February 17, 2011
Moment of truth for us as well in Middle East
February 17, 2011 - The Star, Toronto
Arab spring, they are calling it. It has spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Sudan and Syria, in varying degrees.
We cannot know where this pan-Arab movement will lead. But what we know is instructive.
The protests cut across ideology and religion.
They are led for the most part by the young, including women.
They are rebelling against poverty, unemployment, unaffordable housing, food and fuel prices, corruption, crony capitalism, unconscionable gaps between rich and poor, abuse of power, repression, dynastic rule and lack of democracy.
Of the 11 regimes facing uprisings, seven-and-a-half are Western allies (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority), while three-and-a-half are anti-Western (Iran, Syria, Sudan and Hamas in Gaza).
Six have been autocracies (Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen). Three are monarchies (Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco). One is a mullahcracy (Iran).
Besides the monarchies, four regimes are or were designed to be dynastic (Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen).
Again leaving out the monarchies, five have long been ruled by aging and corrupt despots (Hosni Mubarak, toppled after 30 years; Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, toppled after 20 years; Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, in power 41 years, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir 21 years, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh 32 years).
Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika is into his third term, having got the constitution changed to serve more than two terms. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains president although his elected term ran out in 2009.
The bad guys are found in both pro- and anti-Western camps. More of the crooks are, in fact, ours.
They have all reacted to the protests in predictable ways.
Most sent in army, police or anti-riot goons with guns, tear gas, Tasers, water cannons, etc. — some supplied by the U.S. or other allies. They killed an estimated 300 in Egypt, 50 in Tunisia, two each in Iran and Bahrain, and one each in Sudan and Yemen, as of this writing.
They branded the demonstrators anti-nationalist troublemakers spurred on by foreign forces (Mubarak and Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei using remarkably similar language).
Monarchs and dictators fired prime ministers and entire cabinets, proving the protesters’ point against one-man rule.
Some rulers promised not to hang on through yet another fraud election (Mubarak and Saleh). Both also promised to cut their sons out of succession.
Gadhafi hasn’t felt enough heat yet to pronounce the fate of his heir-presumptive son.
Most clamped down on the media.
Some pronounced pay raises for public service employees (Mubarak), lower income taxes (Saleh), higher fuel subsidies (Assad), lower food prices (Bouteflika, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Tunisian regime) — out of monies they don’t have. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa bribed every citizen with $2,700.
Some initiated a dialogue with the opposition they had vowed never to talk to, including banned Islamic parties (Mubarak, Abdullah, Saleh and the regime in Tunisia).
But neither placatory politics nor crackdowns have quite worked, so far.
Some regimes may weather the protests, others not. That will depend, on the one hand, how united the opposition is, partly based on how cohesive their society is (Egypt) or how divided (Yemen); and on the other hand, how sophisticated a security and intelligence apparatus the state has or how vicious it is willing to be (Iran, Jordan, Syria).
The path forward for the United States, Canada and others is clear. We must stop speaking with a forked tongue — calling for regime change among those opposed to us and turning a blind eye to dictatorships allied to us. Barack Obama has made a start with his backing of protesting Egyptians.
Long-term stability cannot be bought at the expense of human rights and democracy.
Instead of enriching dictators and investing in their instruments of oppression, invest in political reforms and job creation. That would serve our interests far better.
Just as this is a moment of truth for the regimes, it is also for us.