West Asia: change is in the air - Praful Bidwai - Saturday, February 05, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

Fragrance from the Jasmine Revolution, which overthrew Tunisia’s hated President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is spreading over the larger West Asia-North Africa region, especially to Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. By the time these lines appear, it’s likely that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive 30-year-long reign would have ended.

Major events in Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country, tend to shake the entire region. Tunisia is tiny beside Egypt. But its successful 29-day uprising was the Arab world’s first real revolution. Unlike past putsches, “colonels’ coups” and other regime changes, misnamed “revolutions,” this was a mass uprising.

The uprising evoked the most resonance in Egypt, but it has shaken other Arab autocrats too. Nobody expressed their fears better than Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – the world’s longest-ruling dictator – who arrogantly told Tunisians that bloodshed and anarchy had broken out in their country because they sacked Ben Ali far too hastily.

By all indications, Arab citizens are watching Egypt’s protests with hope. It’s ordinary people like them, not Islamists or foreign troops, who are challenging a dictator. Most people in the Arab League’s 22 countries share the Tunisians’ and Egyptians’ disgust with corrupt dictatorial regimes, which don’t provide basic public services or relieve food shortages and high prices.

The Arab states haven’t done well by their people. Even the oil-rich ones haven’t educated them and created social opportunity. Under external pressure and recent effects the global slowdown, many governments have further cut food and fuel subsidies, thus increasing people’s suffering.

Most young Arabs are moderately educated, aware of the world, and aspire to jobs in a modern economy. Such jobs are a rarity. The youth have no future. Their frustration is aggravated by denial of liberties.

So, Egypt’s upsurge could well be replicated in other Arab countries. People’s bottled-up anger and frustration are the same everywhere, as is lack of freedom.

The democratic deficit in the Arab world is huge. Elections, if and when they take place, are typically rigged – as in Egypt recently, when the ruling party increased its parliamentary majority from 75 per cent to 95 per cent.

Only three Arab countries can be called some kind of democracy: Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Iraq. Lebanon is a plural society with Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Druze Muslims, which holds free elections. But its democracy has a denominational character, with the top offices being divided up between religious communities and powerful families.

The Palestinian Territories had free and fair elections in 2006. But, Hamas, which won a plurality, was excluded from the Palestinian Authority government. Its state power is confined to Gaza, itself an open-air prison under Israel’s occupation. In Iraq, the democratic process runs within a constitution and broad-sweep policy framework dictated by the US after the 2003 occupation.

Most other Arab states are in paralysis, where some form of elected legislatures exist – as in Kuwait – but wield very little power, which is subject to the ruling families’ will. Often, elections are held only as safety-valves to vent frustration.

Some of the richest Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, are at the bottom of the democracy index. Saudi Arabia is at the bottom of the abyss.

The democracy deficit is often blamed on Islam, especially salafi “desert Islam”, reinforced by ultra-conservative obscurantism. But other factors are more important: large-scale social destruction and creation of artificial states by European imperialists; tribalism and paternalism; oil money, which obviates the need to negotiate popular participation; the state’s failure to tax the rich and break their stranglehold, and not least, foreign aid dependence.

The Western powers, led by the US, have sustained Arab autocracies for Cold War-related reasons, and now as part of the US’s strategic alliance system to which Israel, followed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, is pivotal. Washington has bankrolled Egypt with $3.5 billion annually since Anwar El-Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, breaking its isolation in the Arab world.

Many Arab rulers will probably follow the Egypt model when faced with a popular upsurge. Mubarak dissolved his cabinet and appointed former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice-president. This only produced more protest, led by youth who chanted: “We don’t want a new cabinet, we want you out”.

Suleiman is a trusted US ally and long-standing CIA collaborator who helped implement the notorious policy of “rendition” of terrorism suspects to extract confessions from them under torture. Suleiman has been the main conduit between Mubarak and Washington, under whom torture has long been practised in Egypt.

The Egyptian people’s anger is rooted in opposition to the Mubarak dynasty, police brutality, widespread poverty, lack of housing, high food prices, and unemployment. People under 30 make up almost two-thirds of Egypt’s population. About 90 per cent of Egypt’s jobless are under 30.

Discontent has now infected even the army. Soldiers refuse to open fire on protesting crowds or stop people from painting anti-Mubarak slogans on battle-tanks. Mubarak has succeeded in uniting different social strata through hatred, including trade unions, the Facebook-networked 6 April Youth Movement created in solidarity with industrial workers planning a strike, and sections of the middle class.

Numerous parties, including National Association for Change led by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, and secular parties too, support or join the protests. But none leads them, certainly not the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s millionaires are fleeing. And people are publicly telling Mubarak: “The plane is ready.” A collapse of the Mubarak regime will almost certainly ignite protests in other Arab states and prove a transformative moment in West Asia-North Africa, radically reshaping it and opening a new democratic epoch.

Meanwhile, the West is caught in a dilemma. If it distances itself from Mubarak, it risks provoking a groundswell of protest and instability in an already volatile region. The West has a huge stake in the oil there. If it backs Mubarak, its loyal ally, and Israel’s closest friend in the region, it will court intense popular hostility, as it did by backing the detested Shah of Iran in 1979. The second option would be suicidal.

The dilemma is especially acute for Washington. It vacillates between certifying that the “Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests” of the people, and calling for “an orderly transition in Egypt”. While this implies Mubarak’s departure, Washington doesn’t accept the upsurge’s terms.

Israel too is watching Egypt with great anxiety at the thought that it might lose an indispensable ally, whose cooperation is crucial in maintaining the Gaza status quo, and also confusion and divisions in the Arab world. Israel fears that a democratic radicalisation of the Arab Street would bring the Palestinian issue to the fore and stoke mass hostility towards itself.

If Egypt’s next government decides to open the Rafah crossing with Gaza, it will break Israel’s siege of the Strip. This could reverse Israel’s hitherto-remarkably-successful strategy of pushing the Palestinian Authority’s leadership into surrendering its primary claims to sovereign statehood and to land, accepting a series of Palestinian Bantustans, leaving illegal Israeli settlements untouched, and giving up the right of return of five million Palestinian refugees.

The situation is pregnant with big possibilities.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1 @yahoo.co.in

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