Turmoil in the Muslim world - Ikram Sehgal - Thursday, February 10, 2011

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=30445&Cat=9&dt=2/10/2011

More often than not, Western analysts routinely draw their perceptions from gossip on the cocktail circuit, mostly conforming to that reported by Embassy staffers. From time to time, someone will give views contrary to that which are fashionable, these are soon drowned out by contemptuous skepticism. Only when the streets come ablaze are the right inferences drawn- sometime it is just too late. The Tunisian Army did not intervene to save Ben Ali when his security apparatus failed to quell street protests and his mafia-like family was driven out of power, the analysts still failed to see the lurking danger in other Arab capitals. The images from Cairo’s Tahrir Square said it all (and quite graphically), with civilians clambering onto tanks and armoured carriers it was all over bar the shouting. It is intellectual bankruptcy if anyone seems to think that Mubarak’s Intelligence Chief, Omar Suleiman, the man responsible for most of Mubarak’s excesses, has the answers to Egypt’s cry for democracy.

Brigadier (late Lt Gen) Ali Kuli Khan Khattak, then Pakistan’s Defence Attaché in Egypt, was standing only a few feet away when the assassin’s bullet struck Anwar Sadat. Hosni Mubarak has wielded absolute power as the “Pharaoh of Egypt” for 30 years since 1981. Ruling Egypt with an iron hand, Mubarak beggared the country while becoming rich himself – he and his family are reportedly worth US$40 billion (and some change). Poor countries can hardly afford rich leaders but the same story is repeated in other family-run Arab “democracies”, a fig leaf meant to hide brutal and corrupt dictatorships. The demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt did not materialise out of thin air or because of any single source of disaffection – it was a mass outpouring of pent-up rage accumulated over the years. These spontaneous uprisings mainly comprise common citizens that have been made “beggar and/or thieves” (beware of the ‘Rage of angels’) by the greed, nepotism, corruption and sheer callousness of their leaders. During the Annual Summit 2011 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) it was pathetic seeing those who used to fall over themselves to flaunt their close affiliation with the “royal” families of Mubarak, Ben Ali, King Abdullah, seek now to distance themselves by publicly disparaging their conduct- talk about rats deserting a sinking ship!

The revolt sweeping the so-called Arab “democracies” started in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor. Working since his late teens to support his uncle (whom his mother married after the death of his father when he was only three), mother, and six siblings, Bouazizi earned approximately US$ 140 per month. His daily labour helped send one of his sisters to university. But Bouazizi did not have a permit for his vending cart and was forced to bribe the police who would routinely confiscate his cart. He had accumulated approximately a $200 debt in this manner. Bouazizi was publicly humiliated on December 18, 2010 by a 45-year old female municipal official named Hamdi who along with two of her colleagues slapped him, spat at him, confiscated his electronic weighing scale and threw away his cart. He was refused an interview when he went to the governor to complain. Frustrated beyond caring, Bouazizi doused his body with gasoline (or paint thinner, it is not clear) and burned himself. Taken to a hospital 70 miles away, he died 18 days later on January 4, 2011. President Ben Ali belatedly visited him in the “Burns and Trauma Center” before his death. The governor who had refused to see him was later shunted out, Hamdi was also dismissed from service and fled from her home town. All this was too little, too late, the anger simmering among the people exploded and Ben Ali became a wanted man. Interestingly all his assets and accounts abroad have been frozen.

Another self-immolation followed in Algeria. Tunisia’s symbol of frustration was Mohamed Bouazizi, in Egypt it was Khaled Said a businessman who was beaten to death by plainclothes policemen because he protested police corruption..Eighteen others have since committed suicide in Arab countries, among them Abou Jaaffar, a 49-year-old restaurant owner who set himself on fire in front of the Egyptian Parliament.

As any young army officer detailed in “Aid of Civil Power” will attest, some distance must be maintained between the uniformed ranks and the mob in the streets. With protestors swarming the armoured vehicles at will and surrounding them, there was no way the troops were going to open fire. The statement by the Defense Minister and Armed Forces Chief, Marshal Tantawi (called Mubarak’s “poodle” by younger officers according to cables from the US Embassy leaked by Wikileaks) that the “Egyptian Army would not fire on the protestors voicing their legitimate demands” only confirmed the perception that even if the troops were ordered to open fire they would probably not listen to their officers. Very wisely, the military hierarchy avoided putting their soldiers in the streets to this “acid test”. This happened in Pakistan in 1977 when three brigadiers in Lahore refused orders to shoot at the crowd.

The “empire” had to strike back therefore organised pro-Mubarak demonstrators converged on Tahrir Square from all directions on Wednesday February 2. Comprising elements of the police, National Guard and other state security forces in mufti, they rained molotov cocktails and stones on the protestors in the “Liberation” Square. The intention was to create chaos and spark an armed insurrection in which innocents would become collateral damage. While the army’s presence did prevent a greater bloodbath, the curfew order continues to be violated at will by both sides. The regime had to release Wael Ghonim, a Google executive, who sparked the January 25 movement with his Facebook campaign. Ghonim was received in Tahrir Square on February 8 by thousands of applauding protestors.

In Yemen, Abdullah Saleh promised not to run for president when his term expired in 2013 (Hosni Mubarak too promised that his heir apparent Gamal would not run for office). King Abdullah sacked his cabinet and similar to the turn of events in Egypt, reached out for the first time to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. With solid support in Jordan’s largely Bedouin Army, Abdullah’s Bedouin loyalists have been decrying the extravagant lifestyle of his Palestinian wife, Queen Rania – her 40th birthday party rivaled that of the Shah of Iran’s extravaganza celebrating the Anniversary of the Persian monarchy in Persepolis in 1971. Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan are among the dominos because of the shocking level of disparity that exists in these societies. The opulent lifestyles of rulers and the elite are maintained while ordinary citizens have been rendered “beggars and/or thieves”.

What about the ultimate domino in the Muslim world – Pakistan? Our military hierarchy excels in paying lip-service to “lessons learnt” and then blithely ignoring them. In stepping back smartly from the “fail-safe line” in Egypt by demanding an immediate transition, at least publicly, the US prevented the revolt in the streets from becoming a full-fledged revolution. The US certainly learnt some lessons from Egypt- but will it now stop supporting corrupt leaders in the name of “democracy”, or whatever else they go by? Are we anywhere near the “fail-safe” line in Pakistan?

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@pathfinder9.com

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