By Mohamed El Moktar Sidi Haiba
The momentum of the current events is exhilarating; it is all the more so when the contagion is spreading at a never-before-seen pace conferring a historical dimension to the unfolding revolutionary upheavals brewing these days all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The psychological barrier of fear shackling the minds for so long has finally been completely shattered. Fed up with decades of corruption and oppression, threats and intimidations, peoples have reached the utmost limits of their humanly possible patience. They have had more than enough with the asphyxiating status quo and its unbearable effects.
All that was needed, in this context of morally undignified existence, was a trigger mechanism; and that hurriedly came from the least expected quarter and in the form of the most spectacularly symbolic, albeit desperate, human act: the daring self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi from the town of Sidi Bouzid. After having had his cart and wares unfairly confiscated by an unscrupulous cop, under the pretext of not being licensed, he went to the municipality to reclaim his vital belongings.
There, he was not only rebuked but underwent another senseless humiliating ordeal. He was purportedly spat upon, adding insult to injury, by the female bureaucrat to whom he went to lodge a complaint. Feeling once again humiliated, he angrily left threatening to burn himself if the issue was not immediately solved. Half an hour later he daringly carried through this dreadful threat. That’s how it all started.
In essence, Bouazizi was the straw that broke the camel’s back. His immolation surprisingly released the spark triggering the still unfolding regional uprising. How extraordinary.
Because of that initiating incident, popular protests ensued all over Tunisia ultimately leading to the departure on Jan. 14 of longtime autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Similar scenes of individual self-immolations were repeated in other Arab countries (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania…) but it was in Egypt where the emulation was stronger and its effects more consequential.
After 18 days of unprecedented popular demonstrations headed by an amazingly heterogeneous array of youth groups (Muslims, Christians, males, females, Islamists, Liberals, Communists) later joined by labor unions, professional syndicates and a few military officers, another longtime authoritarian ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down in disgrace on Feb. 11.
For the first time since the era of independence from European colonial yoke, peoples of the Middle East feel that something big and astonishing is occurring in their midst; a new revolutionary breath is now in the air almost everywhere; young Arabs are today witnessing for the first time in their lives history in the making. From Algiers to Manama, from Tripoli to Sana’a a, a gale of change is sweeping, far and wide, their lands, bringing in for the first time a renewed sense of pride, creating after a long period of amnesia a renewed sense of hope for heretofore oppressed populations.
Headed by a new generation of protesters, these uprisings mark indeed a watershed in the history of social movements in the Arab world: they are neither ideological nor violent. Moreover, they are stunningly leaderless. They constitute the genuine work of a new brand of protesters whose sense of civility and dignity stand in sharp contrast with the violent nature and bloody provocations of the autocratic regimes they are courageously opposing.
This younger generation succeeded in part because of the virtual empowerment afforded them by the use of new means of communication and the ensuing facility of social networking: Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, YouTube, Satellite TV channels. All these tools played an important role in raising the public political awareness.
Assuredly, these high-tech information means helped young internet-savvy people to spread their messages faster and interact more efficiently with their peers. Thus, they succeeded where their elders have utterly failed. People whose basic human rights were suppressed for so long (freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, of association, of religious practice…) were able, nonetheless, to transcend the many hurdles of censorship, writing their own version of events on a daily basis and directly informing the world of their predicament.
By virtue of their ingenuity, they were capable of expressing themselves responsibly and voicing their opposition to tyranny with sophistication. They were capable at last of venting their frustrations over official corruption and high unemployment, over elections riggings and nepotism. They were capable of putting to shame culturally backward and generationally disconnected political leaderships. Although it wasn’t the only reason, socioeconomic malaise was certainly a motivating force for the ongoing revolt.
Collateral victims of the global recession
Despite recent economic growth in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Morocco, there remains a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. Worse, social disparities have tremendously increased during this time of growth for the simple reason that its revenues have been so unevenly distributed among the population.
In fact, with the exception of the upper layers of the middle class very few have effectively benefited from the liberalization of the economy; a trend not surprisingly championed in Egypt by someone like Gamal Mubarak and in Tunisia by the entourage of Ben Ali, his family in-law in particular, presumably in conformity with the neoliberal spirit of the Washington Consensus.
This absurd philosophy conspicuously epitomized by the infamous “trickle- down effect” slogan proved many times to be wrong. Indeed for many years peoples in this region have powerlessly undergone some of the worst adverse effects of the anti-social austerity measures so loudly promoted, and often imposed, by international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank) as the panacea for ailing economies; they were even being prescribed in times of boom.
Yet in the absence of safety nets for the poor, given the level of official corruption and the lack of institutional accountability, the promotion of unhinged capitalism in these countries amounted to nothing less than a wholesale of state assets to a coterie of profiteers and greed-driven speculators; hence the boiling storm lurking under the neat surface of macroeconomic efficiency.
Tunisia, once hailed as a model of economic progress by the IMF and even the EU, struggled however during the last two years to weather the storm of the recent global recession. For its extraverted economy — very dependent on tourism and textile export — was harshly affected by the slowdown in Europe and Chinese competition; hence the potential popular discontent.
Despite its apparently better macroeconomic figures, Egypt didn’t fare well either. How could it do so when approximately 20 percent of its entire population has to live with less than a dollar a day and another 40 percent is compelled to eke out a living with barely 2 dollars a day? Algeria and Libya, despite a record windfall of petrodollars, remained wracked with the same structural problems of administrative corruption, high unemployment, wide spread poverty, lack of adequate training, and bureaucratic incompetence and inefficiency.
The country of Mauritania remains in many respects a virtual “basket case”. It is in a way to the Maghreb region what Yemen is to the Arabian Peninsula: a politically unstable and economically vulnerable entity divided along ethnic and tribal lines; another perhaps potentially failed state in the making.
Notwithstanding the democratic veneer of its political institutions, Morocco remains in every sense an absolutist monarchy. Its economy is less robust than that of Tunisia and socio-economic disparities are much higher. To divert the attention of people from the real socio-economic problems, the ruling king continues to point the finger to the same traditional scapegoat: the secessionist rebellion of Polisario. Brandishing the “sacrosanct” banner of territorial integrity remains the only strategy at the disposal of the Palace for delaying any serious demand for change.
Making ends meets is therefore a constant struggle for the average household in the region. People in the Maghreb spend over 60 percent of their income in food staples. Yet the question is not just a question of food and basic necessities. It is more importantly, as shown by the demonstrations of Bahrainis, a matter of freedom and dignity than anything else. Thus the protest is not limited to poor- and middle- income countries because the same yearning for freedom can be heard in Kuwait.
The word revolution is very scary to those at the helms of power, but for the many living under tyranny a transformation is more than wishful thinking; it is an urgent necessity. After all, the pretext of stability so often lauded proved to be false because at the end nothing sustainable could be achieved under the burden of oppression or egregious inequity.
An artificial stability
The scale of discontent in MENA was never appropriately measured nor was the potential time bomb ever detected. No one ever imagined or remotely anticipated the possibility of a Ben Ali or a Mubarak slipping out of their palaces in the dead of night. As long as oil kept flowing and a semblance of stability was there, the disparaging consequences were of no concern to the West. Yet it is only the beginning, for many more seismic poundings will continue to rattle the Arabic fortresses of tyranny.
The obsession with political stability was not only a question of shortsightedness; it was most of all a matter of strategic miscalculation. Sooner or later, the artificial screen will crackle under the weight of repression. It denotes on the part of some in the West a lack of insightful intelligence. Changing political environments all around the world couldn’t go forever unnoticed by Arabs; they should have had some kind of impact on those watching from the sidelines. Their mindsets should somehow have been affected or shaped by world events.
Moreover, the power of new means of communications has been greatly under-estimated. The almost instantaneous translation by Al Jazeera of Wikileaks revelations marked a turning point in the media revolution taking place in the Middle East. The portion of those revelations relating to the Ben Ali regime’s corruption or Mubarak’s subservient tyranny have certainly had an impact on the collective psyche of Tunisians and Egyptians. It was perhaps the precursor that made possible the revolutionary uprising.
However, these upsetting changes in the region could be a boon for the US in the long run provided they are correctly understood by American policy-makers. A more vigorous American effort to empower civil institutions would certainly be a welcome development. More importantly a more serious involvement by the US to put an end to the Palestinian statelessness would undoubtedly bolster American credibility in the region and enhance the potential of regional stability.
In the light of the recent American veto in the UN Security Council that seems more than wishful thinking. Yet there is no doubt that a long due settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will do more to enhance US long-term strategic interests and national security than any war on terror or overseas invasion. For Arab masses there is an absolute consensus as regard the plight of Palestinians and the legitimacy of their historical grievances; and no peace process would be viewed as credible if it does not address the issues at the core of that problem, i.e., West Bank settlements, East Jerusalem, refugees’ question etc.
Given the importance of peace between Palestinians and Israelis for the stability of the region, would the US seize this historical opportunity to solve the question or would it remain, as usual, the prisoner of narrow interests advocated by private lobbies at the expense of American national interest? That remains the key question.
Ironically, though, the Palestinian predicament has also been exploited by many Arab leaders in order to divert the attention of their peoples from the important issues of political and institutional changes.
These autocratic rulers have unashamedly exploited the misery of the Palestinians in the past just as they are now invoking the specter of Islamism to stay indefinitely in power. If anything it is their despotic behavior that nurtured in the first place the rise of radical political Islam. Their policies of exclusion undoubtedly helped increase the rank of angry youth heading the current revolt.
The most important is still ahead
If the most difficult goal, namely the removal from power of tyrants, has been achieved in Tunisia and Egypt, and is still underway in Libya, the most important thing, i.e., the establishment of democracy, remains a distant objective. Getting rid of dictators is one thing, transforming a rotten autocratic system into a viable institutional democracy is an altogether different story.
It is all the more difficult when, as in the case of Egypt, the task is being entrusted to the higher brass of the military. Without questioning their patriotism or good intentions, one shouldn’t, nevertheless, harbor any illusions about the degree of democratic
enlightenment or humanistic idealism of elites whose private interests are, in a way, still be the same than those of the apparatchiks of the old system. The current unelected panel of jurists in charge of drafting a new constitution is, after all, directly overseen by the High Military Council.
Many of the basic demands of the protesters are still unfulfilled. Worse, some prominent figures of the old regime having openly resisted the demands for change and didn’t hide their animosity toward the protesters, like the Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu Ghieth, are still in charge.
To be truly legitimate and ultimately viable any permanent constitutional change should be entrusted to an elected constituent assembly. People didn’t die for the sake of a constitutional makeup or a democratic cosmetic lift up. They wanted change, a transformational change. They deserve no less than what they sacrificed or were ready to sacrifice their lives for.
Mohamed El Moktar Sidi Haiba is a policy analyst.