The tide of revolt - Rizwan Asghar - Wednesday, February 02, 2011

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The Arab world is in a disturbed and expectant state. Everywhere men and women are weary of the old order and are demanding change. A revolutionary spirit is at work, and the public mind in Egypt, Libya and Algeria is excited. The fall of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is the spark that has set the Arab world on fire. The Jasmine Revolution, nicknamed after Tunisia’s national flower, is a signal for a radical change in the North Africa-Middle East region. A vigorous liberal opposition to the established order is gathering momentum rapidly.

Protests have broken out from Egypt to Mauritania. Many of these countries are living under emergency laws for a long time. Now the entire order of authoritarianism, which had succeeded the Arab countries’ independence from the Ottoman Empire, is crashing. It seems as if many of the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are going to be doomed.

Authoritarian governments in Egypt, Algeria and some other countries are taking desperate steps to avoid Tunisia-like scenarios. In Kuwait, the government has announced a decision to hand out 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars to every person to offset the effects of rising food prices. The Algerian government has increased its purchases of wheat to prevent food shortages. But these belated efforts are unlikely to stop the anger from spreading.

The Tunisian revolution has been hailed by supporters of democracy everywhere in the Arab world, and reports are regularly coming of violence in many countries, and of men setting themselves on fire in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt in protest against their governments, in emulation of Mohammad Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation in December triggered the Tunisian revolution.

More than 100 people have lost their lives in Egypt and hundreds of thousands of protesters have come out on the streets demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy. His dissolution of his cabinet, with the promise to install a new one, could not alleviate the frustration and anger of the masses. Many experts of regional politics predict that a domino collapse of Arab dictatorships is on the cards.

The world will witness a more sustained struggle against rigid regimes in the months ahead. The Tunisian revolution could prove to be decisive and has the potential to revitalise the discourse of political change and reenergise opposition movements across the region. After decades of failed challenges to authoritarianism, Arab opposition figures now have an unexpected precedent of successful struggle.

The US approach to the promotion of democracy in the Arab world has always been duplicitous because of the perceived apprehension of the rise of radical Islamic groups capturing power. Moreover, the US needs the direct support of Arab rulers in its global “war against terror”. So the prospect of such a democratic change had vanished as a believable possibility. This accounts for the Obama administration’s refusal to support the struggle for democracy in the Arab world.

The ouster of the Tunisian president has also introduced a new trend in the politics of Arab countries, where democracy was inextricably linked with military intervention. Now Tunisia has toppled a tyrant through the power of its people, which has infused a sense of confidence among Arab masses.

Since the end of the Second World War, the growth of democracy across the world seems to be coming in regional waves. During the 1960s, many African countries took significant steps towards a democratic future after becoming independent from European powers. In the 1980s many right-wing dictatorships fell in Latin America. In Asia, the Philippine revolution of 1986 ushered in democracy in South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet bloc brought democracy to Eastern Europe. The next chapter has started in the Arab world.


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