The Political Significance of Arab Turmoil

Marzouq Al-Nusf, Sanhati

For more than a month now, the Arab world has been witnessing events unprecedented in its modern history. The self-immolation of a Tunisian college graduate on the 17th of December, 2010, has sparked a chain of events that resulted in the effective ousting of a dictator and the threatening of numerous others. After the departure of Tunisian president Zain Al Abideen Bin Ali this month, the 30 years old reign of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak is facing a serious challenge from its own rebelling people. Protests continue in many of the 22 Arab nations, either in solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions, or in hopes of instigating their own corresponding rebellions against their authoritarian regimes.

One reason for viewing the Arab rebellions as significant is that they are unprecedented in the modern history of the region. Specifically, it is the civilian character of the rebellions that is key. Traditionally, transitions in political regimes in the Arab world have been carried out either by foreign powers, as in the 19th century and earlier, or by military coups, which was the trend in the 20th century. Indeed, the fact that the Tunisian army, and more recently the Egyptian one, has elected to abstain from actively shaping the course of events reinforces the crucial break with previous historical trends of military interventions in domestic politics.

More generally, the robustness and effectiveness of the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt have surprised even the keenest political observers, many of whom were more inclined to look for turmoil emerging from Europe in response to the global economic crisis. The Tunisian situation is a case in point. The country was perceived as so stable and uninteresting that the media, including the Arab speaking, could not excavate any worthy archival interviews with the Tunisian dictator to use in commenting on his character and inclinations. As for Egypt, the fact that there is a rebellion of any sort is seen as an anomaly in a national culture sometimes characterized, in a rather simplistic and prejudiced fashion, as submissive to the ruling figure from as old a time as when pharaohs ruled the land.

So far, the trajectory seems to point towards an increase in the spread and effect of rebellions in the region. The wave of civil unrest has spread from the relatively small Tunisia, with a population of around 10 million, to Egypt and its population of over 80 million. The rebellion against dictatorship has now taken root in the most populated, and arguably the most important, Arab nation. Hence, the remarkable significance of events in the Arab world has not yet exhausted itself, and may well continue to surprise the world.

It remains to be seen who will ultimately gain state power in the troubled Arab regimes, nonetheless it is possible to draw some implications of the very fact that regimes are being toppled by popular uprisings. Specifically, the fact that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes have long been favored and supported by western powers means that the regimes’ uprooting will have ramifications on an international scale. France, as the primary guardian of the Tunisian dictatorship, has not only suffered strategic defeat with the dismantling of one of its strongholds in North Africa, but it had to endure public shame for its reluctance to give up its support to the Tunisian president, even when it was clear that his chances of survival were dismal. Right now, the United States seems to be hoping to avoid the French’s bluntness in suppressing Arab populations by carefully measuring its responses to the Egyptian situation.

A mapping of the Arab world’s alliances in pro and anti US hegemony terms is helpful. It is rather simple. The anti US policy regimes are 3: the Syrian regime, itself a dictatorship; the Hamas government in Gaza, which is an offspring of the islamist Muslim Brotherhood that was democratically elected to power; and potentially the new Lebanese government, where the former pro-US prime minister was voted out of office last month and replaced by a new one named by Hezbollah. As for the pro-US regimes, they are the other 20 governments in the region, including the Palestinian Authority. The camp’s members range from near-absolute monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula to secular dictatorships, such as the one in Algeria. Sudan and Libya are not considered in the anti US camp because they are not in fundamental contradiction with imperialist policy; rather their disputes with US hegemony can be resolved with minimal adjustments in policy.

From the US’s perspective, the alliances in the region thus far seem unproblematic, unless significant shuffling of regimes occurs. If democratic order is established in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is possible that the resulting governments will not align themselves with imperialist demands, if not oppose them diametrically. Aside from mere counting of numbers of allies, regime changes in the Arab world by people’s power could directly affect the US’s two main interests in the region, oil and Israel, particularly the latter. At this moment, two countries that border historical Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, are experiencing regime shifts that are likely to lead to less compromising policy on the part of the Arabs. The rebellion in Egypt, if it brings a form of democracy, and the new democratically formed government in Lebanon might not instigate war in the region immediately. Nonetheless, if Israel decides to engage in warfare against Hams in Gaza or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, then it is more likely for these new regimes to more actively participate in the resistance efforts against Israel, as opposed to the previously observed complacency with Israeli and US dictates.

As for the perspective of rebelling Arabs on the streets, it is probably safe to assume that they do not have US hegemony as their primary focal point, but that does not mean that they look favourably upon it. The US, as the chief foreign player in the region, has itself to blame if its name is implicated further as the enemy. The US’s support for notoriously corrupt and ruthless regimes has left little doubt in the minds of suppressed Arabs about the gap between US flowery rhetoric and grim action. If its unconditional support for Israel is added to the picture, then the US is virtually making it impossible for any genuinely democratic Arab government, if one emerges, not to oppose its policy.

As a matter of fact, there have been precedents of western powers planting through their own policy the seeds of antagonism in the region. Perhaps the most famous example is that of president Nasser of Egypt, who emerged as the leader of the first major Arab military-lead revolution in 1952. Although Nasser proclaimed progressive programs early on, he had no particular preferences when it came to choosing between the socialist and capitalist camps. He was not opposed to securing ties of cooperation with the west because of its historical interest in the region. However, in 1956 when Britain and the US drew their funding from his flagship development project, the High Dam in Aswan, Nasser nationalized the Suez canal and looked to fortify his anti imperialist stance through strengthening relations with the USSR and leading non-aligned nations, including India and Yugoslavia at the time.

What the rebellions in the Arab world have brought forth is the possibility of resurrecting a solid anti-imperialist block in the Middle East. At the moment, two nations that border the Arab world, Turkey and Iran, are at odds with US and Israeli policy in the region. If progressive forces are to gain power in key Arab states such as Egypt, then the US-Israeli agenda of war and domination could face a serious obstacle. On an interregional scale, the leftist and anti-imperialist governments in Latin America may finally have allies in the new emerging block of Middle Eastern states defiant of US hegemony.

All that being said, there remain a number of open questions, the answer to which will significantly influence the course of analysis. Will the interim government in Tunisia complete its promised transition to democracy? Will the Egyptian rebellion succeed in brining about democracy? Will the uprisings continue to spread in the Arab world? And perhaps more importantly, what are the prospects of a genuinely emancipatory political force gaining power in the newly emerging regimes? These matters deserve a more thorough analysis. One thing is certain, however, and that is that the future of dictatorships in the Arab world has never looked bleaker.

(The author is a graduate student at the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.)

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