Aref Assaf, PhD
The political domino effect is being starkly demonstrated in the Arab world. The fact that the political uprising has seized one country after the next can be attributed to the fact that the reasons for the protests are comparable, as are the goals. The protest is aimed at the rulers and the elite, who have placed the politics and economics of their respective countries at their personal service.
For decades, these rulers have sat in the comfortable armchairs of power and lost sight of the people outside the palaces. They have completely overlooked their political responsibility, namely to ensure that development does not mean development for a few, but rather for many.
The oligarchs in the royal palaces of the Arab world have long lost touch with the realities of their countries and are not aware of the needs of their people. And these are, after all, strikingly simple: Can I pay for my bread? Can I find work? What are my personal prospects?
Tunis will presumably not become the Gdansk of the Arab world. It was the uprising of Polish shipbuilders in Gdansk in 1980 that gave birth to a democratic revolution that influenced an entire region. However, in contrast to the Soviet Union, which was centrally controlled from Moscow, the political centers of the Arab world do not have a common political leadership but are instead very heterogeneous.
Nevertheless, there are powers that elicit a sense of togetherness in Arab societies. These powers are now seeing to it that the anger and protest experiences are shared. First and foremost, there is the pan-Arab media. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are perhaps the most significant engines for the movement, carrying images and information from one place to the next.
Closing off the population from information may still function in Africa’s tyrannies and destitute nations, but this is no longer the case in Arab countries. Civil societies in the Arab world may – in the opinion of their own political apparatuses – have nothing to say in their own countries, but on the Internet and in blogs and forums, these voices carry weight.
Egypt with its government-controlled television is still trying to compete with the powerful Arab competition. But the state-run propaganda machine has long since lost its credibility. In many of the region’s countries, bloggers and journalists are under pressure because the regimes know that free voices can pose a threat to their grip on power.
The social reasons for the protests can be repaired here and there. But it is questionable whether the people will allow their courage and their will for change to be bought. The movement is as wide as never before. It isn’t only students, intellectuals, or Islamists sustaining the protests; it is the man on the street, the teacher, the lawyer, the bank employee who is putting up resistance. It is even – as was the case in Tunisia – the rural population, which is finding its voice after years of being forced to exist in silence on the political fringe.
This could cause problems for this year’s planned undemocratic elections. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has already been in power for over three decades, wants his term extended so that he can remain in office for life. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – considered a partner to the West – has had a grip on the presidential post for just as long. He already had the last parliamentary elections manipulated and now wants to run for president again. For his succession, he is already planning a family solution similar to the one adopted by the Assad family in Syria: Mubarak’s son, Gamal, is being reared to take over.
How are these protests in the Arab world going to end? Western media often foresee Islamists taking the helm in the region. But the breadth of the protest movement contradicts this hypothesis. Contrary to portrayals by Western media outlets and many local analysts of an Arab political opposition that is dominated by an Islamist discourse bent on violence and oppression, most of the protesters were remarkably peaceful and their demands non-sectarian.
The other element in this uprising is the Muslim Brotherhood. The consensus of most observers is that the Muslim Brotherhood at this point is no longer a radical movement and is too weak to influence the revolution. This may be possible, but it is not obvious. The Muslim Brotherhood has many strands, many of which have been quiet under Mubarak’s repression. It is not clear who will emerge if Mubarak falls. It is certainly not clear that they are weaker than the democratic demonstrators. It is a mistake to confuse the Muslim Brotherhood’s caution with weakness. Another way to look at them is that they have bided their time and toned down their real views, waiting for the kind of moment provided by Mubarak’s succession. I would suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood has more potential influence among the Egyptian masses than the Western-oriented demonstrators or Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is emerging as their leader.
The important thing to remember is that the Egyptian military, since the founding of the modern republic in 1952, has been the guarantor of regime stability. Over the past several decades, the military has allowed former military commanders to form civilian institutions to take the lead in matters of political governance but never has relinquished its rights to the state.
Now that the political structure of the state is crumbling, the army must directly shoulder the responsibility of security and contain the unrest on the streets. This will not be easy, especially given the historical animosity between the military and the police in Egypt. For now, the demonstrators view the military as an ally, and therefore (whether consciously or not) are facilitating a de facto military takeover of the state. But one misfire in the demonstrations and a bloodbath in the streets could quickly foil the military’s plans and give way to a scenario that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood quickly could exploit. Here again, we question the military’s tolerance for Mubarak as long as he is the source fueling the demonstrations.
It is civil society, which is currently being so courageous, that will win. There will be regime changes here and there. Elections will become fairer; parliaments could possibly develop a stronger role and the range of political parties widen. All these are significant steps to greater democracy.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Tunisia and Egypt can teach authoritarian rulers from Minsk to Harare, from Tripoli to Ashgabat, is that in a globalized world, societies can no longer be isolated and information can no longer be arbitrarily stopped or filtered. The more the world grows together, the more pressure there will be on regimes to be accountable for their policies and to allow change.
Egyptians fondly call their motherland, “the mother of the world.” This is true because Egypt is the center of gravity for 300 million Arabs. What happens in or to Egypt matters to the rest of us.
Aref Assaf, Ph.D., President, American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.