27 February 2011


From the Maghreb in North Africa to the Persian Gulf we have witnessed mass protests over the past several days, resulting in regime change in a number of cases, with others on the brink. Where some governments have yielded to the popular will, in Libya we currently see thousands being killed, even as army units and officials defect to the opposition. Largely peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have resulted in the departure of long-serving dictators. These revolutions were spearheaded by young, secular activists who made great use of technology and social media to organize, from the bottom up, a spontaneous movement that rapidly gained popular support. They were clearly educated, and middle class by the standards of their country. There was nothing “Islamic” about these movements; indeed the Islamists were caught by surprise. The youthful protests were as much a result as economic malaise as a desire for freedom, given high unemployment and dismal prospects even for the educated. In Egypt the average age is only 24 and there are some 20 million Internet users. They are young people seeking a better life in dysfunctional societies without opportunity, and they have no interest in jihad or clerical rule.

In Tunisia, where the movement began, there is a largely secular society established by its first President, Habib Bourguiba, who once jumped off a stage and ripped a veil from a woman’s face to emphasize secular modernity. However, in Egypt, to put things in perspective, Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations can hold about 250,000 people. There are 18 million in Cairo, and more than 80 million in Egypt, most of whom are poor peasants barely living at subsistence levels. The average Egyptian survives on less that $1000 a year, and 40% get by on $2.00 a day. They are a world away from the events in Cairo and Alexandria. It is the same peasantry that has endured for thousands of years as regimes have come and gone. It is not clear what their sentiments are, and how they will respond in a democracy, should one emerge. Power remains in the hands of the Army, which has promised a new constitution to be approved by a referendum, and free elections. The Army is popular and the guarantor of stability in the country. Much will depend on their willingness to cede power to an eventual elected civilian government. Although there appears to be a genuine interest in freedom, in reality economic concerns are equally salient.

Let us hope that the young seeking a better life are not disappointed as their expectations rise. In Egypt there has been something of an Islamic revival. Thirty years ago there were few headscarves in Cairo. Now they are ubiquitous, but this does not equate with radical Islamism by any means. My guess is that Islamism will not ultimately triumph in this situation. Young people want a better life; that is life in this world, not the next, and revolution opens possibilities and optimism that there will be change and opportunity. They have no more desire to be ruled by clerics than we in the west do, especially having seen the results in Iran. Islamism can only take hold when there is desperation, hopelessness, and alienation with the possibilities of this life. The only risk is that reformed governments will be unable to deliver.

Some analysts in the west have worriedly pointed to the fact that revolutions often result in radical extremists taking power, as in France, Russia, and Iran. I do not see that happening in this instance because power ultimately rests with the men with guns, who are part of a professional army.

In Libya the situation is somewhat different. Muamar “Daffy” Qadaffi has turned the guns on his own people, resorting to bringing in mercenaries from African countries as army units defect. The US once had an air force base in Libya until Colonel Qadaffi overthrew King Idris. But it is the flag of the old king that the rebels are now waving. With the east and much of the countryside lost, Qadaffi is left with a base in Tripoli, where his forces continue to slaughter the opposition. The French and British have taken the lead on this as the administration has again been clueless. What needs to be done now is to establish a no fly zone so that Qadaffi cannot attack his own people from the air.

It ought to now be clear that the desire for freedom does exist in the Arab world. Through modern communications young people realize there is a better life elsewhere, that there are alternatives to tyranny, and that opportunity in their own societies can only be realized through change. The clock cannot be turned back.

No comments:

Post a Comment