Feb 2nd 2011

Getting in line for a revolution

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

What is interesting about the tsunamis of change cascading through the Middle East this past month is that the "dumb, undeserving-of-democracy" Arab masses have turned out to be magnificently saavy, efficient, focused and determined in flipping over longstanding dictatorships.

And it turns out they are polite too. Arab populations from North Africa, the Levant and the Persian Gulf have now, quite organically it seems, devised a wait-your-turn system for overthrowing the Middle East's iron-fisted leaders.

Opposition groups and ordinary citizens have taken to the streets in Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, Bahrain and Algeria recently to air their grievances and demand change. But they are not going full throttle quite yet. First, they are waiting for their brothers and sisters in Egypt to finish, as Egyptians did when Tunisians were focused on overthrowing the 23-year-old dictatorship of now deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Which leader is next is anyone's guess, but I bet that every subsequent uprising will be leaner and smarter than the last. The Arab masses are learning quickly: when the Egyptian security forces sent thugs onto the streets to foment chaos and turn folks against the protesters, Egyptian bloggers and commentators hit the media and social networks to warn about these tactics - quickly pointing out that Ben Ali's presidential guard had attempted the same a few weeks ago.

When the inevitable US and Israeli warnings came about Islamic fundamentalists hijacking the protests, the moderate Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) released statements to the contrary and aligned themselves behind Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular, Nobel Peace Prize-winning potential presidential candidate.

When warnings came that Egypt's Coptic Christians - ten percent of the nation's population - would be targeted by the "mobs". Not only did that not happen, but Copts formed human chains to protect their fellow Muslims from government forces during prayer time.

It was literally just one week ago when American and mainstream Arab commentators were saying that what happened in Tunisia could not possibly happen in Egypt. That even if Egyptians hit the streets, it would take much, much longer to impact the entrenched government of Hosni Mubarak, if at all.

Instead, in seven days, Egyptians of all stripes - young, old, male, female, religious, secular - have fundamentally rocked the 30-year-old regime of president Mubarak. They have sought to keep the revolt peaceful. When security forces became aggressive, protesters fell to their knees in prayer, evoking some of the most emotional pictures of this uprising yet. They have nipped rumours in the bud swiftly, they have sent their rank and file to speak to the world's media, they have put aside differences to speak with one voice.

That voice - en masse - is not demanding lower taxes or higher subsidies as would be expected from a people whose per capita income amounts to less than two dollars per day. It is demanding the removal of their president, a fundamental change in the constitution and the reform and re-election of all political bodies. But wasn't this all about poverty and human rights? 

Yes and no. "Yes", in that the clever Arab masses realise the obvious: that good policies can only come from good governance. And "no", in that this is obviously not only about the individual and his/her needs: a closer examination of the governments under threat in the wider Middle East shows that they are all US allies - regimes that we have supported regardless of their human rights records or their ability to govern fairly and effectively.

None of them are on the side of that famously maligned axis consisting of "Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas".  Those state and non-state actors will not be directly touched by this gale of unified popular protest - and neither will Qatar, Oman, Iraq and Turkey.

But don't be mistaken that the Arab masses are unleashing an anti-American revolution in the region.  In fact, while they dislike US policy, there does not seem to be a specific rage directed at Americans at all. This smarter-by-the-second Arab Street realises full well the reasons for the US's rotten policies in the region - primarily its blind commitment to promote Israel's interests and "security" above all else, including its own. So while most American politicians and pundits remain "concerned" about the spiralling events in Egypt, it is Israel and its US allies who are really, truly splitting a gut.

It turns out that the "we're the only democracy in the Middle East" crowd are eminently satisfied with the dictatorships around them. It is the only way they look good by comparison. And the only way they can control Arab masses and regional narratives, both. As news broke yesterday that Jordan's king Abdullah was dissolvong his recently appointed government, you could practically see the realisation dawning on some of the region's most vociferous supporters of US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East.

Jordan has seen spurts of protests these past few weeks, primarily against prime minister Samir Rifai who, to be fair, didn't have much of a chance to prove his mettle, if indeed he had any. But alas, I think Abdullah's move to preempt Tunisia- and Egypt-style repercussions has just flipped the focus onto himself.

The king of Jordan may now be the first monarch hit by the popular regional discontent.

Which effectively means that with Lebanon's new "quiet" shift toward the opposition, Israel may soon be facing on all three borders its worst nightmare. Arab masses, fed up with repression, implementing democracy with the support of worldwide audiences…willing, able and experienced in righting injustices peacefully and responsibly.

And getting in line to help each other do it right.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China is well on its way to becoming a cashless society. More than 600 million Chinese already use Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to pay for much of what they purchase. Between them, the two companies control approximately 90% of China’s mobile payments market, which totaled some $17 trillion in 2019. A wide variety of sectors throughout China have since adopted Blockchain to pay bills, settle disputes in court and track shipments. The Chinese government understands that, via Blockchain, the issuance of its own cryptocurrency is an excellent way to track and record the movement of payments, goods and people."
Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is clear: the world cannot trust Xi’s dictatorship. The sooner we recognize this and act together, the sooner the Beijing bullies will have to behave better. The world will be safer and more prosperous for it."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."
Sep 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s footprint in global foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased notably since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. That served to bring Chinese overseas FDI closer to a level that one would expect, based on the country’s weight in the global economy. China accounted for about 12% of global cross-border mergers and acquisitions and 9% of announced greenfield FDI projects between 2013 and 2018. Chinese overseas FDI rose from $10 billion in 2005 (0.5% of Chinese GDP) to nearly $180 billion in 2017 (1.5% of GDP). Likewise, annual construction contracts awarded to Chinese companies increased from $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion in 2017."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Emergence and spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 have created and still creating health issues, economic challenges, political crises and social conflicts around the world. These challenges and conflicts lead the international community to re-evaluate global governance and international structures, which is based on the second world-war and post-cold war. The pandemic will emerge a new era of international society that will not be similar to the pre-Corona world."
Aug 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world."
Aug 26th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Double dips – defined simply as a decline in quarterly real GDP following a temporary rebound – have occurred in eight of the 11 recessions since the end of World War II. .............Financial markets aren’t the least bit worried about a relapse, owing largely to unprecedented monetary easing, which has evoked the time-honored maxim: “don’t fight the Fed.” Added comfort comes from equally unprecedented fiscal relief aimed at mitigating the pandemic-related shock to businesses and households.......This could be wishful thinking."