The self-immolation by an unemployed Mohammad Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17 triggered the ‘Jasmin Revolution’ in that country and removed President Zein El Abidin Ben Ali who ruled Tunisia for 23 years without popular legitimacy, but with the support of his security forces and Western powers.
This revolution spilled over into Egypt within a few days and fomented what has come to be known as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ which, after seventeen days of popular eruption in the streets of Cairo and other cities of Egypt ousted President Mubarak who held on to power for 30 years, also without popular legitimacy, but with the support of his military and police forces and Western powers. Just like in Tunisia so also in Egypt it was the death of a 28-year old man at the hands of two police officers in Alexandria in June 2010 that mobilised a group of young cyber activists to lead the campaign for change. These two revolutions are now cascading into a torrent and threatening to wash away the other unpopular and autocratic regimes in Muslim Middle East. The world is witnessing the domino effect of the Tunisian explosion.
This domino effect should have been ushered in soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which was also marked by a popular eruption against a tyrannical Muslim regime armed to its teeth with modern weaponry supplied by its Western friends; but because of the Islamic euphoria that coloured that revolution the fundamental political and economic grievances of the masses were successfully concealed by the theocratic regime that hijacked the revolution.
The Muslim rulers in the Middle East and in other parts of the world at that time were able to belittle the significance and tarnish the image of that revolution because of its Shi’a religious dimension. In spite of Komeini’s resolve to export the Iranian revolution to the rest of the world of Islam, the historical Shi’a-Sunni religious split was effectively exploited by the Western powers and their Muslim allies to thwart Komeini’s ambition.
The status quo of Muslim Middle East was thus saved after 1979. The situation now is radically different. If there is one significant variable that is remarkably absent from the current revolutionary equation it is the one about the religion of Islam.
It was not the cry for an Islamic state with Shariah law but the demand for bread and freedom and the end of cronyism, corruption and state terror that were the running themes behind the mass discontent and upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia. It is also this demand that is being advanced in the popular agitation that is raging in other Muslim countries. When Hosni Mubarak threatened the world in his televised address that the choice confronting Egypt was either him or chaos he was not only alluding to the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power but also was echoing at the same time the idea of certain medieval Muslim jurists who argued that tyranny was better than anarchy.
Thanks to the Mullacracy in post-revolutionary Iran and Talibanian Afghanistan the vast majority of the present generation of young Muslims who are the products of an electronic culture with mobile phones, facebooks, e-mails, and bloggers has seen the ugly side of a theocrat-led regime. This new generation of educated young Muslims wants freedom, democracy, clean government and employment and not misogynic rules, medieval restrictions, and murderous justice, all in the name of an ill-defined Islamic state.
For a long time, at least since the infamy of 9/11, the West is paranoid about an imagined Islamic threat. No doubt the exaggerated importance given in the international media to the utterances and activities of some extremist Muslim ideologues and activists gives credence to this paranoia.
Such groups will continue to create havoc whenever an opportunity arises. But at any time and in any Muslim country without the fear of reprisal or victimization if a clear choice is presented to its people between democracy and theocracy one can be confident that the latter will be the loser. This fact must be courageously accepted by the West if it is genuinely interested in promoting democracy in the Muslim countries. The question is, does the West really want democracy to prevail?
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s petroleum and natural gas deposits, the lifeblood of the Western industrialised economies, is buried under the sands of Muslim Middle East and a huge amount of Western capital has been sunk in those sands in search of hydrocarbon energy.
Secondly, Israel, a country that was conspiratorially carved out of Muslim Palestine by the Western powers is continuing to be a menacing source of political instability in that region. And thirdly, the Suez Canal and the sea routes that facilitate the transport of Middle Eastern oil and gas are under the control of Muslim states. These three elements determine the essence of Western geo-politics in the Middle East.
When policy makers in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin talk about stability in the Middle East what they actually mean is security of Western investments in the Middle East; guaranteed oil and gas supply to Western industries and cities - preferably at low cost; security of Israel with tolerance to extend its territorial borders; and freedom of navigation along the sea routes. These elements formed part of the edifice on which the so called New World Order was created after the Second World War. The kings, the emirs, the sultans, and the presidents who ruled Middle East since then, except a few recalcitrants like Nasser and Mosadiq, have helped the West in preserving this so called stability.
While aligning with the West these Muslim heads of states did all they could to extend the longevity of their rule. Any opposition to the regime was suppressed with brutality, elections were rigged, civil liberties were curtailed, corruption was tolerated and even promoted, and cronyism was allowed to prosper. The Western powers, notably the United States the main puppeteer in this region, with occasional innocuous criticisms against certain practices of these governments allowed the system largely un-interfered. Even when it was proved by international observers that the Egyptian elections held in November and December 2010 was rigged to the core all that Washington could say was that it was ‘dismayed’. This cozy relationship between Muslim local rulers and their Western backers is now under threat.
One of the ways by which the West tries to preserve the status quo is to support the local army and police forces to take control in times of crisis. After all, the top echelons of these forces are the products of Western training and orientation. They are also well funded through foreign aid and domestic fiscal measures. However, their ability to control the discontent is not limitless. True, the fear of police brutality and military excesses had driven many an opposition underground and made the disgruntled to suffer in silence. But what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in the last few weeks and what is being repeated in other parts of the region demonstrate that the masses have crossed the barrier of fear. Once that crossing is done no amount of military repression and no amount of killing is going to stop the protestors. The cry for freedom and democracy in the Middle East is now unstoppable.
In the past the West viewed local protests against ruling regimes through the Cold War lenses. Now it is the War-on-Terror-lenses that are distorting the focus. It is time for the West to realise that the new generation of protestors are not agitating in the name of any secular or religious ideology.
They are leaderless, their demands are basic, and they look to the West for support to realise their objectives. To let them down now would mean opening the door to the very forces of religious fundamentalism that are waiting in the wings to step in. None of us want that to happen.