COMMENTARY
 
Winds of Change in the Arab World
Weekly Pulse
February 4-10, 2011
In what can be described as earth-shaking events, long-standing dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa are crumbling one-by-one. Egypt’s Mubarak was ousted in quick succession after Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell. Even if this does not mean the dawn of democracy in these historically-linked regions, at least the beginning of a long democratisation process is certainly in the offing.

Elsewhere, from Algeria, Libya and Sudan in North Africa to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria in the Middle East, the impact of the youth-led revolts is increasingly visible, as more and more people come out in streets demanding the end of respective dictatorial regimes. If the regimes of the region do not act quickly to respond to their people’s call for the right to democratic expression, economic equity and social justice, they may also be swept away by youth-led revolts. Their secret police and other instruments of control have limited use in a world of social media, which has empowered the respective youth to communicate with each other and spontaneously organise social movements inspired by pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Causes of Unrest

Is a domino effect under way across the predominantly Arabic regions? How soon can we expect the peoples of the region to breathe a sigh of relief for finally realizing their due democratic rights and rightful economic gains?

Unlike the rest of the developing world, where the level of democracy and freedom has spread in recent decades, most countries of the Middle East and North Africa have continued to be led by brutal dynastic and military regimes. The serious disconnect between their corrupt and exploitative rulers, on the one hand, and impoverished and suppressed populations, on the other, has produced a situation which cannot be sustained without meaningful reforms in political system and economic order.

However, realizing democracy, even in electoral form, a fairer economic system and a just social order constitutes an idealistic goal in a region whose populations have experienced none of it for ages. People may be clamouring for democracy, but no institutional foundations are firmly in place for the purpose. The same was true for Tunisia, and the situation in Egypt, now under a military rule, is the same, perhaps more complicated.

There is, therefore, real danger that a just struggle for due political rights may actually contribute to instability and chaos. Overnight reformation of a corrupt economic system and unjust social order are much more complicated, rather impossible, undertakings. The eventual outcome of the youth-led revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may turn out to be far less than expected.

Unsatisfactory Outcomes

Already in Tunisia, for instance, Ben Ali’s hand-picked Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, continues to lead the transitional setup. The country’s security apparatus, particularly the army, led by its chief General Rachid Ammar, was the dictator’s real power base. It continues to call the shots. It is no surprise, therefore, that, in the streets of Tunis and other Tunisian cities, demonstrators have begun to carry signs with slogans condemning the ‘theft’ of the Jasmine Revolution. While momentous event in Tunisia may have triggered political upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, the chances of the spontaneous social movement underpinning translating into a representative political order are quite dim.

Likewise, there is relatively little scope of a post-Mubarak Egypt suddenly turning into a country where democracy will fully blossom, economy will be peoples’ friendly and societal milieu will truly reflect the cultural roots of the world’s largest Arab nation, the inheritor of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

In the last half century, the country has had just three rulers, from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, a gory reality that speaks volumes about the Egyptian experience with political reformation reflective of a genuine process of democratization. After all, the Egyptian army has been the main pillar of support for the Mubarak regime all of these decades.

Widespread governmental corruption, political oppression, denial of freedom, poverty and unemployment, widening rich-poor gap are all familiar explanations offered to explain the current ground reality in Egypt and a number of other North African and Middle Eastern states, which are not rich in oil, where basic resources to sustain living such as food and water are limited, and whose economies do not generate enough capital to be self-sufficient and not rely on foreign aid.

It is for these reasons that public upsurge succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt—even though in the latter’s case, the country’s ties with Israel since the Camp David Accords of 1978, or the Palestine question, can also be cited as a factor contributing to pubic rage. However, just as it appears to be the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the very reasons which actually trigger mass youth-led protests in streets and squares cannot be addressed by merely changing guards at the top.

A Long Haul

In most of the North African and Middle Eastern countries, which should otherwise be ripe for revolution, exploitative post-colonial structures are entrenched so well for so long that episodes such as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the White Revolution in Egypt may significantly enhance public expectations for radical political, economic and social change, but, perhaps, we may have to wait for a long time to assess their actual contribution towards this end.

In fact, it can be reasonably argued that, even after the relative success if public revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, it is still uncertain whether the rest of the countries in the region will opt for the same route to regime change. For the situation varies from country to country, in terms of the historical roots of political problems they face, their respective cultural make-up, the level of economic development, public perceptions of the ruling dynasty or military junta, and the latter’s ability to sustain power through a variety of ways, including suppression.

Take the case of Yemen, which is being considered the next in line for a regime change after Tunisia and possibly Egypt. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled the country for almost as long as Ben Ali did or Mubarak has. All the political, economic and social indicators also make it ripe for the sort of public upsurge seen in the streets of Tunis and Tahrir Square of Cairo. Protesters have indeed come out in capital Sana’a. Yet President Saleh may be able to sustain power by continuing to play-off traditional tribal and religious fissures in the country. The fact that southern and northern regions of Yemen are beset by ethnic insurgencies, giving al-Qaeda the space to flourish in recent years, are additional factors dissuading mass internal demand and considerable external pressure for his departure.

Sudan is another country that has witnessed student demonstrations. Before Tunisia’s popular revolt, it was the last Arab country to overthrow a leader with popular protests, ousting Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985. Yet we cannot visualise the same outcome of the protest movement, which is limited in scope, as has been the case in Tunisia or Egypt. The country has just lost a third of its territory, after oil-rich southern Sudan decided to secede in a referendum. This development with significant economic implications, coupled with the relatively greater political clout that President Omar al Bashir has enjoyed in the remaining two-third of the country since capturing power in a coup in 1989, may constitute a credible hedge against a popular upsurge against his regime.

Other Cases

There is also talk of other countries in the region, such as Syria, Jordan and Algeria, likely to face the ripple effect of radical political developments in Tunis and Egypt. As for Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad does have a considerable public following, and his role as a ruler has not been as monstrous as Ben Ali’s or Mubarak’s. The same is the case with King Abdullah II of Jordan, who only plays a symbolic role in governing the Hashemite Kingdom. As for Algeria, its powerful military-backed regime led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has tremendous capacity to suppress any protest movement. If it could prevent the Islamic Salvation Front to enjoy the fruits of winning local bodies and parliamentary elections back in the 80s and 90s, respectively, and then successfully crush the Islamist group and its more radical fringes in subsequent years, there is no reason why the junta should not be able to tackle the issue well before its eruption with the help of the country's massive security and intelligence apparatus.

Libya and Bahrain are two other countries with considerable public disgust for current rulers and regimes. Col Moammad el-Gaddafi has ruled Libya with an iron fist for the last 41 years. he will not give up power so easily. So, the public revolt, if and when it starts there, is likely to be crushed militarily by the Libyan regime and its mercenary army.

In Bahrain's case, the most worrisome issue is that its Shiite majority population has legitimate political, economic and social grievances. How quickly the country's minority Sunni rulers extend the majority Shiite peoples' their due political, economic and social rights and freedoms will determine the outcome of the current public unrest.

The same, perhaps, goes for Saudi Arabia, a dynasty aligned with the literalist of all Islamic creed of Wahhabism, with a questionable track-record of political, economic and social rights. Yet, interestingly, in the on-going debate on the prospect of regime changes and consequent democratization in the Middle East, the name of Saudi Arabia is not being mentioned anywhere. This is perhaps for the extraordinary ability of the Saudi Royal family to maintain firm grip over the country through a host of complicated political, economic and social arrangements, which aim to prevent widespread poverty or unemployment as much as dissuade opponents of the regime from mass action.

Apart from the afore-mentioned countries, there are relatively optimistic cases such as Morocco in North Africa or tiny Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, where rulers have been smart enough to incrementally adopt due political, economic and social reforms well in time so as to prevent the frustrations of their respective populations to grow to the extent that they have no option but to protest in the street and demand the ouster of the regime and its ruler.

Why Now

Let’s finally consider a more important question, than merely wondering about which to fall next or whether the departure of a dictator will lead to democracy and its economic and social attributes: why is it now that leaders and regimes which have long been considered virtually untouchable, Tunisia and Egypt as two cases in point at least for now, have faced the sort of spontaneous and populist public rage never witnessed before? After all, if we go back to the 80s or 90s, the situation in these two countries was no better than recently. Also it is not just now that they face the issue of youth bulge amid growing unemployment.

It is not difficult to pinpoint the principal factor causing spontaneous social movements: the tools of mass information and the public access to them. It is the cable or satellite television, mobile phone, and especially internet and its social media networks that have provided the Muslim youth an unprecedented opportunity and ability to seriously question that farcical discourse on the basis of which Muslim dictatorships have thrived for so long. Egypt’s Mubarak, for instance, has long duped the Western world by playing the ‘Islamism Card’—scaring it with the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood taking over the country if his regime was to lose control—but may have found it increasingly difficult to befool the well informed younger Egyptians having access to unique tools of mass media and critical and interactive debates on them.

Given that, even if the process of regime change stops at Egypt, or the regime change does not fulfil public expectations for radical political, economic and social transformation, it is a fact that the younger populations in North Africa and the Middle East have now greater access to information, and are equipped by means for speedy social networking for a political cause.

Recognition of this new social reality by the regimes and leaders in power in the countries of the two inter-twined regions should entail a meaningful reformation process in their respective political systems, economic orders and social sectors. Continuing suppression, corruption, poverty, unemployment, misery and subjugation will only fuel the already pent-up frustrations of their people, causing political upheavals, and accompanying chaos and anarchy.

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