No freedom in Arab states

Arab states rocked by the mouse that roared

January 22, 2011, Sydney Morning Herald

    A member of the Tunisian President Security Force stands guard in front of the government Palace in the kasbah in Tunis.

    A member of the Tunisian President Security Force stands guard in front of the government Palace in the kasbah in Tunis. Photo: AFP

    Young, educated people have had enough of greedy dictators, writes Paul McGeough.

    IF a 13-year-old boy can get it, why not a 53-year-old woman? As looters stripped the luxury villas of Tunisia’s ousted first family last weekend, the boy Fathi was more philosophical than his years, telling a passer-by as he stripped parts from one of the cars of the departed elite: "It’s the money of our nation – it’s the money of my mother, my father. We just want justice."

    By then Leila Trabelsi, the hairdresser-daughter of a fruit-and-nut vendor who got lucky when she caught the eye of the Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the 1980s, had fled the country with her dictator husband and a far less modest bag of the money of the nation: gold bullion reportedly worth $US50 million.

    But drop into any of the MENA countries – the Middle East and North Africa – and stories of first-family indulgence and abuse at the expense of the life and future of entire generations of boys like Fathi are common currency. The real surprise here is not that there was an uprising, but that Tunisia became the MENA mouse that roared.

    Only fools talk with certainty of what might happen next. But with all the caveats that follow, last week’s revolt in a postage-stamp nation on the southern shores of the Mediterranean has to be seen as a ”maybe” turning-point for a region in which greedy old men and their extended families are practised at stealing the power and wealth of their people; and for the most part, getting away with it as the rest of the world averts its gaze.

    With perfect timing, the American advocacy group Freedom House published its Freedom in the World 2011 in the days before the tumult in Tunis. A foretaste to its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties globally, the report makes for dispiriting reading. In the Muslim world, it reports some gains in Indonesia, but it goes on, "practically no improvements were registered in the Middle East and North Africa".  

    The accompanying maps reveal the Middle East and North Africa as a sea of purple, the colour by which FH designates ”not free” countries. Counted as nations, 78 per cent of the region is ”not free” and another 17 per cent is ”partly free”. In terms of population, 333 million [88 per cent] people are ”not free” and a further 39 million [10 per cent] are merely ”partly free”.

    The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is warning of a ”food price shock” and much of the region is confronted by the pent-up expectations of a youth bulge – half of the people of Tunisia are under 25; 60 per cent of Egyptians are less that 30 years old. In the case of Tunisians, they have known only Ben Ali as a leader; in Cairo, god help them, they have experienced none other than the corrupt octogenarian Hosni Mubarak.

    Restless, jobless and ambitious, these young people are increasingly angry because of a tactical mistake by their dictatorial leaders – they educated them, not knowing that they would graduate in an era in which the internet and social media might be weapons of choice for would-be revolutionaries.

    If revolt can happen in a backwater like Tunisia then theoretically at least, it can happen anywhere. With food riots in Algeria; anger at price jumps in Jordan; the collapse of government in Lebanon; stepped-up repression in Iran and the farce of democracy and human rights as they are practised by corrupt leaders across the region, Tunisians rarely came into the frame as likely revolutionaries.

    This week the youngsters of the region were in overdrive, greeting the fall of the House of Ben Ali as the loosening of a keystone in their very own Berlin Wall. As they tweeted and Facebooked about the critical mass that could be achieved when a frustrated 26-year-old Tunisian self-immolated in December, more than half-a-dozen others across North Africa reached for the gasoline.

    Refusing to be silenced, they taunted their ossified leaders. "Ben Ali’s plane stopping over in Cairo before final destination in the Gulf? A couple of seats free for Mubarak," read one exuberant tweet. "Come on, Mubarak – take a hint and follow the lead," pleaded another.

    Their leaders, meanwhile, were shaken. Crude efforts to block reporting of the WikiLeaks release late last year of an avalanche of unflattering assessments of them by American diplomats had generally failed. Now they were being treated to a menacing display of how quickly the game could be up for them – courtesy of a live feed from al-Jazeera TV and a Twitter and Facebook citizen’s chorus.

    The older among the region’s leaders and the sons who were gifted power by their fathers probably are pondering the wisdom of the winner-must-have-all creed by which they live.

    Might things have worked out better had they been more benevolent – had they not opted for the one-party state, not marginalised alternative voices, had they planned for more believable succession, had they put a brake on corruption, had they allowed others access to the commercial and business honey-pot? When they did succumb to external or internal pressure, the faux opposition parties and the phony parliaments seemed like good ideas. But now there is a chasm between them and their people – filled with hate.

    They are making various efforts to distract local attention from Tunis. In Damascus, the President has backed off on a new round of austerity measures. In Kuwait, the Emir is handing out cash. In Cairo, the government’s rhetoric now includes phrases that are mollifiers more than they are statements of intent – like ”economic reform” and ”government accountability”. In Tripoli, the veil of nonchalance did slip when the autocratic Muammar Gaddafi revealed his ”pain” on hearing that Ben Ali had fled. "There is none better than [Ben Ali] to govern Tunisia – Tunisians now live in fear," the Libyan leader said on state TV.

    As Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, we have arrived into the realm of unknown unknowns. On the one hand, it can be assumed that the region’s other tin-pot dictators would not allow themselves to suffer the fate of Ben Ali. On the other hand, Ben Ali is gone.

    Economic, social and political indicators do line up in the MENA countries. But analysts who could be as right as they might be wrong, point out that an organisational dynamic was at work in Tunisia which does not exist, or if it does then not as perfectly in places such as Egypt, Algeria or Jordan.

    In Algeria, the middle class and trade unions have remained aloof from the recent wave of youth-driven protests, and more attuned politically than its Tunisian counterpart, the Algerian military would be less squeamish about suppressing unrest. In Cairo, they say, there is not the educated middle class that Tunis has and rising Christian-Muslim tension further complicates matters in Egypt.

    In Tunisia, they point out, what initially was a youthful protest about economic issues did not become a broader political campaign until the protesters were joined by trade unions and elements of the middle class.

    Arguably, the regional powder keg is Egypt where Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party won a laughable 95 per cent of the vote at last year’s parliamentary elections. After moving towards what Freedom House describes as ”rationed pluralism” at elections in 2005, under pressure from the Bush White House, Mubarak went into reverse with fraud, repression and restrictions on opposition candidates that produced "the sort of near-unanimous results found in communist regimes or ossified dictatorships like Syria and Tunisia".

    Proof of the determination of Mubarak’s goons to shape the outcome of the poll was in the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood – five years ago the Islamist group won 88 seats; in November it won none. Now Mubarak is seriously contemplating another term for himself – or to install his son as the new owner of Egypt.

    The former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, a champion of reform in Egypt who, oddly, has had no public support from Washington, warned this week that the region’s leaders and their foreign backers faced more ”Tunisia-style explosions” but at the same time he checked an urge to call people into the streets.

    "What has transpired in Tunisia is no surprise and should be very instructive both for the political elite in Egypt and those in the West who back dictatorships," he warned. "Suppression does not equal stability and anyone who thinks that the existence of authoritarian regimes is the best way to maintain calm is deluding themselves."

    In a mockery of the conventions of governance in Saudi Arabia, succession speculation is back on the boil as King Abdullah, 86, convalesces after major surgery in New York. But before leaving Riyadh, he very sensibly slipped the reins of power to a younger man – his half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, 85, who is believed to be ailing with cancer and spends much of his time in Morocco.

    Meanwhile, Fahd Al-Jukhaidib, a Saudi journalist who successfully led a campaign for more reliable electricity supplies in a rural community in what, after all, is the world’s most energy-rich nation, has been charged with ”instigated a protest”, for which he was flogged. And in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, the young Saudi princes get off on drugs, sex and alcohol because the draconian power of the country’s religious police does not penetrate into the gilded-cage existence of the kingdom’s estimated 10,000 princes.

    In Algeria the generals who cancelled elections and went to war against Islamists who were poised to make big electoral gains in the early 1990s, now are staring down new unrest. In Jordan, retired generals have fired a shot across the bow of King Abdullah and his headstrong queen and the tribes have become very restive. Islamist activists won little traction when they called for the prime minister and other high officials to be appointed by election, not by royal decree.

    In a speech to the UN General Assembly last September, the US President, Barack Obama, seemed to offer himself as a remade champion of human rights, saying: "We’ll call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless." And he called on the rest of the democratic world to join him in a celebration of freedom: "Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten."

    But it is worth noting that to the extent that an external heave-ho sparked the demonstrations that became a revolt in Tunisia, that spark was as accidental as it was American. It was classified dispatches by US diplomats, secretly telling their Washington masters, but not the world and certainly not the people of Tunisia, how corrupt was their voracious regime. ”Lost touch with the Tunisian people,” read a July 2009 cable; ”Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family,” the US ambassador offered in another.

    It is likely that historians in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region will note that a limpid-looking Australian called Julian Assange did more for their new freedom than all the heft of the US State Department. These are early days in the revolution. Tunisians are still working to shape an interim government without hangers-on from the ousted regime dressing themselves up as the ”new”. Then they have to dismantle the security apparatus that was crafted to keep them in check, before it is used to give them revolution-lite.

    In comparisons between French and American conduct in the lead-up to the tumult in Tunisia, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is winning plaudits – but she runs hot and cold. Clinton had little to say about the stuffed ballot boxes and the bashing of opposition candidates in Cairo in November and in a visit to Bahrain in December she slobbered over the royals with ”how very impressed” she was ”by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts – economically, politically, socially”. Yet in Doha last Thursday, as the Tunis regime imploded, she was on her feet singing a very different tune, addressing the frustrations of the region’s under-30 generation, she warned the despots who cozy-up with Washington that ”people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order … if leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum”.

    The difficulty for the people of the region, and ultimately the US, is that Washington and other Western capitals view developments or a lack of them in the region from their own perspective entirely and not that of the oppressed locals. The dispatches from the US embassy in Tunis were scathing of the local leadership but they urged that Washington remain quiet about it because of Ben Ali’s apparent usefulness in the fight against Islamic fundamentalists and terrorism. And that advice was adhered to up until his getaway.

    Just as George W. Bush allowed Israeli and Russian leaders to hijack his so-called war on terror rhetoric to recast the Palestinian and Chechen liberation struggles, Ben Ali and his ilk in the region, justified his contempt for democratic and human rights and his clutching to authoritarianism as part of the Bush and, more recently, the Obama war against extremism.

    When the opinion page of The Washington Post describes ”Obama’s weakness on human rights” as ”a critical silence”, as it did two weeks back, Americans are left wondering about how different are the shades of grey between this administration and that which preceded it.

    Washington needs to listen when commentators from the region, such as Soumaya Ghannoushi writing in The Guardian, describe the phenomenon of Ben Ali in these terms: "… an amalgam of internal violence, deception and flagrant foreign support. For years, his backers armed him and gave him political cover to suffocate his people. A good student of the IMF, a guarantor of ‘stability’; and a brave warrior against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, Ben Ali’s Tunisia was a shining example of ‘modernisation’ and success."

    With the exception of a crackpot proposal by the French Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, that Paris might send troops to Tunis to help Ben Ali control last week’s uprising, the world generally stood back while Tunisians got on with the business of their revolution. And for that one of them was grateful, tweeting to a reporter that officials in Washington are "supporting us with their silence".

    Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that invasion is a costly and difficult way to effect change. As they stand today, the MENA countries reveal that cozying up to despots and writing billion-dollar cheques for those that don’t have the people’s oil to steal, creates more problems than it solves for the reformist-minded. Inevitably, change must come from within but the oppressed should not be made to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, with Washington and other foreign capitals turning their backs because of their own vested interest.

    The Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy is eloquent on this: "Not once in my 43 years have I thought that I’d see an Arab leader toppled by his people. It is nothing short of poetic justice that it was neither Islamists nor invasion-in-the-name-of-democracy that sent the waters rushing on to Ben Ali’s ship but, rather, the youth of his country."

    Her point is this: unlike the crushing humiliation for Arabs in the ousting of Saddam Hussein by the American-led invasion of Iraq, the home-driven demise of Ben Ali in Tunisia is something that Arabs might emulate with pride.

    Instead of trying to pick and mould the Palestinian leadership they want, along with Israel, they might do better with an effort to provide the political space in which Palestinians resolve their leadership crisis and then are allowed to get on with their lives – in which case the most likely outcome would be a Palestinian society so eager to advance economically and socially, that the Islamists would find their wings clipped quick smart.

    That implies a new paradigm in which Washington needs to deal with regional realities – such as the legitimate role to be played by Islamist movements, like Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    Could this be the start of the year, or perhaps the decade of the Arab people? There’s a giddiness in the air. But because of what the people of Tunisia have already achieved, the editor of Egypt’s Al-Distoor newspaper, Taalat Rumaiah, cannot be dismissed entirely when he tells The Guardian: "We can expect things to replicate in Egypt – it’s possible that two or three other Arab regimes could fall this year because of popular uprisings."

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