Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mideast Political Mess

A month after Riyadh launched its counterrevolution, a moderate bloc continues slowly to emerge, offering new regional flexibility, even as the counterrevolution strengthens and slowly radicalizes the region, risking sectarian violence and Saudi-Iranian war.

The determination of the old regimes to view politics as a zero-sum game in which the only acceptable outcome is the complete submission and exploitation of the people to maintain their privileges combined with the willingness of outsiders—both elsewhere in the region and in the rest of the world--to continue cutting deals with any criminal gang that happens to gain state power mean that the likelihood of moderate reform succeeding is declining with every passing day. The people of the Arab world are being forced into a corner from which they will have, most unfortunately, to fight to the death. When this happens, we should all be very clear that the fault will lie with the rapacious elite and its foreign supporters.

Conservatives in the U.S., Israel, and throughout the Arab world are not just betraying their own fellow-citizens, however, but are also betraying the interests of the elite more broadly. Their selfishness, their short-sightedness in defining politics as a zero-sum game will be self-fulfilling. Some will win, for the moment, but over the long term, the self-defeating approach of today’s rulers will poison the well for everyone – commoners and elite alike. In payment for supporting today’s rulers, many current members of the Arab elite will die on the streets or in jail unless they stop enraging and energizing the Arab masses by arresting doctors, abusing women, and murdering people for opening their mouths.

If Arab dictators are endangering themselves strategically because of their zero-sum attitude, they are also hurting themselves tactically--effectively throwing stones at hornets betting that the hornets will simply run away and hide--by shooting a few demonstrators here and there. More, they repeatedly offer paper reforms that do not seem to be fooling anyone in the suddenly sophisticated Mideast. The result of these two tactics, in country after country, is increasing isolation of the leaders plus a magnificent, if horrifyingly dangerous, mass training program in democratic and revolutionary activism. If, a year or so from now, Arab activists conclude that peaceful reform is impossible, they will by then be well educated in how to launch a violent revolution.

Election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution will occur on July 24. The justice minister is trying to bring the former dictator, being protected by Saudi Arabia, to trial, Riyadh’s stance provoking Tunisian feeling against it. Several dozen members of Ben Ali’s family have already been arrested, while the ex-leader himself is officially being accused of “murder, conspiracy against the security of the state as well as trafficking and the use of drugs.”

Bouteflika campaigned on TV April 15, offering a “personal” guarantee of a new reform program, only days after police once again used violence against demonstrators. Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is being blamed for several recent ambushes of security forces. Politics remains on ice, with the real threat to the dictator reportedly coming from Gen. Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediene, head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DRS).

Jordan has received a warning that the dictators of the whole Arab world will no doubt refuse to heed, in the form of a violent attack on police. The patience of the Arab democracy protesters in the face of criminal regime repression over the last three months has been nearly beyond belief. It cannot last: either people will start to defend themselves or extremists will provoke violence to exploit the resulting chaos. For insightful views of Jordan, see Black Iris.

Riyadh’s effort to find a negotiated settlement to the Yemeni political conflict has failed. Democracy advocates in Yemen should probably consider themselves lucky to have evaded a Saudi trap by rejecting a deal that would have allowed the fox to continue guarding the hen house just a little bit longer, while the ruling Yemeni elite appears to have missed a chance to pull victory out of defeat due to their unwillingness to sacrifice Saleh. Meanwhile, Saleh has unwittingly given the protesters a victory by irritating and thus empowering Yemeni women, whose sudden political activism seems likely to make Yemen much more resistant to repression. For a strong taste of the flavor of the New Yemeni Woman, see the Woman From Yemen blog. Another courageous Yemeni woman, Afrah Nasser, had already put the issue succinctly two weeks before Saleh’s verbal attack on his country’s women:

Traditionally in Yemen, women are – literally – not allowed to raise their voices. In peaceful circumstances, even calling out in the street to attract someone’s attention is considered unacceptable behaviour. But now, in the protests, it is very much welcomed and there is an amazing response when we raise our voices.

Everybody acknowledges that yes, we do have a voice, and the role of women in this uprising is increasing day by day as we enter a new time of freedom for everyone.

Another (Yemeni-American) woman’s experience spelled out the change:
I was suddenly surrounded. The march is massive and growing by the minute. I turn around to find two men making way for me. I began to rotate, observing my surroundings. I realize the men in the rally have created a human barrier circling around me. Their hands locked, so at to protect me from the suffocating mass. Amid the tens of thousands of Yemeni men, I’ve never felt so empowered. This march was in reaction to President Saleh’s statements against gender integration at Tagheer “Change” square; yet another statement towards the degradation of women in Yemen.  This time, the people had enough. These throngs of men were here in uproar, condemning his misogynistic utterances.

Congratulations, Yemeni men: you are learning the meaning of democracy! Not “me first” but cooperation. When you finish with your revolution, please come to the U.S. and teach us…

Benjamin Wiacek gives a dramatic portrayal of the patience with which Yemeni protesters are enduring regime violence.


Egypt’s newly empowered Al Ahram daily describes the virtual state of war by Assad against the Syria people, with his reform announcements serving as window-dressing for military siege of cities and regime-sponsored gangs attacking citizens.

The pace of change in Egypt is impressive. Mubarak, once again demonstrating his political genius and oneness with the people, emerged from seclusion to talk his way into jail, where he found a host of old friends. Not to pick on an old man, his stalwart sons soon joined him, and now his wife—perhaps a corrupt individual in her own right--has become a object of judicial interest. So the revolutionary net has now gathered not just the dictator, but also his family and his cabinet. More, all the provincial governors have been replaced. The revolution seems to be gaining momentum, and yet, as Amnesty International stresses, the critically important purge of criminals from the ranks of security personnel has yet to occur.

It would be ironic if tiny Bahrain ended up provoking the most fundamental change in the Mideast, but its radicalizing effect should not be overlooked. The Bahraini decision to submit to Saudi counterrevolution, which has now reached the point of overt religious war against the Bahraini people--is ominously tightening regional alliances. The new wave of Pakistani mercenaries, manpower for the counterrevolution, is sure to provoke more Iranian reaction than just the current official protest. The idea of a Saudi threat to Iran may by itself be little more than propaganda, but one could well imagine national security decision-makers in Tehran becoming genuinely concerned about the potential danger of an activist, militant alliance between rich Saudi Arabia and populous, nuclear Pakistan. A proud veteran of the long war against Saddam could be excused for seeing an emerging Sunni military encirclement inside the larger U.S./Israeli military encirclement.

As Pakistan recruits mercenaries to oppress Bahrainis, Iran protests. In contrast to Riyadh, which seems to be backing itself into a counterrevolutionary cul-de-sac, Tehran has multiplying options: not just to resist Saudi military moves but alternatively to take the high road as defender of peaceful democratization by continuing to improve ties with an Egypt that, albeit uncomfortably moderate, has the virtue of a relatively independent stance. Whether Tehran would prefer that to clearcut leadership of the rejectionist bloc remains to be seen. As Riyadh foments both counterrevolution and sectarianism, it also remains to be seen if Tehran will in the end even have a choice.

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