Friday, January 28, 2011

Arabs stand up, but where will they walk?


Tunisians stood up because they saw the contrast between their own recession (driven in some part by a drop in demand for Tunisian goods and tourism due to the recession in Europe) and the privileged kleptocratic lifestyle of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his thieving bitch of a wife, the gold-digging hairdresser.  Having appointed himself as President for an extra two years, and maintained a tight grip on media, speech and maintaining a personality cult, Tunisians had had enough and rightly turfed him out.  Even when some of his lackeys tried to take over, Tunisians weren't standing for that either.   Ben Ali took over from Tunisia's relatively moderate but dictatorial founding President Habib Bourquiba, a man whose record was described by Christopher Hitchens as follows:

he was strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Enlightenment. His contribution was to cement, in many minds, secularism as a part of self-government. He publicly broke the Ramadan fast, saying that such a long religious holiday was debilitating to the aspirations of a modern economy. He referred with contempt to face-covering and sponsored a series of laws entrenching the rights of women.

Bourquiba was no angel, but he was one of the more moderate of the Arab world's strongmen, look at who he had to the east with Muammar Gaddafi making Libya a personal fiefdom and sponsor of murder worldwide.   He wasn't an economic genius and left Tunisia with mounting inflation and debts.

Ben Ali took over when Bourquiba was pronounced too ill to continue, and resisted an Islamist terrorist campaign to take over the country in 1987.  Ben Ali naturally got extensive US and French support to suppress the Islamists, and Tunisia and its neighbours are no doubt the better for it.

Yet as with all dictators, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Tunisia hosted the PLO for over a decade, and Ben Ali made considerable efforts to encourage it to reach out to Israel and recognise its right to exist.  He opened up the economy and living standards increased, but freedom of expression was not on offer. He hosted multi-party and multi-candidate elections that were for show, and as the economy has waned, and he has appeared aloof from it all, so Tunisians said enough.

However, wherever Tunisia ends up, it is unlikely to be Islamist and it is, after all, a small country.  It is hoped that its largely secularist past will bode well for the future.

Yet Arabs in Algerian, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan have all watched the protests on TV and online, and have seen how easy it is to topple a strongman.  None of the countries have political freedom, all have economic difficulties, but where will they end up?


Algeria was born of a bloody civil war against the French, and it went through three Presidents in three years as power struggles and uncontested elections meant a volatile scene.  In 1965, Houari Boumedienne seized power in a coup and ran Algeria on strict socialist principles, with strong allegiances with the Soviet bloc and China, even giving an honorary doctorate in person to Kim Il Sung.  He wasted the country's oil wealth on developing state owned heavy industry which proved uncompetitive and unproductive, and ran a ruthless police state.

Boumedienne's death saw a brief interim Presidency, followed by his protege, Chadli Bendjedid who was unremarkable, as the economy stagnated with falling oil prices.   As debts grew and government spending was cut, protests emerged and Bendjedid liberalised politics to announced the introduction of multi-party elections.  That, as is well known, sparked the rise of Islamism.  Local elections in 1990 saw the Islamic Salvation Front win a majority of positions, and there was every risk it would win the central government election in 1991.  The Islamic Salvation Front was lukewarm towards retaining democracy, with the vice president of the party claiming "If the people vote against the law of God, this is nothing other than blasphemy. In this case, it is necessary to kill the non-believers for the good reason that they wish to substitute their authority for that of God".  The party opposed the widespread coalition of Operation Desert Storm that had UN Security Council endorsement to eject Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Hardly surprising that the military intervened and stopped the election, but what followed was a brutal oppression and civil war.  Thousands were rounded up and locked up, prisons were full, and Islamists took to the countryside with weapons.  Islamists embarked on a policy of deliberate massacres of entire villages if they were not supported, the military responded and over 100,000 were killed in 11 years of war.  The war ending only because so many Algerians were tired of the slaughter.   The military supported Abdelaziz Bouteflika to become President, and an amnesty saw many Islamists give up.  He was elected in 1999 in an election boycotted by opponents, but in 2004 he was re-elected in an election described by the OSCE as free and fair.  He engaged in substantive economic reforms, taking advantage of rising oil and gas prices to rebuild infrastructure, construct housing and the economy recovered considerably.   His amnesty and reconciliation process gained much support domestically, except among militant Islamists.  He engaged in privatisation of heavy industries and the tourism sectors.

However, tensions have risen in the last two year as Bouteflika sought and gained a constitutional change to allow him to run for the Presidency for a third term, meanwhile Islamists have gained support in resistance to his attempts to retain power.  He held an election in 2009 described by Western observers as a sham, as many candidates and voters boycotted it, and he subsequently won.  In essence, Algeria's carefully won peace has been undermined by the hunger for power by a man who started by doing good, but has been unwilling to let free expression and pluralism rise against him.  As a result, those who are not scared of doing violence and unwinding the peace - Islamists - are gaining the upper hand.  Algeria's economy is in reasonably good shape, but tensions with rapidly rising food prices and dissatisfaction with corruption and suppression of dissent, are firing up protests.  None of this is helped by Islamist backing for a revolution. It would be fair to say that the greatest risk in Algeria is a second bloody civil war.


Often forgotten is the fact that the Republic of Yemen was only united in 1990, as much of Yemen's post colonial history was spent as two governments and states.  The new united Yemen was promising as it established a multi-party democracy, guaranteeing equality under the law, basic individual rights.  However, the election didn't result in acceptance of all political leaders, as the President and Vice President came from the two former northern and southern republics.  Grievances spilled out into armed conflict between the two sides, not helped by the failure of the two state's armies to integrate.   The unified Yemen acted as if it were two countries, with Saudi Arabia supporting the socialist south because it was opposed to a united Yemen.  The UN Security Council and most other states sought a ceasefire, and the civil war ended quickly with dominance from the north.  Subsequently parliamentary and presidential elections saw dominance achieved by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been President on reunification, and had previously been President of the northern Yemen Arab Republic since 1978.   Although elections have widely been considered to be reasonably free and fair, Saleh has had considerable influence over the media and press.

However, the main challenge to his rule since 2004 has been an Islamist insurgency from the north, which is partly tribal and religious motivated (as it has come from a sub-sect of Islam - the Shia Zaidiyyah).  Terrorism and attacks have persisted in Yemen, with the Yemeni government fighting a continuous campaign against the Islamist rebels.  Both it and the Saudis claims Iran is supporting the Islamists materially.  Saudi Arabia is now backing the Yemeni government, as Al Qaeda Saudi Arabia has shifted its base to Yemen.  The US has since provided direct military support to the Yemeni government to attack its bases in the north, including air combat support.

Yemenite discontent is from a combination of disenchantment with the almost continuous rule by one President since 1978, but also an economy which has performed poorly.  This was not helped by the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers during the 1991 Gulf War because the regime supported Saddam Hussein.  Yemen's economy has been dependent on subsistance agriculture and modest oil and gas reserves, of which revenue is used to offset high subsidies for domestic petroleum.  Tourism is virtually non-existent, and the civil war has dissuaded foreign investors as well as driving more skilled Yemenis overseas.  In short, the country has been seriously hamstrung by ongoing conflict.

The great fear is that protests in Aden will be taken advantage of by Al Qaeda and its associated Islamist rebels, particularly as Yemen is in a strategic position on the approach to Suez.

As for Egypt? The news is unfolding... the consequences could be far reaching.... and I will write on it later.

However, the common theme amongst all of these state is resistance to political power, to absolute rule, to those who have used the state to enrich themselves and not ever been accountable for what they have done.  In short, Arabs in these states have wanted political freedom.
Yet more than a few have seen it as a chance not just to throw off the shackles of existing regimes, but to introduce a new order.  Akin to how Iranians threw off the authoritarian corrupt Shah, and supported the most well organised alternative - who has since proven to be more authoritarian and despicable.

The Western support for the likes of Hosni Mubarak has been because the apparent alternative would be far worse - yet the truth is nobody knows what will happen, and maintaining dictatorship and one man rule simply provides fodder for the Islamists, promotes hatred of Western values and civilisation as Islamists can say the West supports political freedom for all, except Arabs.   So support must be given for these regimes to change, to let people have their say, and for freedom to emerge in secular modern republics.  Yet if any look like becoming Islamist states that will harbour and promote terrorism and war, then it is a different story, for it risks the national security of the targets of that terror and war.  Hopefully most Arabs in these countries, having lived under relatively secular rule for some time, have little appetite for a new form of tyranny - but, one might have said the same of Iran in 1979.

No comments: