Revolutionary tide

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Protesters shout slogans demanding political reform and the resignation of the U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, on February 14. - HANI MOHAMMED/AP

Protesters shout slogans demanding political reform and the resignation of the U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, on February 14. - HANI MOHAMMED/AP

Pan-Arabism, which has been dormant since the 1967 war, has resurfaced with a bang after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

THE pharaoh may have finally ceded power but Egypt and the rest of the Arab world are waiting with bated breath to see what the future holds. The Obama administration seems to have temporarily succeeded in bringing about a peaceful transition through the auspices of the Egyptian military. But the United States, despite its new-found love for democracy in the region, is not prepared to see the tide of democracy wash the shores of the countries presided over by its authoritarian allies. In Egypt itself, the work of the revolution is still unfinished. The three most important men in the interim government, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan and Vice-President Omar Suleiman, have been loyal to former President Hosni Mubarak throughout his long rule. Tantawi was famously described as Mubarak's poodle by U.S. diplomats in the WikiLeaks cables.

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has already started backsliding on its initial promise that all the people's demands will be met. In subsequent pronouncements, the military, while announcing a vague time frame for elections, refused to scrap the country's draconian emergency laws. The people, who got rid of the dictator, are united in their demand that the emergency laws, which have been in place for the past three decades, have to be scrapped with immediate effect. The other key demands that have not yet been met by the military are the setting up of a civilian-dominated transitional council and a constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution. The junta that Mubarak has left behind has not acceded so far to calls for the legalising of all political parties and the freeing of the estimated 20,000 political prisoners. Labour unions and the right to strike have also not been recognised. After Mubarak quit, there have been a rash of strikes and labour unrest all over the country as workers, savouring their new-found freedom, are demanding improvement in their living conditions.

Egyptians fear that the U.S., the country's military patron, in order to protect its strategic interests in the region, will not permit a meaningful transition to democracy. In Tunisia, members of the old regime are still in power with the backing of the military leadership that is close to the Pentagon. Until now, the U.S. could depend on Egypt and Israel to help fulfil its agenda in the region. Now, Egypt can no longer be taken for granted. A democratically elected government in Cairo may not play along with the American-Israeli-Saudi game plan of creating an artificial Shia-Sunni sectarian divide to isolate Iran. The Obama administration is trying to ensure that the vacuum resulting from the unforeseen exit of its protg is not filled by genuine democratic forces. Indications are that it wants senior figures from the Army along with politicians masquerading as a Committee of Wise Men to run the government. The self-appointed group of wise men consists of personalities like Amr Moussa, who was Foreign Minister under Mubarak. During the 18-day revolution, it was reported that Tantawi was in daily communication with U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. The U.S.' main priority is ensuring that genuine people's power, which is bound to be inimical to Pax Americana, does not emerge in Egypt, the Arab heartland. The U.S. also wanted to prevent a revolt by middle-ranking officers who had sympathised with the demonstrators. At the height of the protests in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was only urging Mubarak to listen to the legitimate grievances of the people and to institute an orderly transition. Frank Wisner, Obama's envoy to Egypt, even issued a statement saying that Mubarak should stay on. Egyptians are now leading West Asia's struggle for genuine democracy in spite of the efforts of the U.S. to stymie it. Nobody is listening to America anymore, it has become irrelevant, said Rami Khouri, an academic based in Beirut.

The Mossad and the Central Intelligence Agency were taken by surprise by the scale of the Egyptian upsurge. Until early February, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, General Aviv Kochavi, was saying that there was no chance of Mubarak being ousted. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the only two countries demanding that the U.S. bail out Mubarak.

The stakes for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were especially high as he could always count on Mubarak's support during crisis situations. Netanyahu was always welcome in Egypt. Mubarak helped the Israeli government keep pretending that it was serious about peace talks with the Palestinians. Egypt was kept in the loop when the Israeli army launched its attack on the Gaza Strip. Like Netanyahu, Mubarak too loathed Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran.

With the Muslim Brotherhood (M.B.) now a force to be reckoned with in Egypt, Israel has all the more reason to be nervous. When the people's movement gained momentum, Netanyahu repeatedly warned the West that the M.B. would be swept into power and that Egypt would be a worse disaster for the U.S. than the Iranian revolution of 1979. The M.B., which belatedly joined the protests, has insisted that it is not a contender for the presidency. The outgoing Israeli Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, warned that the extremists are coming and said that Israel should prepare for war.

Hamas is an offshoot of the M.B. The interim Egyptian government has said that it will honour all the treaties it has signed with Israel but, in the face of public opinion, will find it difficult to partner Israel in the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of Hamas. Huge celebrations took place in Gaza after the ouster of Mubarak. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has described the blockade of Gaza as unjust.

A popular government in Egypt will no doubt do a reassessment of the 1978 Camp David Accord. There was an annexure to the treaty, titled A Framework for Peace in the Middle East [West Asia], that clearly included a commitment by Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories and negotiate a final status within five years. Israel not only went against the commitment but also accelerated its settlement-building. The peace treaty gave Israel a blank cheque in the region. With Egypt reduced to the status of a bystander, Israel launched aggressive wars and bombed targets in Iraq and Syria. The once mighty Egyptian Army meanwhile was preoccupied with bolstering an authoritarian regime and building a military-industrial complex, subsidised by the annual $2 billion in U.S. aid. Many senior serving Egyptian Army officers are reputed to be millionaires with a stake in profitable military-run enterprises. ElBaradei, unlike some of the younger protesters, has no faith in the military. They don't understand, let alone are willing to move Egypt into democracy, unless we keep kicking their behinds, he said.

Political pundits in the U.S. have started warning of a domino effect with more pro-American regimes falling by the wayside in the face of popular revolts. In a recent article, the Palestinian intellectual Ramzy Baroud noted that U.S. interests cannot coexist peacefully with true democracies in the region. Washington allowed Mubarak to crack down on the opposition after the M.B. won 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament in 2005. After Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the green signal was given to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to short-circuit democracy.

Immediately after Mubarak's ouster, Washington despatched Admiral Mike Mullen, the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the region. He first visited Jordan, which has been racked with anti-government demonstrations since January. Mullen next went to Israel, where he held talks with the country's Prime Minister and security chiefs. The Pentagon spokesman had said that Mullen's trip was to reassure both these key partners of the U.S. military's commitment to that partnership. Netanyahu told the visiting U.S. military leader that an earthquake was shaking the Arab world and that the Israeli army was ready for any eventuality.

Pan-Arabism, which has been dormant since the 1967 war with Israel, has now resurfaced with a bang after the consecutive revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. All over the Arab world, people are either taking to the streets or forming groups to challenge long ruling pro-American despots. Today's pan-Arabism not only encompasses anger towards the domination of the West and Israel, its proxy in the region, but also unites people on issues ranging from bad governance to internal repression.

In Yemen, thousands of people have been protesting in major cities since the success of their Egyptian counterparts. They want their long-ruling President, Ali Abdulah Saleh, to leave. In early February, Saleh pledged that he would not run again for the presidency when his term ended in 2013. Saleh made a similar promise in 2006 but reneged on it once popular pressure eased. That Saleh is under serious pressure is evident. He has postponed a scheduled trip to the U.S. In recent years, Yemen has become a strong ally of the U.S., which recently announced a $750-million counterterrorism training programme for the Yemeni security forces. Yemen has an unemployment rate of 40 per cent. Around half of its population of 20 million lives on less than $2 a day.

Violent demonstrations have also broken out in Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and the Combined Maritime Forces. The majority Shia population has been feeling discriminated against since the kingdom gained independence from Britain. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain's immediate neighbour, has reason to be worried. Its eastern oil-producing region is Shia-dominated. There have been outbreaks of anti-government protests against the House of Saud in the past. The minority Shias in Saudi Arabia have not been given a fair deal and like their compatriots in Bahrain have virtually no presence in the armed forces or the bureaucracy. The government in Bahrain is trying to buy obedience by offering every family in the kingdom $2,650 and increasing subsidies on food items. The death of two protesters in clashes with security forces in the third week of February has further galvanised the people, who are beginning to congregate in Manama, the capital, in large numbers.

The P.A. has also gone into crisis mode. President Mahmoud Abbas announced new elections and the dissolution of the Cabinet. The Palestinian chief negotiator in the peace talks, Saeb Erekat, has resigned, taking the blame for the leak of the Palestine Papers, which showed that the P.A. had effectively become a subordinate ally of the U.S. and Israel. The P.A. said that parliamentary and presidential elections would be held in September. Abbas, whose term ended in January 2009, has been ruling by decree. Mubarak was one of Abbas' principal backers. Hamas has announced that it will not participate in an election held under the Fatah-led P.A. The last elections were won by Hamas but Fatah, backed by Egypt, Israel and the U.S., succeeded in militarily sidelining it. The attempt to take over Gaza, first by Fatah and then militarily by Israel, was thwarted by Hamas.

In Algeria, the opposition declared that it would hold protests every week. Protests are banned in the country, but the opposition did manage to stage a rally in mid-February. The government deployed policemen who, according to reports, outnumbered the protesters. The opposition declared the demonstrations a success as it was the first time in more than 10 years that they were able to march to 1 May Square in Algiers. The government in Algiers has already announced that it will soon lift the state of emergency that has been in force since the 1990s. The National Coordination for Change and Democracy has been formed to unite all opposition parties and trade unions and has announced plans for a general strike in the coming weeks.

On February 16, it was the turn of Libya where demonstrators confronted the police in Benghazi. According to media reports, 14 people were injured in the clashes. The protesters urged all Libyans to observe a day of rage the following day. In Libya, which has been under Muammar Qaddafi's authoritarian rule for the last four decades, protests are rare. The protests began when a group of people whose relatives were killed in a prison massacre in 1996 took out a procession. They were joined by other people who were no doubt inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Many prominent Libyans and human rights organisations have been demanding Qaddafi's resignation. Qaddafi has been unhappy about the turn of events in the Arab world.

West Asia seems poised for a radical change after the historic events in Tunisia and Egypt. The authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West are desperately seeking to stem the revolutionary tide. Lenin had said revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger, wrote that the time has come for Tahrir to be taken to the factories.... We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt.

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