THE NEAR & MIDDLE EAST AFTER THE OVERTHROW OF MUBARAK: A COMMENT
The day after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced out, the joke in Cairo was that the long-time leader next door, the eccentric Muammer Gaddafi, had abolished Fridays.
Both Mr Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali were ousted on a Friday and, curiously, they were swept away after delivering exactly three speeches, the last one on the day before their fall. Every new dawn, however, marks a threatening day for the Middle East’s remaining autocratic rulers.
In Libya, activists had called for a Thursday protest on an emotionally charged day – the anniversary of the killing of demonstrators in a February 2006 protest against a Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed. But two days earlier, clashes between police and demonstrators erupted in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, and spread to nearby towns.
Colonel Gaddafi, in power since 1969 and with no desire to relinquish control, launched a brutal crackdown, leaving at least 24 people dead, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
No sooner had Egyptians celebrated their revolution than the protests in Yemen intensified, posing the most serious challenge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule; Algerians too were encouraged to step up demonstrations against the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
In Iran, the opposition Green movement, whose revolt in 2009 had been the envy of Arab populations from Cairo to Riyadh, was suddenly reinvigorated, sending massed crowds on to the street on Monday to remind the Islamic regime of their existence.
It was in the small Gulf state of Bahrain, however, where the Shia majority ruled by a Sunni minority regime had been agitating long before Tunisia’s revolt erupted, that the new-found confidence of the Arab public appeared to erupt most powerfully this week.
Shia protesters took over the Pearl roundabout in the capital, Manama, to create their own mini Tahrir Square, the centre of Egypt’s revolt, in what Bahrain’s ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family might have seen as a challenge to its rule’s existence. Security forces attacked sleeping activists and fired on protesters, further enraging the Shia community.
Sadly, the Middle East’s autocratic rulers are still deaf to the message of Tunisia and Egypt, incapable of understanding that their survival depends not on the use of force but on swift political progress that gives the disgruntled public a share of power.
In the changing Middle East, Bahrain’s al-Khalifas cannot continue to rule through denial, ignoring that Shia grievances are the product of real discrimination. Col Gaddafi too cannot govern Libya under the pretence that it is a “people’s Jamahiriya".
Roula Khalaf,"Repression Sharpens Hunger for Change," The Financial Times. 18 February 2011, in www.ft.com.
"News travels fast in the modern era. It is possible that this long period of comatose politics in the Arab world might be coming to an end, not just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but because the situations in many individual countries were already so strained, if not unsustainable. There's a long history of tension in Algeria and of government ineptitude and rebellion in Yemen, and certainly clashes between the Sunni rulers and the largely Shiite population in Bahrain, just to take three examples. While the events in Tunisia and Egypt may be a catalyst for trouble, I don't think the difficulties originated with those dramatic events....We are going to go through at least briefly a period of anxiety and maneuvering and questioning. That's quite encouraging, because the region has been politically dormant for so long. I don't see any immediate threat to any other government".
Thomas W. Lippman,"A Politically 'Comatose' Mideast Awakens," The Council on Foreign Relations. 18 February 2011, in www.cfr.org.
Given the recent events in Libya, Yemen and especially Bahrain, it is not too surprising that most commentators in the Anglo-American monde, have sounded more like the bien-pensant, Financial Times reporter, Roula Khalaf, than Thomas Lippman. However, a closer and informed look at the available evidence seems to indicate that it is Professor Lippman who has the best of the argument. If we look at the cases of say such countries as Syria, Persia, Sudan and to a lesser extent Algeria & Libya, we have regimes who are almost completely outside of the American-Western orbit (Algeria being half and half) and consequently, much more inclined to respond to protests by the population with brute force. Indeed, in the cases of Syria, Algeria and the Sudan, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people were killed at different times in the last thirty years. Each of these regimes has armed forces who are relatively independent of ties with the United States and thus not in the least unwilling to employ brute force in a very overt manner. Look for the same, if there are any disturbances in the future. Indeed, we have already seen a bit of this already in Algeria and Libya so far this year. In the case of other regimes in the region, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, here we have, legitimate monarchies, some with parliamentary bodies (of the 'irresponsible' variety), some not. With the exception of Jordan, all are relatively wealthy if not rich, and whose populace has not to any great extent suffered from any real mass protests or insurrections in the last twenty to thirty years. All (again except for Jordan) also have large expatriate populations who cannot by definition be interested in protesting existing political conditions in their host country. In these countries, with the exception possibly of Saudi Arabia, expect some type of modus viviendi to tide over any serious protests. If need be of course these countries will also employ force if they perceive that order is in danger of getting out of country. In the case of some of the smaller Gulf states, Saudi Arabia may unilaterally send in troops to restore order if need be. The fact that the authorities in Bahrain were so quick to use overt and indeed bloody force seems to show that one lesson that the regimes in the region learned from what occurred in Tunisia and Egypt is that any endeavor to hold mass protests in the capital needs to be nipped in the bud. As per Bahrain, if need be by force. Look for more of the same, especially in Algeria, Libya, and Syria. Given the above referenced realities, I for one do not see anytime soon, any further overthrow of regimes in the region. With the possible exception of Libya, due to the fact that its long-time leader (since 1969) Muammar Al-Qaddafi, is if not elderly (at age 68), at least no longer young, and like his ex-confreres in Tunisia and Egypt, toying with some type of family succession. Something which one can imagine may not perhaps be viewed enthusiastically by sectors of the elite. Another exception would perhaps be Yemen, where the sure poverty and incompetence of the existing regime, may simply result in a complete collapse of all order `a la Somalia in the early 1990's. Which from the perspective of Western interest would be the worse outcome possible.