their despotic and repressive regimes (it is reported that in a region of 333 million people, nearly 325 million live under the yoke of unelected leaders), helped by Tunisia’s example and the dexterous use of social media like Twitter, Facebook etc, it is not going to be all that smooth and easy.

There are several reasons for this. First: these countries lack institutional alternatives. It is in the nature of dictatorial regimes to destroy all alternative political structures so they do not become a rallying point for opposition to the regime. Therefore, while at the popular level people hate their rulers, they lack organised alternatives to concretise their aspirations. Hence, there is danger that even if the spontaneous popular upsurge in Arab countries does manage to overthrow the tyrants this could result in some sort of anarchy without credible leadership and institutional back up.

For instance, the immediate power transition in Tunisia after Ben Ali’s flight involved, more or less, the old government without the old chief. How the events in Tunisia or, for that matter in any other Arab state in that situation, will eventually work out will be a painful process.

Second, in this transitional phase of months, or even years, there will be enough scope for the revolution’s enemies to create mischief and subvert the new hopeful trend. Here, the US and its allies will have an important role to play, as we know from the past. For instance, in 1953, the CIA and British intelligence operatives played a decisive role in the overthrow of Iran’s nationalist prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq, and the restoration of the Shah as the country’s ruler to serve US interests. This, in turn, brought into power the clerical regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors in 1979, pitting them against the US and its western allies in what looks like a never-ending US-Iran saga.

Similarly, Hamas’ election victory in Palestine in 2006 was extremely unpleasant for Israel and its western supporters. Algeria too experienced a similar situation in the early 1990s when the Islamists had almost won the elections. But it was not palatable to the West. The generals in Algeria stepped in to quash the elections.

In other words, if any of the alternative political order emerging from Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab lands is unacceptable to the US, it will do its best, with its allies and hangars-on in the Arab countries, to subvert the emerging revolution. The US is unlikely to tolerate any alternative political order (democratic or otherwise) that is perceived to threaten its oil interests, and compromises perceived Israeli security, Barack Obama’s reported congratulation to the youth of Tunisia for having the courage to revolt notwithstanding.

Look at what Washington’s behind-the-scenes power structure has done to Obama’s message of reaching out to the Islamic world as spelled out in his Cairo speech, soon after he came to power. The Palestinian Papers released by Al Jazeera disclose the sordid doings of all those involved in or facilitating peace negotiations between the Mahmoud Abbas administration and the Israelis.

The mess in the Middle East, where people have no say in how they are governed, has created a sense of hopelessness and utter frustration. One great positive of the Tunisian uprising is that it has shown that the people can overthrow their tyrants if they put their collective minds and energies to the task. This will have the effect of lifting that sense of desperation about a future just like the past, and worse.

If the US wants to be part of a new future in the Middle East, it should not, like in the past, obstruct its course to make it fit into its own narrow interests. That has only perpetuated the stagnation and tyranny that is today’s Middle East. And this cannot continue, especially after the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Therefore, the lesson for the West is to welcome the birth of a new Middle East and help it with political support and economic aid to lift itself from its morass.

At the same time, the US should not panic if Islamic elements manage to win elections here and there. Because, the historical process of transition in the Middle East has to go through a process of twists and turns for it to eventually become a stable region. Even the Islamists will have to provide jobs for their constituents to lift many of them out of poverty and destitution. This is probably the biggest problem with the young populations of the Middle East without work and no future. They too, as governments, will need to interact with the world at large for trade, aid, diplomacy and other needs of governance.

The situation at present, though, is so murky that it is not possible to see a clear picture. But things are starting to move, and that surely is a good thing.


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

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