Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arab world won't be the same again!

The Arab palace has begun to fear the Arab street. And the Arab street has begun to sense that fear.

The Arab palace will never be the same ever again. Events over the past month, first in the Tunisian Republic and then in the Arab Republic of Egypt, have radically altered the power equation across Arabia from the North Atlantic coast to the Persian Gulf. It may not be immediately, palpably evident in most of the 22 Arab states in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, but the pulse of Arabia now beats in the Arab street. Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and Egypt’s ‘Lotus Revolution’, both triggered by hectic campaigning by tech-savvy young men and women on Facebook and Twitter, often armed with nothing more than a smart phone, have sent out shockwaves that have rattled the palaces of Kings, Presidents and Emirs and show no signs of abating even as the uprising by Misris reached its denouement on Friday with President Hosni Mubarak resigning from the office he held for 30 years and handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Egyptian military headed by General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Take a look at the map of Arabia. At the far end, west of Suez, is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. It had a civilian Government of sorts, hugely corrupt, till August 2008 when it was felled by a military coup led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. A year later, Gen Aziz stepped down as the chief of Army and called presidential elections in April 2009. Predictably, he swept the polls and has since transmogrified into a dictator. Beneath the deceptive calm festers poverty amid illiteracy; together, coupled with the absence of space for political dissent, they make the ground fertile for radical Islamism to strike roots and flourish.

The Kingdom of Morocco has been fortunate enough to have an enlightened constitutional monarchy with an elected Parliament. But King Mohammed VI, who assumed the throne in 1999, wields enormous executive power and can issue diktats that are treated as law. In brief, real executive authority vests with the King. Morocco’s society is pock-marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy; women have few rights. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hand-picked by the Army in 1999, heads a military-backed regime in the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria with a one-party system that disallows — and ruthlessly puts down — opposition in any form. Algeria, too, faces widespread poverty though literacy rates are high, which has added to the number of educated unemployed raging against the regime. Young Algerians are seething in anger; the absence of a free Press only serves to fuel it further.

In the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Col Muammar Gaddafi remains firmly in power which he seized in 1969. His dictatorship brooks neither dissent nor opposition. Gaddafi’s flamboyant and lavish lifestyle is often in the news abroad; at home, it’s grinding poverty for most Libyans. In the Republic of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir presides over a single-party regime notorious for committing gross violations of human rights and a country torn apart by civil war. After a recent referendum, Sudan is likely to split into two countries. This, in turn, has led to street protests in Khartoum, with most of the protesters owing allegiance to radical Islamist groups.

In the Syrian Arab Republic, President Bashar al-Assad rules with a mailed fist. Its one-party system automatically rules out the presence of other contenders for power. The ‘presidential democracy’ in the Republic of Yemen is a sham that has kept Ali Abdullah Saleh in power since 1978 and pushed the country deeper into poverty, social unrest and radical Islamism-inspired terrorism.

The House of Saud has ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 1931. It has neither the inclination nor the time for parliamentary democracy or individual rights and freedom. Leave alone political parties, there are no organisations or unions in this country which lies at the heart of Arabia. And then there are the smaller kingdoms and emirates, ranging from Qatar to the UAE. One country that stands out is the Sultanate of Oman, ruled by Sultan Qaboos al Said who has been on the throne since 1970. He is enlightened, looks after his people, is well-loved and has built an economy that is strong and resilient although rising inflation is beginning to cause resentment among the less privileged.

Now let us look at what is common between these countries, apart from entrenched ageing rulers, who variously describe themselves as Presidents, Kings and Emirs, and the elite who live in opulent luxury while the masses wallow in appalling poverty. From the Arab palace, the world beyond perfumed gardens looks like a glittering fairytale land. From the Arab street, the world looks shabby and grey: Deprivation and denial are the twin leitmotifs. Each of the Arab states has a sizeable population aged below 30; many of them are unemployed; and, most were born after their rulers came to power. They are impatient for change, they want to participate in free and fair elections and access to the World Wide Web has helped them transcend the limits on information imposed by state-controlled media. The young are from the Arab street and hate the Arab palace, identified with limitless corruption and criminal suppression of the masses, with a passion never seen before. The socio-economic pyramid is being sought to be toppled. The base refuses to bear the burden of the tip any longer.

Another common feature shared by these sham republics and bogus kingdoms is the sudden, rapid collapse of a welfare system that was devised and patronised by the Arab palace to keep the masses on the Arab street satisfied, if not happy. Heavily subsidised food, inexpensive services, easy access to public sector jobs that paid subsistence wages and old age pensions were meant to generate a sense of gratitude towards the rais. It was a strategy that worked so long as there was money in the coffers. With Arab regimes, like Governments elsewhere in the world, running out of money, subsidies, jobs and pensions are fast disappearing or are being severely pruned. The clumsy attempt by these regimes to graft economic liberalisation on a system that till recently abhorred anything but the public sector which was either owned by the palace or the state has recoiled horribly. Job cuts and freeze on employment by Governments, such as they are, have added to the plight of the masses, especially the young, and food inflation has added to their woes. For instance, in Egypt, where defiant young men and women have forced the collapse of the Mubarak regime, unemployment is as high as 25 per cent; food inflation is running at 19 per cent; and, rising income disparity has made poverty even starker.

It is against this background that we should view the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia chose not to put up a fight: He fled his country (in an aircraft laden with accumulated gold) and an interim Government has taken charge. President Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, dug in his heels and refused to budge from either his post or his palace till Friday. Before the day was over, his tottering regime collapsed. And that could trigger a domino effect whose consequences would be deeply unsettling for the region and the world, not least because the status quo would no longer obtain.

Already we are witnessing street protests in Jordan and Yemen where thousands have been turning out to demand political reforms. In Jordan, King Abdullah has been spared popular anger till now but in Yemen the masses want Ali Abdullah Saleh out. Abdelaziz Bouteflika is gearing up to face massive rallies: 25,000 policemen were deployed to restrain protesters in Algiers on Saturday. There are reports that Bahrain is in ferment and protests there could take a nasty turn with Shias, who constitute the majority, demanding the ouster of a Sunni minority regime. A massive protest march is planned for Monday. Iraq, yet to attain any degree of political, economic and social stability, could erupt in street protests too with opponents of the incumbent Government seizing upon this opportunity to try and dislodge it, possibly through violent means, and usher a radical Islamist, pro-Iran regime.

It’s not for nothing that the Arab rulers are alarmed by the developments in Tunisia and more so in Egypt. The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia, with an eighth of Egypt’s population, could have been waved away as an aberration, but the roar from Tahrir Square is too deafening to be ignored. The response has been at three levels.

Alert and intelligent rulers have responded with promises of political reforms: Jordan’s King Abdullah has sacked his Prime Minister and appointed a new team to address popular grievances; Kuwait’s Al Sabbah family has let it be known it is not averse to more freedom and democracy but, as a precautionary measure, has banned all gatherings, rallies and marches after Friday prayers. Bashar al-Assad, who instructed his security forces to crush an incipient copy-cat protest in Damascus earlier this month, has now ordered the ban on Facebook and YouTube to be lifted, making what would be considered in Syria a significant concession. Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised protesters in Yemen that he will neither contest the 2013 elections, nor field his son as a candidate.

Second, the rulers seem to have suddenly realised that perhaps turning the welfare tap off and cutting down on entitlements were not such good ideas; liberalisation and market economy may attract investors but a slothful system ensures that benefits don’t immediately follow. Arab socialism was about patronage; Arab capitalism is about cronyism — the first at least helped silence critics; the latter has made critics shriller. So, as if on cue, the regimes have promptly decided to enhance social welfare spending, regardless of the long-term impact on their near-empty treasuries. For instance, Jordan’s Budget could end up funding higher salaries and pensions, leaving little for anything else. On Friday, hours before Cairo fell to protesters, the ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced a $2,700 dole for each family, hoping to placate his subjects. Saudi Arabia, where a group of reformists has written to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz seeking his permission to set up a political party, is no doubt flush with oil money, but it also has more people clamouring for dole than it did a decade ago: Two-thirds of its population is aged 30 and below; unemployment is at an alarming 10 per cent in a country with nine million expatriate workers; shooting inflation and falling incomes have shrunk its middle class base. Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and others could see their money running out fast if the enhanced payouts continue for too long.

Third, the Arab rulers are making efforts, no matter how feeble and ineffective they may be, to reach out to the Twitter and Facebook generation of bloggers. Prince Khalid al Faisal, the Governor of Mecca Province, did something extraordinary recently after heavy rains flooded Jeddah, leaving many dead and eliciting accusations of inefficiency on part of the city administration which was openly accused of being corrupt. He invited a group of five young men, including a blogger who had been sent to jail two years ago for raging against the palace, and briefed them about the ‘sincere measures’ taken by authorities, admitted lapses in tackling the situation and promised action against errant officials. Meeting over, he smiled and told the men: Do send our royal regards to the young people on Twitter.

At the same time, the men who rule Arabia are clever enough to realise that if push comes to shove, their palaces will collapse like castles built of sand. Hence, they want to keep both push and shove at bay, at least till such time they have put in place mechanisms to deal with uprisings similar to the one witnessed in Egypt. The best way to do so, they believed, would be to ensure the Mubarak regime did not fall. This was based on the assumption that if the man who had ruled Egypt for 30 years could somehow hang on to power and ride the storm, the collapse of the old order could be prevented and the domino effect stalled. So the Kings and Presidents, Sultans and Emirs rallied round to Mubarak’s aid. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz grandly declared, “In case the US withdraws its financial support to Cairo, my kingdom will prop up Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.” That was as much a declaration of support for Mubarak as a taunt to America for abandoning its staunch ally in his moment of crisis. In the end, neither solidarity nor support helped Mubarak retain power. As Egypt burst into celebrations, a bitter realisation began to sink in: If the US could abandon Mubarak, it could also say goodbye to others without allowing friendships of the past to weigh too heavily on its conscience.

Ironically, it is this perceived callous indifference of the US towards a beleaguered Mubarak in his last days in office that has left many flummoxed in Arabia. Egypt under the Mubarak dispensation, backed by the Army, was the best bet for peace in the region, especially in regard to Israel. It was also the best defence against the rise of radical Islamism whose practitioners see themselves as the alternative to incumbent Arab regimes. With Mubarak gone, the Muslim Brotherhood is preparing to make a dramatic appearance either through collaboration or alone in Egyptian politics; through Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists have seized power in Gaza; in Lebanon, the Hizbullah, which has toppled the Hariri Government and put into place a regime controlled by Islamists, increasingly and frighteningly calls the shots; in Tunisia, dormant Islamism has come alive after the long-exiled leader of the till recently outlawed Islamist party Ennahdha, Rachid Ghanouchi, made a triumphant return home; in Jordan, the Friday street protests are being led by Islamists sustained by the Ikhwan’s ideology; in Yemen, Islamists are waiting for the palace to fall under their assault; in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, a deep undercurrent of radical Islamism is waiting to burst forth.

A gleeful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described the Egyptian uprising as the unleashing of an “Islamic wave”. His protégé and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described the Egyptian uprising and the collapse of the Mubarak regime exactly 32 years to the day of the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on February 11, 1979, as the “emergence of a new Middle East that will doom Israel and break free of American interference”. The Islamic Republic of Iran has reason to rejoice. Despite it being a Shia country and not an Arab state, Iran sees itself as emerging as the most important player in Arabia by striking alliances with Islamists in the Maghreb and the Mashreq waiting in the wings to seize power: First through the ballot and then by aping the Iranian model of Islamic republicanism which is theocracy by another name and suppresses protest with the help of the notorious Revolutionary Guards and the gallows in state prisons as it did the massive demonstrations, as large, if not larger, than those in Egypt, against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brazen vote fraud in the last election. The Hamas and Hizbullah, the first Sunni and the second Shia, are heavily funded by Iran via Syria and this enables Tehran to wield considerable clout with both organisations. It also fetches Tehran considerable influence in Damascus.

In what the Americans refer to as the ‘Extended Middle East’, Sunni Arab states have long ceased to play a key role. The three countries that have emerged as major players are neither Arab nor Sunni. At one end we have Iran. There is Israel, a Jewish state, in the middle. And there is Turkey at the other end where the Islamist AKP has silently, slyly fashioned Atatürk ’s secular republic to increasingly reflect its faith-driven ideology. If the fall of the last pharaoh is followed by regimes toppling over in other Arab states, then the identity of West Asia will change forever — whether for better or worse is at the moment a matter of guess and conjecture. But Sunni Arabia, loosely tied by Arab nationalism, will virtually cease to exist; what will emerge is a pan-Islamist region with a near common political agenda driven by religious dogma and theocratic fanaticism. That’s a possibility the world must prepare to deal with in whichever way and form. Democracy, in the end, could lead to the legitimisation of cruel theocracy as an alternative to brutal autocracy. That’s an inbuilt risk which is often overlooked, if not ignored.

Ironically, rulers who have ruled in the name of Islam fear Islamism the most. That could be either because radicalism scares those who are wedded to the idea of stability, often enforced ruthlessly, or because it would reverse the long-established order with the ruled dominating the rulers. Till now the Arab palace loathed the Arab street and held it in contempt. Suddenly, the Arab palace has begun to fear the Arab street. And the Arab street has begun to sense that fear.

(The writer spent three years in Cairo and has travelled extensively in the Maghreb and the Mashreq)

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