COMMENT: The Middle East muddle —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, March 07, 2011

Source :\03\07\story_7-3-2011_pg3_2

Among the kingdoms and emirates, only Bahrain and Oman are suffering the pangs of disquiet. The others, despite being led by ruling dynasties, remain testily calm. The kings and princes in these nations have acted benignly towards their subjects and, most importantly, shared the riches

President Obama gave a landmark speech in Cairo in July 2009, appeasing Muslim sentiment across the globe, and allaying apprehensions of American mistrust of Islam as a religion. He also, however, had a message to give: Muslim nations must change the way they operate and bring in more inclusiveness. He had this to say: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for...the ability to speak (their) mind and have a say in how (they) are governed...government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as (they) choose...(these) are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” He added, “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

In saying so, Obama was only reiterating what had become the American mantra ever since the Bush days when the altruism of democracy was waved with religious fervour as the means of deliverance and realisation of human aspirations. Remember, Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on the premise of liberating their people from the tyranny of ‘undemocratic’ and ‘non-representative’ regimes. President Obama in his Cairo address asked his audiences to spare the opportunism of his predecessor in using the democracy slogan as a subterfuge but hoped to convey the sincerity of intent when suggesting democracy as the prescription of choice. President Bush and his coterie of neo-cons had arrogated to themselves ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), which essentially was a cart-blanche to intervene militarily in other nations without the need for a Security Council authorisation. Obama simply defanged the military arrogance of the US but kept the option to encourage change through other means of soft power.

In January 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed regional leaders at Doha in the backdrop of the change in Tunisia and the convulsions of a change in Egypt. She said, “Countries across the Middle East need to shake up corrupt institutions and reinvigorate stagnant political systems or risk losing the future to Islamic militants.” She felt that many Middle East governments were not keeping pace with demographic and political changes: “ too many ways the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” There could never be a more profound indictment of the prevalent political system.

And yet, when the toll of change reverberates in the greater Middle East region from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, the question that the policy s analysts in American think tanks ask is whether ‘stability’ was the right price to pay for ‘democracy’. Remember, America has high stakes in the region’s stability. After all, it has been the principal engineer of the kingdoms and the republics of the Middle East, and through an active sponsorship via financial and political patronage has buoyed their existence. In the long reigns of the autocrats and the royalties of the region, the US additionally sought a benevolent policy disposition of the member states towards Israel. While the US overlooked the human rights excesses in most of these countries and let disenfranchisement sustain through deliberate neglect, it assured for itself and its associates an unstinted supply of oil and an uninterrupted reign of peace for Israel. Both stand under a threat of disruption if the current spate of struggle for greater inclusiveness continues as per Obama’s vision. That, in itself, spawns the greatest contradiction of contemporary times in American policy, which has forced an unnatural quiet in Washington. What has emerged is, at best, benign and inane.

The nature of this movement for the rights of the citizens is unique. Beginning with Tunisia, it has found traction in the republics of Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In each of these countries, the periods of rule average between 23 and 41 years. That realised through shackling politics. In most places, an opposition only meant granting credibility to the man and the party in power. Kleptocracies thrived. Except Libya, where oil was aplenty, all others needed innovative economics to create wealth. Any riches that came their way, the leaders plundered. As such, while the leaders of these nations became ignominiously rich, the common man remained hopelessly deprived. The lid of a forced quiet on the people finally has given way and the common man is getting his voice heard.

Among the kingdoms and emirates, only Bahrain and Oman are suffering the pangs of disquiet. The others, despite being led by ruling dynasties, remain testily calm. The kings and princes in these nations have acted benignly towards their subjects and, most importantly, shared the riches. Their politics has remained patently tribal, which in these nations remains the avenue to assured loyalty. The economies of these kingdoms are mostly oil-dependent and therefore robust. Qatar and UAE are also permissive as societies while Kuwait was the first to modify and enable greater political participation. Modernity has found expression in many linkages with the first world, and a semblance of culture has incrementally evolved to entice global attention, for tourist as well as business and corporate purposes. Media and literature are free enough to themselves. Bahrain’s troubles are rooted in a heavily accented sectarian divide, which invites proxy interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia in a competitive effort to dominate and influence the Middle East. That will make the Bahraini pâté more difficult to detoxify. Oman has a rather benevolent chant demanding better terms of pay but does not ask for a regime change.

The real test remains Saudi Arabia, which for the moment sits tight. It shall remain heavily dependent on how both its neighbours, Bahrain and Yemen, resolve their crises. If both movements succeed, the domino will take in the big kingdom next. It, therefore, remains a given that Saudi Arabia’s maximum effort in the short-term will be to somehow assure a status quo in both Bahrain and Yemen. This it might do with physical intervention if needed.

The last word in this current wave of protests in the Middle East has not yet been said. Libya remains a test case for defiance by the status quo elements in power. If Libya wades through the muddle, chances are that a different script of these nascent revolutions will emerge. That will lead others to pursue what may succeed. It shall be at a heavy cost though. Lives, economies, politics — domestic and international — all will change. In such an uncertain political situation, oil, Israel, and Palestine may have an entirely new chapter to write in the evolving nature of the political narrative in the Middle East. Democracy and stability remain at odds in the Middle East. That is what keeps the US and Israel up at night, as this wave of political redefinition and rejuvenation runs its course.

The writer is a defence and political analyst

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