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JUST LIKE IT IS: Lessons from Arabia

Peter Simmons

JUST LIKE IT IS: Lessons from Arabia

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Television and the internet have brought the turmoil of Egypt, the world’s largest Arab state, into our living rooms over the last 18 days. Defying a government-imposed curfew, hundreds of thousands took over Cairo’s largest public square in a concerted attempt to end the 30-year autocratic rule of intransigent President Hosni Mubarak.
But like so many historical figures obsessed by the exercise of dictatorial powers, he clung on tenaciously to the end, until forced to step down on Friday. In a midnight TV address earlier in the week, in an attempt to palliate rampant demonstrators he accused of destabilizing the country, for the first time he appointed a vice-president, sacked the entire cabinet and promised reforms.
Defying police rifle fire, tear gas, rubber bullets, batons and marauding soldiers on horses and camels, nothing could silence the cry reverberating all across Egypt and its diasporic enclaves of “enough is enough. The people want change. Mubarak must go”. The demonstrations and struggle for fundamental change was led by young men full of emotional energy.
As the unprecedented days of rage continued unabated paralyzing the country of 80 million, at the cost of over 300 lives, the relentless pressure of the people’s revolution eventually forced the beleaguered president to take flight. Heavily dependent on tourism with heritage sites of an ancient civilization as focal points, it was estimated that economic losses were over US$300 million daily. 
As demonstrations erupted all across the country, Tahrir Square in central Cairo became the epicentre of the most seismic public demonstrations ever witnessed anywhere in the Middle East. Fittingly, “tahrir” is the Arabic word for freedom and there were scenes which recaptured memories of China’s revolutionary square and heroic young men defying advancing tanks. 
What is happening in Egypt is a continuation of the popular protests threatening to sweep across the whole Arab world, fanned by the desire for democracy and freedom in countries long dominated by oppressive, autocratic oligarchies. Two technologies in the forefront of these protests are satellite television and the Internet, particularly the ubiquitous social networks Facebook and Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, the government moved early to disable them, closing the gate after the horse, tired of a despotic jockey, had bolted in search of democracy and freedom, the 20th century wishbones of oppressed populations everywhere. The world looked on with dismay as violent demonstrations spread north to Suez, site of the vital canal, critical waterway to the ebullient east and global shipment of oil.
For decades Egypt has been the major United States ally in the Arab world. Former president Anwar Sadat played a key role in brokering peace with neighbouring Israel to the disgust of fellow Arabic states. Mubarak maintained the peace and the United States reciprocated by pumping billions of dollars into the economy and providing significant military aid. 
Mubarak, like his three predecessors, is a product of the military, a Russian-trained fighter jet pilot. It is not without significance that he appointed a military man as vice-president. The military elite remain an ambitious and privileged class without any interest in sharing power with civilians and suspicious of academics. The defiant, hugely unpopular president enjoyed military support to the end.
Also significant in the recent upheavals is that the former widely perceived dynastic succession which had identified Mubarak’s son as his successor, generating widespread resentment, has lost currency, and both Egyptians and the wider world are looking elsewhere.  
Reports on American TV suggest that President Obama, in conversations with Mubarak, encouraged him to step aside paving the way for democratic elections. History, it is said, is a dear school and I well remember what happened when President Jimmy Carter encouraged another Arab tyrant, the Shah of Iran, to embrace democracy and step aside.
The shah was supplanted by the brutal, theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini and other despots no less savage and anti-democratic, now driven by the frightening ambition to make Iran a nuclear state. A major fear in the Middle East and beyond is that the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized opposition group but regarded as dangerous extremists, could fill the post-Mubarak vacuum, a mind-boggling prospect.
The much feared, erratic Iranian regime has not disguised its joy at what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and is confidently predicting that the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood will be victorious and has openly pledged full support. This is a smoking gun which fills the United States and its allies with dread.   
The current protests sweeping Arab states started in Tunisia with young people in the vanguard and brought down the president. The objective conditions which ignited that uprising are replicated across the region – rising unemployment, inflation, corruption, unchecked increases in food prices by rapacious capitalists and despotic regimes stifling the thirst for freedom and democracy in meritocratic states.
Fully conscious of the epidemic effects of events in Tunisia and Egypt, a number of autocratic Arab states – Jordan, Syria and Yemen – have taken steps to pre-empt the encroaching threat by restructuring their regimes to give them an aura of people’s participation. Whether it will be prophylactic or seen as too little, too late as the drive for democracy gathers unstoppable momentum, only time will tell. 
Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat.