Backstage, it’s business as usual By Soumaya Ghannoushi - Friday 1st April 2011

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ARAB dictators were not the only ones to have been taken aback by the scale and speed of events in the region. Their allies were also caught off guard. The changes were simply “too much, too fast”, as a stunned US official put it. From being the sole actors and directors on the stage, Europe and the US, along with the various despots, found themselves suddenly reduced to mere spectators, and fearful of the future.
Perhaps it is not surprising that those who had long been used to dictating the course of events there would not simply accept a new script written by millions of ordinary people. After the revolution`s resounding successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the old players soon found new ways of sneaking back on to the set.
Muammar Qadhafi`s model of the iron-fisted ruler who fights to the last drop emboldened some dictators. While Tunisia and Egypt presented Arabs with an inspiring model of change at minimal cost, Libya stirred hopes among their rulers that they might cling on to power through naked violence and the threat of civil war.
The Libyan quagmire was an opportunity for their Euro-American allies, too. It enabled them to breathe life into the corpse of `humanitarian interventionism`, using it as a way of riding the wave of change and redirecting its course to their benefit. As the possibility of salvaging a Qadhafi confined to Tripoli and western Libya — and thereby protecting their huge business contracts — receded, the international powers shifted positions, joining the rebels` camp instead. The supporters of despotism and corruption recast themselves as makers of change and democratisation.
Backstage, however, it`s business as usual. The French, British, Italians, and Americans are working night and day to select their own men among the rebels and promote them in preparation for the post-Qadhafi era. The real contest is over who calls the shots in the new Libya, who makes and breaks its government, and who dominates its economy.
With the loss of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, western powers suffered a loss of the stability implemented after the Second World War, which depended on propped-up dictators, political stagnation and lucrative arms deals. It was only when this stability was threatened by street protests that the West began to advocate democracy. This hesitant, awkward move is by no means complete, however. For while shouting `Revolution!` in Libya and Syria, the West is quietly backing old allies in Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, the Emirates, Morocco and, of course, Yemen, lest the uprising should expand to Saudi Arabia, its chief ally in the region. The logic seems to be `a friend is only a friend while salvageable`.
But the West is not only deploying hard military power in its attempt to control the process of change. It is directing its economic arm to that end too, through the World Bank and the IMF. David Cameron, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy are not the only ones busy remarketing themselves as reformers. Recently the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, addressed a group of Arab activists praising change in the region as a “striking moment engendering its own momentum”. Hearing him speak of the problems facing “people in north Africa and the Middle East”, one could have mistaken him for an innocent, independent analyst with no relation whatsoever to the economic crises with which these regions are struggling.
This is part of a campaign to conceal a fundamental fact about what is happening: that people are not only rebelling against an internationally backed political authoritarianism but against the economic model imposed by the IMF, World Bank and, in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, the EU`s structural reform programmes.
In Tunisia, the first Arab country to sign the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement in 1995, more than 67 per cent of publicly owned firms have been privatised, while in Egypt the number stands at 164 out of 314. This went with the drowning of these countries` economies in debt, thus holding them hostage to handouts from the US and the EU. n
In Egypt, public borrowing rose to 89 per cent of the country`s GDP ($183.7bn in June 2010), much of which was spent on food exports.—The Guardian, London

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