Days of rage, dawn of hope - Irfan Husain - Saturday, February 26, 2011

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WE are living in momentous days. I had never thought I would live to see ordinary people across the Arab world rise up to throw their dictators out. While it is too early to predict the direction the ongoing revolution will take, the region — and the world — will never be the same again.

The chaos and the slaughter in Libya underlines the inherent problems of dictatorships: Muammar Qadhafi`s bloodthirsty rants show how disconnected he is from reality. Here is a man who has convinced himself that, after 42 years of misrule, he has the God-given right to cling on to power, no matter how many Libyans are killed.

But more than the fate of one man, his country or the region, what is happening now is the start of a major realignment in world affairs. For decades, the Arab world was frozen in stasis. Despite its large population, huge oil reserves and strategic location, it played a relatively minor role on the global stage. The reason is that its rulers refused to allow change, keeping a lid on education, creativity and competition. Nepotism, corruption and incompetence flourished as a result.

Today, out of some 350 million Arabs, three out of four are under 30 years old. Unemployment for young people is almost universally well over 20 per cent, hitting 80 per cent in some areas. These are the youths who have toppled Ben Ali in Tripoliand Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and are now locked in battle with security forces in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. In other Arab states like Saudi Arabia, rulers are desperately doling out largesse to their people to hang on to power.

But their time has come. The frustration and anger boiling over in Tripoli and Sana`a will not be restricted there. Across the Arab world, the youth share similar aspirations and desires, and they will not allow geriatric despots to block their path to prosperity forever. Once the fear threshold has been crossed, as it has been in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia, there will be no turning back.

So what will a transformed Middle East mean for the world? Popularly elected governments will lead to the emergence of independent voices and policies. For far too long, most Arab countries have been American proxies toeing the Washington line. This policy has been dictated by the need for securing oil supplies to the West. Countries like Egypt and Jordan have gone against the will of their people to serve American interests in Israel to perpetuate the pain of the Palestinian people.

Not long ago, Turkey fell in this category, too. But in recent years, it has found its own voice and charted its own path. Rapidly, its impressive economic growth has been translated into political clout and a regional role. From being a supplicant for membership to the EU, it is now a role model for Arab nations that are emerging from decades of dictatorship.

Over the last decade, competing centres have emerged around the world. China and India in Asia, and Brazil in South America have established themselves as regional powers, with China poised to become a global power. If the Arabs emerge to play their rightful role in the international arena, this would be one more step towards a multi-polar world.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America was left as the sole superpower. But now, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, its economy badly hit by recession and mind-boggling banking scams on Wall Street, Washington`s power is ebbing away. Unable to impose its will on Iran, or its Israeli ally, the United States is a superpower in decline.

With authority slipping away from its Arab clients, the US will be less able to direct events and policies in the region. Thus far, two major American industries have thrived from the clout Washington has attained: armament factories and oil companies have made obscene profits in the region. By paying off members of the ruling families, executives from these firms have signed hugely favourable deals for years. This nexus is best exemplified by the cosy relationship the Bush family and Dick Cheney built up with the Saudi ruling dynasty.

If such deals are open to greater public scrutiny, and rulers stop buying expensive arms they do not really need, a large sector of the American economy will no longer be as profitable as it is today. But more importantly, a larger percentage of the region`s oil wealth would be used to educate its people, and to create industries that could employ Arab youth.

Released from their mental prisons, young Arabs would be able to contribute more meaningfully to the world in terms of science and the arts. Many doomsayers, however, are predicting that this revolutionary ferment may end in tears, with religious extremists seizing power. They cite Iran`s example where the ayatollahs have imposed their theocratic rule after the anti-Shah revolution in 1979.

However, thus far, there seems little evidence to confirm this fear. The faces we have been seeing on televised coverage of the popular revolt are not those of religious zealots. And while protesters in Cairo`s Tahrir Square and elsewhere have prayed in public, they will not exchange one dictatorship for another. The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have clearly stated they will not field a candidate for the presidency, and would prefer to rule in a coalition. Tunisia and Libya both have a distinctly secular outlook.

But even if Islamic parties do come to power in some Arab states like Algeria, that`s what democracy is about. The fact is that many states in the region are deeply conservative, and if voters there choose to elect religious parties, the world has to accept the legitimacy of such governments.

The big loser from all these changes will, of course, be Israel. Thus far, it has relied on American influence and its powerful military to dominate the region. But over the years, it has fallen victim to hubris, and neglected to build any real links with Arabs living in its neighbourhood. As it is now discovering, dictators don`t last forever.

No matter what happens, it is clear that we are past the tipping point. The genie of freedom is out of the bottle, and no force on earth will put it back in.

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