The Arabs Rise

Written by Sola Egunyomi  •  March 2011 PDF Print E-mail

The Arab street is angry and it is justified to be, except that this is not just a typical protest over the price of bread and falafel - it has been a protest for the struggle to save the region’s soul. The ouster of Ben Ali from Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak from Egypt seems to be the perfect tonic as small and large scale revolutions have engulfed some countries in the Middle East region in recent weeks and months.

The Middle East (stretching from North Africa to Western Asia) has played host to authoritarian dictators who have perpetrated themselves to power using deadly force against their people. This authoritarianism has been masked in different styles of governance, ranging from the once populist-Arab socialism also known as Nasserism to the absolute monarchy in the Arabian Gulf and to Iran’s dictatorial theocracy. While, some of the countries in the region haven’t failed to disappoint in producing some of the world’s worst despots, they have failed in producing employment, enabling a strong civil society and free and fair elections. In some countries in the region, elections are a charade and a circus show. It isn’t unusual to see an incumbent dictator win an election by 96% in their respective countries even if their unpopularity is the most popular issue.

The idea of a revolution in the Middle East is not new. After all, the last remarkable revolution that happened in human consciousness was the 1979 Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran. Since that revolution, there have been pockets of resistance against some of the dictators in the region. Some of these include the routine protests against the Assad dynasty in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood baying for Hosni Mubarak’s blood in Egypt, uprisings against Saddam Hussein and his Tikrit brothers in Iraq and the struggle for the dismantling of the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. While these resistances may have made the headlines, its failures emboldened these dictators to crack down on dissidents, hound their rank and file and pummel them into submission to the State.

These regimes have often argued that a crackdown is and was necessary to prevent a free for all amongst different factions (as Saddam Hussein did to prevent a Sunni vs. Shia vs. Kurd uprising) or to prevent radical Islamists from seizing power (as Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak argued). However, it took the self immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia to bend the arc of history.

Interestingly, Bouazizi’s self immolation protest initially was not about the typical rigged election or arguments about political Islam or Sharia in Tunisia. It was about the future of Tunisia, a future marred by massive unemployment, food inflation, corruption and poor living conditions. And when Bouazizi took the gauntlet, little did he know that he was kindling a region and that his death would become a catalyst for social change in the region.

While, Ben Ali held sway for 30 years as the helmsman in Tunisia, he never thought the economy would lead to his downfall. The ousting of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators has caused a big change in the history of the authoritative system of governance of the Arab world, simply because it has proved that every tinpot dictator and absolutist can be demystified. The Jasmine revolution has set a template for future protesters and has shown that with grassroots mobilization, the power of the internet and the eschewing of violence, the most power-drunk regimes can be brought to their knees.

The U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign after 30 years of iron-fisted leadership in Egypt. Over the decades, the myth that there are only two options in the region - cuddle with a brutish secular dictator or risk the emergence of a rabid anti-Western Islamist regime has been popular in Western capitals. So even when these dictators go contrary to the norms and values of their Western counterparts, they are given a free ride by the West. Hence, brutes like Ben Ali and Mubarak were able to hold sway as if their countries were their personal domain.
The protests in Tunis spilling to Tahrir square in Egypt shouldn’t be surprising. Firstly, the Middle East is a conundrum bursting with youthful exuberance. Since the turn of the decade, the region has been experiencing the “youth bulge.” While this should have been a blessing and a demographic gift to the region, it has been a curse. With over 30 percent of the population between 15 and 29, representing over 100 million young individuals, the region is witnessing the highest proportion of youth to adults in its history. Yet, most governments have failed to provide basic meaningful employment to these youths. It is common knowledge that without wasta (the Arabic word for nepotism and favoritism), the average youth in the region cannot find jobs. These restive young people have seen how their counterparts in other parts of the world are outthinking them, outworking and doing better in most metrics that measures human satisfaction and fulfillment.

Tunis and Tahrir has no doubt set an example in other parts of the region. Besides the exit of the octogenarian Mubarak, other governments in the region have been scrambling to prevent a repeat scenario in their respective domains. In Algeria, President AbdelAziz Bouteflika has promised an end to Algeria’s 19-year state of emergency in the “very near future” though no date has been announced. In the relatively stable and taciturn Jordan where open criticism of the monarchy is not allowed, the Hashemite Kingdom has been going through bursts of demonstrations. In return, the King Abdullah sacked his Prime Minister and formed a new government in response to street demonstrations. To curry favor from his subjects and to appease the protesters, Abdullah also reversed the fuel price increase. In Yemen, President Ali Saleh has promised to vacate the Presidential Palace in 2013; he has led the country since 1978. While these protests and revolutions have yielded success in some parts of the region as evident in Tunisia and Egypt, a few others such as Saudi Arabia have muzzled and snuffed out any semblance of protests in their kingdoms. In Syria and Iran, authorities have been able to clamp down on minor protests to prevent an escalation to a Tahrir square-like revolt.

The end results of these ongoing revolutions are expected to be sporadic at best. Some regimes would collapse as evident in Tunisia and Egypt, while others would learn from this. They would rehash the Tunis and Tahrir revolts with their intelligence chiefs in order to make sure nothing similar ever happens in their domain. They would forget that social movements are like conscience nurtured by truth and when this conscience is wounded, only truth can heal it. The “truth” could someday be one of the largest revolutions mankind has known. Regimes such as the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and pseudo-theocratic Iran are in this risky group, not necessarily because of their strict interpretation of Islam but because of their unpopularity and their wanton penchant for suppressing the will of the people.

When all has been said and done about these protests, when the last bullets have been fired and when the last set of gunned down protesters are being lowered down to earth in a cacophony of tear-filled fidau prayers, the Middle East would never remain the same. The current sit-tight leaders in the region are the old guard and as they wither away, a new set of leaders would emerge - leaders who were born and were a part of these revolutions. They witnessed these revolutions and bled in them. And if history does not repeat itself (it’s impossible as it always does!), then we might be witnessing the end of an inglorious era and the birth of a new Middle East that rises to its full potential as one of the bastions of human civilization and one that is devoid of corruption, oppression, wasta-ism and ballot-rigging. 

Sola Egunyomi is a member of the Council on Strategic and International Affairs and writes on U.S. foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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