Revolt, Arab-style

During the last three months north Africa and West Asia have been caught up in a wave of mass protests on the streets by the common people asserting their rights as citizens and demanding employment and an end to corruption and the tyrannical rule of dictators. When the street protests broke out first in Tunisia three months ago
and heralded the Jasmine Revolution, most people familiar with the politics of north Africa had hoped that it would not be long before the street protests would spread over practically all the countries of the region.

However, the spread of protests has so far been confined to three or four countries, like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, while most of the countries of the Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, etc. have been more or less free from the impact. The nature of unrest in Iraq, Syria, Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan has so far been mild. At any rate, protests of the type that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have not yet been seen in other Islamic countries in the region.
Most people in the Western hemisphere had expected that the street protests would soon grow into revolutions of the type the US witnessed in the 18th century or Russia in 1917. But the revolutions in the north African Islamic countries seem to be taking a totally different pattern. This should not be interpreted to mean that the street revolts will not eventually transform themselves into full-fledged revolutions. It should only mean that the Islamic countries of north Africa and West Asia find a new pattern of revolt more suitable to their aspirations. A few important reasons for this departure from the pattern of revolutions familiar to the West may be stated here.
The Mediterranean revolution which began in Tunisia had no prophets or philosophers like Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson in America or Robespierre or Voltaire in France, or Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. There have been no inspiring slogans like “liberty, equality and fraternity” which fired the imagination of the common people in the Mediterranean. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was triggered by the insult inflicted on a 26-year-old fruitseller, Mohammed Bouazizi, by a woman official of the civic body. The young man was slapped by the woman official in assertion of her superior status assumed to herself. This affront to his pride and dignity compelled him to commit suicide by setting fire to himself. This was the end of his protest but the fire of revolution was ignited, marking the beginning of a new pattern, but a pattern natural to the people of the region.
The street protests have not been guided by any political party or leader and instead power in Egypt and Tunisia is now exercised by the armed forces which have proclaimed that very soon they will hand over power to a government elected by the people. Perhaps the only country where there is a political party with some support from the people proved by elections is Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, which fought the elections six years ago, though fielding independent candidates, secured about 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament. But it has always been the enemy of Hosni Mubarak and was not allowed to function during the last several years. The street protesters in Tunisia and Egypt have clearly revealed that the jihadis have no political clout in these countries. They have, no doubt, won some support in Iran, Afghanistan and certain provinces of Pakistan, but they are not a real political force in the Arab countries.
Another important fact to be noted is that the present leadership in the US will not support the armed forces in their efforts to suppress by brutal force. Even though US President Barack Obama took a few days to express America’s sympathy and support for the popular revolt in the Arab countries, it was still done in time and the Egyptian Army, whose officer class had been mainly trained by the US, has taken the message from the US correctly.
Many people who expected a quick spread of the message of democracy across West Asia are naturally disappointed that what happened in the anti-Communist revolution in East European countries, namely a quick replacement of the Communist regimes without much serious bloodshed, would happen in the Arabian world and Iran as well. But the situation in East Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union was quite different from that in the Islamic countries of the Mediterranean and Iran. In eastern Europe, communism as a political ideology had been imposed on the people by the Soviet Union and the people had not really become converts to communism; communism to them was a convenient tactic to remain loyal to the powerful Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. However, in the Islamic countries of the Mediterranean Islamic militancy had never taken root among the common people. On the other hand, they had strong dislike for Talibanism as they saw it in practice in Afghanistan or as they experience it now in certain regions of Pakistan. Therefore, even though popular revolts in this system may take more time to gain full acceptance among the common people, one can see enough signs that popular revolts will throw up leaders and philosophers who will provide the much needed democratic ideology to their protests. Different countries and regions of the world may follow different patterns for total change and what the Arab countries have taken to today may be the right course open to them. What is important to note is that these parties have opted for the democratic system, and they have done it through demonstrations on the streets trying to win the hearts of their long-suffering fellow citizens without breaking the heads of their former enemies.
Seeing the above analysis, are there any lessons for India? Frankly, in a well-established democracy like ours the revolutions in West Asia have not offered any new lessons. But one thing that is clear is that corruption will no longer be tolerated by the man in the street and that an all-out fight against corruption is necessary in India if the institutions of parliamentary democracy are to be preserved without being distorted or destroyed. We should, therefore, avail of this opportunity of the success of the Jasmine Revolution to focus on how to exterminate corruption from every sphere of activity.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

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