The death throes of Arab dictatorships

By Khaled Diab

Will the unfolding popular revolutions in and Egypt lead to the region's dictatorships falling one after the other like dominos?

Thursday 3 February 2011

For me as an Egyptian, watching the dramatic events of recent days unfold has been inspiring, moving and worrying all at the same time. Despite usually being a cool-headed journalistic observer, I have found myself fighting back tears of joy and pride on numerous occasions.

For a country whose political life usually limps forward (and quite often backward), the drama of recent days has throttled along like a high-speed political drama. The old adage that a week is a long time in politics has been fast-forwarded in Egypt, and every hour, even every minute, brings new developments with it.

Ever since the Tunisian uprising broke out and especially since the downfall of its president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the question on everyone's lips has been whether people in Egypt, the largest and most central country, and other states in the region would follow the Tunisian example. Of course, I and some other observers were expecting matters to come to a head this year, because of the mounting to President Hosni Mubarak's (read profile) rule as we approach the presidential elections, slated for the autumn of 2011, but no on expected, even in their wildest dreams, anything approaching the mass protests that have shaken the country in recent days.

Even a fortnight ago, it seemed uncertain as to whether Egypt would actually catch the Tunisian bug and, through it, cure itself of the Mubarak virus. After all, for most of the past decade, Egyptian political and trades union activists, and other actors, had been campaigning and agitating for change. They even created a broad-based umbrella movement which united all of Egypt's opposition forces – progressive, conservative, leftist, Nasserist and Islamist – towards the common goal of bringing to an end the Mubarak regime under the simple banner ‘Kefaya' (‘Enough'). But Kefaya was clearly not enough to mobilise ordinary Egyptians, who seemed to be weighed down by the heavy chains of disillusionment, apathy and fear.

Disappointed at the mainstream opposition's inability to create new momentum, Egypt's young people, long sidelined and undervalued, decided to take matters into their own hands and created, in 2008, the 6 April Youth Movement, originally to call, through social networking technologies, for a general strike in solidarity with strikers in Mahallah el-Kubra, Egypt's main textile production centre. Although the movement's success had been limited, this all changed on Tuesday 25 January 2011, Egypt's Police Day (a day of celebration for the regime, not the people), when it called on Egyptians to take to the street in a “day of anger”. Spurred on and emboldened by the sweet success of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Egyptians took to the streets in untold thousands across the country.

The “Friday of anger”, on 28 January, delivered a fatal blow to the regime and most expect it to be the final nail in the coffin of the presidency. At the time of writing, Mubarak continues to cling on to power desperately and delusionally, playing out a perverse and surreal pantomime in which he dissolved the government and appointed a vice president (for the first time) and a new prime minister, both members of the old guard.

Regardless of what tricks the no-longer-president tries to pull off, most Egyptians demand and expect his ouster. But how many more Egyptians Mubarak is willing to sacrifice at the altar of his ego, in addition to the many scores of dead and injured already, remains an open question. Another crucial question is whose side the army will ultimately choose: the people's, the defunct regime's or perhaps simply its own.

Every passing moment increases the risks to Egyptians, in terms of their safety as relative anarchy breaks out following the disappearance of Egypt's beloathed police force – which impromptu neighbourhood protection committees are trying to combat – and their economic well-being, as the financial and tourism markets take a battering. Tourists have fled the country, the stock market fell by around 6% for two days running before trading was suspended, while regional and global markets are growing jittery at the unrest, and the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound against the dollar is at its lowest in six years.

But what or who will replace the fallen regimes in Egypt and Tunisia? In many parts of Europe and the , there has been a longstanding fear, exploited by Mubarak and other dictators, that when presented with democratic choice, Arabs would vote in Islamists who would then strip citizens of their democratic rights – in a sort of “one citizen, one vote, one time” – and turn their countries against the West.

For that reason, many argue that pragmatism and realpolitik call for the propping up of friendly dictators – a very distasteful notion, indeed, especially as the United States dithers over whether or not to withdraw its support from Mubarak.

In the two ongoing revolutions, the fears of an Islamist takeover appear to be unfounded, especially in Tunisia, probably the most secular country in the region, where the protests began out of sympathy with the suicide of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself alive after his wares were confiscated by police, in an echo of the actions of Czech student Jan Palach, who also set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia which aimed to crush the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček.

Since then, Tunisians of all ages and backgrounds have been out on the streets in force, chanting for and freedom, not for or Shari'a. “This Muslim fundamentalist thing in North Africa is a scarecrow,” insisted one Tunisian protester. In addition, women, modern, courageous, outspoken have been clearly visible among the crowds in a country where gender equality has gone furthest in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, the fears are still being voiced, as I've personally experienced in the number of times I've been asked by journalists and ordinary people about the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood would seize power in Egypt.

While recognising that nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility, I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution, in an Arab version of 's “Islamic revolution”, even if Iran itself drew parallels between 1979 and current events in Egypt and, rather cheekily considering its own crushing of mass protests in 2009, called on the Egyptian regime to submit to protesters' demands.

However, there is a world of difference between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. For one, the Egyptian Sunni clergy are not politicised and are not held in the same kind of awe as their Shi'a counterpart. Iran had the charismatic and “holy” cult figure Ayatollah Khomeini, while the Muslim Brotherhood is largely made up of conservative and rather grey professionals in suits, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Significantly, the party missed the boat in this revolution by refusing to take part in the protests or back them until it appeared that they were unstoppable. The movement's top brass, under the conservative and cautious leadership of Mohammed Badie, have proven themselves not only to be out of touch with the popular mood, but also with the younger, more open-minded generation within their own ranks.

In addition, one factor behind the Muslim Brotherhood's apparent success and popularity, with the movement often described as Egypt's largest opposition party, is the fact that they were kind of the “last man left standing” after the secular opposition was purged, starting in the 1970s under former president Anwar el-Sadat who also backed the Islamist current as a counterbalance to his powerful secular opponents. Moreover, no matter how oppressive the regime became, it could not shut down mosques, natural meeting points for Islamists, without provoking public opprobrium.

But now, with freedom beckoning and plurality around the corner, the Brotherhood can no longer play the dual role of being both the last protest party for the disenfranchised and the demon used by the regime to scare the outside world. In fact, with the emergence of democracy, the Brotherhood would only be one of Egypt's many political and social movements, albeit a fairly influential one, perhaps even a sort of “Muslim Democratic” party.

So, can this popular revolution spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt?

History would suggest that popular uprisings have a tendency to spark a chain reaction in countries with similar conditions, as occurred in Europe in the 1848 “Springtime of the Peoples” and the 1989 “Autumn of Nations”. Since the Middle East is not short of dictatorships, we could well see a domino effect, though I hope it will be more successful than 1848 and not result in oligarchial rule as occurred in so many places post-1989.

A number of countries are already experiencing unrest and there have been suggestions that they could be next in line. These include Yemen, and Algeria. Events in Egypt often resonate in Yemen. For instance, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, or coup d'etat, of 1952, revolutionary forces took over North Yemen, creating the Yemen Arab Republic. Although Yemeni tensions and disaffection have been high for some time, protesters are only now explicitly calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power even longer than Mubarak, but Yemenis may have trouble mobilising to the same degree as Egyptians and Tunisians.

Although anger and resentment is greater than in Egypt, “civil society is weaker here and the culture of popular opposition is far less here”, observes Aidroos Al Naqeeb, who heads the party bloc in the Yemeni parliament. In addition, Yemeni society, which is largely tribal, has a weaker sense of national identity and is more fragile than Egypt and Tunisia, with growing secessionist pressure in South Yemen, not to mention the Shia'a or “Houthi” insurgency in the northwest of the country.

Jordan has also experienced protests to demand political and economic reforms. “Jordanians are all for the revolution in Egypt and are cheering for change there,” a Jordanian journalist told me. “Those amongst them who talk about change in Jordan, mainly talk about reforms but not changing the regime.”

This is partly due to the awe, respect, fear and love in which the monarchy is held, the journalist notes, which would explain why Jordanians are calling for the resignation of the government, even though it was appointed by the king who, in any case, is the one who holds executive authority. With that kind of deference to the monarchy, the tensions between indigenous Jordanians (East Bankers) and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, and how much Jordanians value the stability they enjoy in a dangerous and volatile neighbourhood, Jordan is unlikely to be next in line for popular revolution, but could push harder for gradual evolution.

How far popular uprisings and revolutions spread in the Middle East and what their long-term consequences will be is impossible to predict. But one thing is for certain, after decades of stagnation, the region will never be quite the same and we may finally see the dawning of true independence in which local peoples have shaken off not only foreign rule but domestic despotism.

This article appeared in Ukrainian Week on 3 February 2011.


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