Jan 2011

Revolution in North Africa

First Tunisia. Then Egypt. Where next?

Tonight the Egyptian regime is teetering on the edge of collapse. A lot of commentators are suggesting that the fall of Hosni Mubarak is inevitable, though I’d be wary of underestimating the man’s tenacity. The domino-effect is somewhat overrated and to simply assume that the pattern we saw in Tunisia will automatically repeat itself in Egypt is to be guilty of questionable generalisation. Certainly opposition movements across the Middle East have been inspired by the Jasmine Revolution, but the complex and unique internal dynamics of each nation cannot be ignored. These aren’t all “the same place” though they may face many of the same problems.

A police van burns on 6th October Bridge

My family lived in Cairo for a couple of years during my mid-teens so I know the city fairly well. Or rather, I knew 80s Cairo fairly well. Much has changed in the intervening years, though the images being broadcast today were of roads, bridges and buildings with which I am very familiar. Watching an honest-to-goodness revolution unfold on streets I once thought of as “home” has been a peculiar experience to say the least. It’s made me think about where else such events might happen.

One thing that hasn’t changed about Egypt since my time there in the mid-80s is the guy in charge. Hosni Mubarak, 25 years older and with saggier jowls, is still running the country. Which is what you’d expect in a “democracy” where the president tends to stand unopposed in elections. And as today’s events demonstrate, that isn’t because he’s universally loved. Mubarak is shrewd as hell and has a much larger and better equipped security apparatus than ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. It still wouldn’t surprise me to see him emerge from this chaos with a firm grip on the reins of power in Egypt. Though I suspect his dream of installing his son as successor is now over.

That said, I’m not suggesting things are looking good for Hosni Mubarak. There are rumours that he has already fled the country but while the odds are certainly stacked against him, they aren’t quite as heavily stacked as they were for the guy twelve hundred miles to his west.

The Devil You Know

Here’s where I get controversial. And please do me the favour of accepting my words at face value rather than trying to read some kind of veiled pro-Mubarak sentiment into them, or suggesting I’m putting forward a pro-western neoliberal neocolonial agenda. Those who know me will understand that’s not where my concerns are coming from. Those who don’t will just have to take that on faith.

Firstly let me state, unequivocally, that the Egyptian regime is corrupt, despotic and guilty of more human rights abuses than any of us will ever know. If the world was a truly just place, Hosni Mubarak would face trial for (and be convicted of) crimes against humanity. The people of Egypt deserve much better. And I fully support their attempts to achieve it.

However, the unintended consequences of those attempts could have ramifications far beyond the borders of Egypt. As I listened to reports of today’s protests on Al Jazeera, something was said… just once and not repeated… that made me feel a little uneasy. “Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in the past 24 hours” said the reporter. I have no idea whether the Muslim Brotherhood is playing any part in the current situation. In reality, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with it, Hosni Mubarak’s “round up the usual suspects” approach will have made them targets. What I do know is that some members of the Egyptian opposition have called upon the Brotherhood to form militia units to maintain order in the absence of the police. Mubarak’s efficient suppression of opposition groups will ensure a power vacuum if he is ousted in the next few days, and it seems very possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will be best-placed to take advantage of that vacuum.

Now, before you accuse me of anti-Muslim sentiment let me point out that my problem is with hardliners of any religion having too much political influence. Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish State gives me the creeps. The subordination of Iranian politics to the clerics appals me. And they both pale into insignificance compared with how appalled I am by the thought of the Christian Right gaining any more power in the United States than they already possess. The grip that Catholicism had on my country, Ireland, was nightmarish and I don’t wish to see a similar fate visited upon any other nation.

I do not see The Islamic Republic of Egypt to be a better option than what the Egyptians had last week. And there’s a real danger that could emerge from this situation. Neither are desirable of course, but the former — and this is the crucial point — seriously increases the possibility of another Arab-Israeli conflict. And that would be a disaster for the entire region, if not the world.

The Fall of The House of Saud

Meanwhile, during my time spent online today, I’ve encountered numerous tweets and blog posts and facebook comments excitedly anticipating the spread of this revolutionary fervor to Saudi Arabia… a regime far more brutal and oppressive than Egypt. I’ve also spent time there, and if ever there was a nation in need of regime change it’s Saudi Arabia.

However, while the dangers of the relatively secular Egyptian society falling under the spell of theocrats are real but not massive; the fall of the Saudi Royal Family would almost certainly result in the rise of a hardline Islamist government. See, people have this idea of Saudi Arabia being run by Islamists, but in fact the reality is more complex. Yes, it’s a society run along fundamentalist islamic principles, but the people right at the very top are cynical realists rather than True Believers. They pander to the religious tendencies within their culture, but they work hard to keep things on an even keel with regards to foreign policy. Purely for their own purposes, you understand, but it nonetheless maintains a certain level of peace in the region.

I want you to consider two crucial facts about Saudi Arabia… One: They are by far the largest oil exporter on the planet. Two: By percentage of GDP, they have the largest defence budget of any major country on the planet (and in real terms are the 8th biggest spender on weapons… spending almost 3 times more per annum than Israel on guns, bombs and planes).

I suspect that a Saudi revolution could lead to a radical Islamist government, and I suspect that in turn could lead to war with Israel. Nobody is more convinced than me that the world needs to wean itself off its addiction to oil. And I’m also convinced that Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people needs to change. I’m just not sure that a Saudi-Israeli war is the optimum way of achieving those ends.

In summary

I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that these are “predictions”. They are very much worst-case scenarios and I will be overjoyed if a wave of revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa leaving stable secular governments in their wake. Republics that fully maintain their Islamic cultural heritage while remaining pluralist, tolerant and non-confrontational. That would be my ideal and if Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution turns out to be the spark that set off such a beautiful flame, then it will be long remembered as one of the most positive developments in the history of a region for too long dominated by ruthless despots, unaccountable royal families and corrupt bureaucracies.

But history teaches us that revolutions rarely end up at the glorious destination envisioned by those who participate in them. Let us all hope that this time round, history won’t repeat itself.

UPDATE: As if on cue, a spokesman for the hardline Iranian government has come out in support of the uprisings in the secular Arab states and expresses his “optimism” about the situation in Egypt.

UPDATE 30-01-2011: Meanwhile Tunisia’s Islamist leader returns home after 22 years in exile.

Posted in: Opinion