Haisha, Huisha, they’ll all fall down
The one lesson that emerges from the tsunami that is sweeping across the Arab space is that in today’s inter-connected world no nation can remain an island any longer.
Much of the Arab world was in a pressure cooker for decades and as the sparks of the revolt in Tunisia against an autocratic ruler were lit, amplified in graphic detail by the Al Jazeera Arabic channel, it singed the traditional, though deflated, leader of the Arab world, Egypt, and then there was no stopping the flames.
As revolts have spread to Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Libya and even Iran, circumstances vary as do the scale of the regimes’ repression. But the common themes have been a struggle against autocracy, rising food prices, unemployment, nepotism and corruption, and the blatant unequal distribution of wealth, with the ruling elite feathering its nest. And there were repeated reminders that these countries have predominantly young populations.
There is no need to belabour the point that the Cold War, the major powers’ interests and the oil and gas riches of the region, together with the need to protect Israel’s war booty of 1967 under the US umbrella, made autocracy not merely sustainable but a flourishing mode of governance. What ultimately titled the scales were the impatience of the youth and food inflation. Once the brave Tunisians demonstrated that a long-time dictator could be miraculously dethroned by people power in a matter of days, Egyptians said if Tunisians could do it, so could they.
Each nation has its own peculiarities and problems. The Saudi advice in the beginning was to use the big stick. When the Tunisian leader fell, Hosni Mubarak heeded the Saudi advice after demonstrators took over the central Tahrir Square in Cairo by unleashing armed supporters of the regime and thugs, but the Army demurred and, after offering concessions, Mr Mubarak followed the Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Yemen, the picture is complicated by the rivalries between the North and the South and tribal equations while the state receives US’ help to fight Al Qaeda even as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an effort to avert public anger, promised not to stand for re-election or have his son succeed him. Bahrain poses another kind of problem: a Sunni elite ruling a Shia majority and after trying the Saudi prescription of using force to disperse the demonstrators from the central Pearl Square — protesters copying the Egyptian example — better sense prevailed on Bahrain’s King Hamad al-Khalifa, who opted for a dialogue whose efficacy remains to be determined. Shias are demanding fair play.
In Morocco, the demand is for political reforms and greater powers for the people, rather than the abolition of the monarchy of the young king, Mohammed VI. Algeria has led a troubled existence, with the electoral process stymied by the Army many years ago after the first round of elections for fear of Islamists coming to power. President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika is holding the fort in the traditional Arab mould of ruler. Jordan’s King Abdullah II immediately brought in a new Cabinet, but in a country with a Palestinian majority and the only Arab nation other than Egypt with a peace treaty with Israel, there are mounting political uncertainties.
The focus at present is very much on Libya, with the longest serving ruler, Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi, with a record of 42 years, known as much for his eccentricities as for anything else. He has built a state with a stronger personal militia than the Army and rules with his seven sons of whom Seif al-Islam el-Gaddafi gave a preview on television of the fire and brimstone to come, with the leader himself promising retribution for demonstrators in a marathon television speech. Judging by the fire power armed men and mercenaries have used so far, the scale of the bloodshed has been horrendous and Col. Gaddafi seems determined to follow the Saudi advice even as the eastern region is in the hands of the Opposition. It seems a question of when, rather than whether, the leader goes, although the intense tribal antagonisms between the East and the West will remain a factor.
Changes in these countries swept by the wave of revolts are bound to be uneven. Iran, the regional heavyweight and non-Arab state, will follow a different trajectory; the protests in 2009 after the controversial presidential election were put down with a heavy hand and the new post-Tunisian protests were stymied. The rash of protests in the Arab world will not die down. Al Jazeera has been a source of inspiration as the channel, the new bible in much of the Arab world, has brought to millions in their homes the taste of how revolts are staged and how two stalwarts of the Arab world have been laid low. Equally, the ongoing revolution has, in a measure, brought distress to the US and Israel. While US President Barack Obama has been rather critical of Libyan developments, he has been cautious in relation to Bahrain, the home of the Fifth Fleet, and has treaded tepidly on Jordan. For Israel, the certainties of the last 30 years are over, with Egypt serving as the Arab policeman for keeping the Gaza Strip bottled up in exchange for some $1.5 billion in US economic and military assistance every year. The rest of the world will pay for the turmoil in the Arab world by higher petrol prices at the pump — for a worthy cause.