The Spring Af­ter The Colonel

The death of Libyan dic­ta­tor Gaddafi only high­lights the new strug­gle sweep­ing across the Mid­dle East to fill the vac­uum left by pan-ara­bism. Will mod­er­ate Is­lamists be the win­ner?

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ja­son Burke

The death of Libyan dic­ta­tor Gaddafi only high­lights the new strug­gle sweep­ing across the Mid­dle East to fill the vac­uum left by pan-ara­bism. Will mod­er­ate Is­lamists be the win­ner?

Two deaths and an elec­tion, each enough to change the Mid­dle East per­ma­nently, and all oc­cur­ring in the space of five days. The first death was of course that of Colonel Muam­mar Gaddafi, shot dead in con­fused cir­cum­stances in a drain in his home town and loy­al­ist strong­hold of Sirte. Then, on Oc­to­ber 22 came the news that the Saudi Ara­bian Crown Prince Sul­tan had died. The cir­cum­stances of his demise were more pre­dictable: a top pri­vate Amer­i­can clinic where the 86-year-old had been un­der­go­ing treat­ment for colon can­cer. Then on Oc­to­ber 23, the Tu­nisians went to the polls. Among the vot­ers was the mother of Mo­hammed Bouaz­izi, the vegetable hawker whose pub­lic self­im­mo­la­tion in De­cem­ber 2010 pro­voked the upris­ing that be­came the first of the on­go­ing Arab re­volts.

Vi­o­lence con­tin­ues in Syria as the regime of Bashar al-as­sad con­tin­ues to hold on to power, Yemen threat­ens to plunge fur­ther into chaos and Egypt be­comes more and more tense as the promised fruits of the rev­o­lu­tion of Fe­bru­ary ap­pear to be with­er­ing on the mil­i­tary-run vine. If the frag­ile sta­tus quo has been re-es­tab­lished in Bahrain, ten­sions are ris­ing in the Gulf be­tween Shia Mus­lim Iran and lo­cal Sunni pow­ers. And if the flames of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent have yet to reach ma­jor


Maghreb states such as Morocco or Al­ge­ria or, fur­ther east, the Hashemite king­dom of Jor­dan, it is not for want of dry kin­dling. And then there is the pos­si­bil­ity of re­gres­sion in Iraq as well as the ever-in­tractable Is­rael-pales­tine. If 2011 has been a year of huge change, few ex­pect 2012 to see any re­turn to sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East.

So what will de­ter­mine the evo­lu­tion of the events in com­ing months and years? As ever in the Mid­dle East, you have to look back to look for­ward. Sev­eral ob­vi­ous fac­tors emerge.

One is the death of na­tion­al­ist so­cial­ism, in­flected with pan-ara­bism and anti-colo­nial­ism, which be­came the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy in the re­gion in the 1950s and 1960s in the wake of the frag­men­ta­tion of Euro­pean em­pires. De­posed Tu­nisian pres­i­dent Zein al Abe­dine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Gaddafi all be­longed to the gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers who took power in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of in­de­pen­dence strug­gles. The ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent of their regimes was al­ways thin and be­came thin­ner as the decades passed and the money flowed to their fam­i­lies, friends and as­so­ci­ates. All three of the de­posed dic­ta­tors were staunch friends of the West im­medi- ately be­fore their fall.

But if the lead­ers are gone, the old regimes they led will not go so eas­ily. So the sec­ond fac­tor is the on­go­ing bat­tle be­tween those with power un­der the ex­ist­ing set-up and those who want power. Even af­ter a rev­o­lu­tion, the former are tena­cious. So in Tu­nisia, though the Rassem­ble­ment Con­sti­tu­tion­nel Démocra­tique party, Ben Ali’s po­lit­i­cal ve­hi­cle, has been dis­solved, the in­stru­ments of power re­main dom­i­nated by those who ben­e­fited from the years of dic­ta­tor­ship. Not only are the po­lice and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices con­tin­u­ing their bru­tal ways but the judges who were loyal to Ben Ali re­main the ser­vants of power rather than jus­tice, as Ahmed Rah­mouni, head of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Tu­nisian Mag­is­trates, ex­plained to The

Guardian last week. “The coun­try’s top judges are cor­rupt, in­ef­fi­cient and an in­stru­ment of dic­ta­tor­ship,” Rah­mouni said. “We need to get rid of them, and re­store trust in the ju­di­ciary.”

In Egypt, the army has proved ex­tremely re­luc­tant to give up its au­thor­ity. Elec­tions have been re­peat­edly post­poned and there is now talk of the de­po­si­tion of Mubarak in Fe­bru­ary lead­ing not to a rev­o­lu­tion but to a coup. In Syria, where thou­sands have died in on­go­ing un­rest di­rected at As­sad’s regime, the regime and those who cur­rently ben­e­fit from it have proved tena­cious, mer­ci­less and un­bend­ing. With no in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus, no united op­po­si­tion, no ap­petite in Western cap­i­tals for fur­ther mil­i­tary en­gage­ment and a very dif­fer­ent tac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tion on the ground, a new in­ter­ven­tion from NATO there is un­likely in the ex­treme. In Al­ge­ria ‘le pou­voir’— the se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment and other re­lated in­ter­ests—is firmly in place. So too, de­spite the ag­i­ta­tion of dis­af­fected Shia com­mu­ni­ties, are the rulers of Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain. Only in Yemen does a ma­jor change—the de­par­ture of Pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh—look im­mi­nent.

The fight is there­fore on to fill the vac­uum which will be left by the end of the pan-ara­bism of the 1960s and 1970s. The most ob­vi­ous can­di­date is Is­lamism. And this is, of course, the third ma­jor fac­tor to watch for: the role of politi­cised re­li­gion. Though in no state—other than Iran—did the Is­lamists seize power, their pop­u­lar­ity as an or­gan­ised, ef­fi­cient, hon­est and cul­tur­ally authen­tic al­ter­na­tive to the ve­nal and in­com­pe­tent lo­cal West­ern­backed rulers has grown rapidly over re­cent decades. In Egypt, Tu­nisia and else­where, the Is­lamists were the main op­po­si­tion and suf­fered vi­cious re­pres­sion. They thus re­tain a cred­i­bil­ity with post-rev­o­lu­tion elec­torates that sec­u­lar, of­ten up­per mid­dle-class par­ties can­not counter. In Tu­nisia, the mod­er­ate Is­lamists of Nahda ap­pear likely to get a plu­ral­ity, per­haps 20 per cent or more of votes cast in Sun­day’s elec­tion. They will also do well in any polls in Egypt. In Libya, of course, Gaddafi’s sopho­moric po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and re­pres­sive sys­tem, de­spite lip ser­vice to re­li­gion, ob­scured the deep

piety of much of the pop­u­la­tion and grow­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamic sen­ti­ment of a small mi­nor­ity. The com­ing months will see bat­tles in Libya be­tween fac­tions with dif­fer­ent views of what role re­li­gion should play in govern­ment, as well as be­tween dif­fer­ent re­gional, lo­cal and eth­nic groups. These may even­tu­ally be over­come, but not with­out sig­nif­i­cant in­sta­bil­ity.

Re­li­gion can play an­other po­lit­i­cal role too. One rea­son for the vi­o­lence of the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary’s re­sponse to a re­cent demon­stra­tion by the coun­try’s Chris­tian Cop­tic mi­nor­ity is the deep anx­i­ety pro­voked by the new pos­si­bil­i­ties now avail­able to mi­nori­ties in Egypt. The same op­por­tu­ni­ties to over­haul the dis­tri­bu­tion of power and wealth are now open­ing up for ma­jori­ties such as Bahrain’s Shias or Syria’s Sun­nis or in­deed Jor­dan’s Pales­tini­ans and are pro­vok­ing an equal anx­i­ety among those who have ben­e­fited from the old dis­pen­sa­tion.

Then there are the broader webs of al­liances and al­le­giances reach­ing to In­dia and be­yond as well as across the At­lantic. This is the con­text in which all lo­cal shifts oc­cur. It is of course an­other ma­jor fac­tor. So the Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion must be lo­cated within the broader ef­fort to con­tain Iran. Tehran has long had close links with Da­m­as­cus. If As­sad is forced from power, Iran will lose a key proxy. The Saudis too have their in­ter­ests to watch out for. There ap­pears lit­tle chance of se­ri­ous un­rest within the king­dom. On a three­week visit to Saudi Ara­bia this sum­mer, this writer de­tected some de­sire for grad­ual re­form among the west­ern­ised in­tel­li­gentsia and the Shia mi­nor­ity but pre­cious lit­tle else­where. With the crown prince gone and the prospect of the suc­ces­sion of arch-con­ser­va­tive Prince Mo­hammed Nayef when King Ab­dul­lah dies, it does not look like re­form will come soon ei­ther. But the big fear in Riyadh is of a chain col­lapse of Sunni al­lies across the re­gion to the ben­e­fit of an in­creas­ingly bel­liger­ent Iran.

Then, of course, there is Amer­i­can pol­icy in the re­gion with its twin axes of guar­an­tee­ing US strate­gic in­ter­ests—the free flow of oil to the world’s econ­omy—and Is­rael’s se- cu­rity. Thank­fully that other global force—al Qaeda—has been ab­sent so far from the Arab re­volts. De­spite the pres­ence of some ex­trem­ists in Libya, they are likely to re­main so.

Quite how New Delhi—re­cently closer to Tehran than to the Saudis— will ride the waves of in­sta­bil­ity cur­rently coursing through the Mid­dle East is un­clear. The In­dian pol­icy so far could be char­i­ta­bly de­scribed as ‘mas­ter­ful in­ac­tiv­ity’. Less gen­er­ously, it could be seen as lack­ing any ob­vi­ous prin­ci­ples or di­rec­tion be­yond tak­ing the line of least re­sis­tance un­der a guise of sup­port­ing national sovereignty. If In­dia wants a voice and in­flu­ence, then tough de­ci­sions need to be made, a pol­icy ar­tic­u­lated and loudly stated.

When or if it does do so, In­dia would do well to re­mem­ber one caveat: lo­cal fac­tors will be most im­por­tant. On the way to Tripoli this sum­mer, a young fighter was asked by a Western reporter if he was fight­ing for democ­racy or hu­man rights. No, he an­swered. He was fight­ing be­cause Gaddafi had im­pris­oned his fa­ther and brother and he hoped to free them. It is of such sen­ti­ments that his­tory is made.





Pho­tographs: REUTERS

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