Sunday, February 06, 2011
Sunday Morning Soapbox-Rocking the Cradle
On December seventeenth, Mohamed Bouazizi attempted to sell vegetables from his cart in Sidi Bouzid. When he could not afford to bribe officials, he was beaten and his goods and equipment were confiscated. His attempt to take his case to the local governor was rebuffed and he was left in the street with no money, no goods, and no income to provide for his family. In protest of the abuse and apathy of his government, he lit himself on fire. Within a week, other protests had started. When state police fired on protesters, more dissent sprung up in other areas. Ten days after Mohamed Bouazizi's hospitalization, protesters were in the capitol. He lived until the fifth of January, nine days shy of President Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia (The European Union has since frozen his assets).
For 23 years Ali had been ruling Tunisia, taking land from citizens and redistributing it to his allies and family. He had used the media and police to silence dissent, amended the constitution to allow him to run for president twice, and won obviously fraudulent elections with 99.9% of the vote. While the interim government still contains many members of his party (his own Prime Minister now heads the government), it's not expected that those members will remain in the government after free elections (date still to be announced). The uprising was quick, long in coming, and partially organized over the internet. Some also speculate that leaked US State Department cables released by Wikileaks exposing the corruption of the Tunisian leadership may also have played a part, sadly reducing my personal ability to vilify Julian Assange at will.
As you know, the flight of Ben Ali signaled the start of a wave of revolutionary dissent in areas of the Middle East that have long suffered under a combination of economic hardship and political oppression.
After a rise in protests, the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, resolved that the state of emergency passed in 1992, which gives the executive strong powers to fight a still-ongoing Islamist insurgency, will be lifted "soon." He has started initiatives to give political opponents air time on state television and create more jobs. He has also allowed protests in all areas but the capitol.
Algiers' long fight against extremist Islam has won it kudos from the United States in the past.
With their own protests ongoing, King Abdullah has replaced his controversial Prime Minister with another controversial Prime Minister, Marouf Bakhit. Bakhit was Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007, and a strong Islamist presence decries his selection, citing a voting scandal during his previous term. Protests over the past several weeks have centered around lowering unemployment and more direct voting rights for the people, and have not been stemmed by either the new Prime Minister or million-dollar initiatives to reduce the price of goods.
Jordan has made peace with Israel, and shares most of Israel's Eastern border. It's an ally and frequent aid recipient of the United States.
Nouri Al-Malaki has announced he won't be running for a third term, and is even considering supporting the addition of term limits to the Iraqi constitution. He is considered an American ally, but relies on the political support of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He is also a pretty sketchy character plagued by accusations of corruption.
High unemployment. Rising food prices. Lack of political freedoms. Burgeoning Islamist insurgency. Southern separatist movement. Yemen truly has it all. It's no surprise that even pro-government protesters want improved economic conditions and more political transparency. The major difference between pro and anti government movements in Yemen is whether they want President Ali Saleh to step down now, or later. On February third, more than 20,000 protesters were seen in the capitol as part of a "Day of Rage." Saleh, who's been ruling since 1978, has instituted pay raises for government workers, assuaged fears that his son will succeed him, and instituting price controls, but protests against this American ally continue.
In Sudan, the removal of subsidies on some goods and the impending secession of the oil-rich south have caused economic concerns that prompted protests largely orchestrated by students over the internet. So far, the Sudanese government has proven capable of also using the internet; allegedly orchestrating protests so that they can move in to disperse the crows and arrest participants. Sudan's President, Omar Al-Bashir, has been in charge since 1989, and only allowed South Sudan to vote for their independence as part of a 2005 peace accord ending a civil war (which, incidentally, included the Darfur region).
Now, unrest in Serbia isn't unusual, but the unrest that happened on the fifth was a peaceful demonstration of 55,000 to 70,000 people calling for early elections over their perception of government inaction. An opposition party head was leading the protest, which makes the Serbian unrest seem like part of a calculated political move capitalizing on problems in Tunisia and Egypt. Sure, Serbia suffers from corruption and ineffective government, but the government coalition they're protesting against has been in power for three years and is due for election in another two. Compare the decades of autocratic rule in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, and even Algiers. If the Serbian Progressive Party is dissatisfied that they lost the last election, then it's too bad.
I really wouldn't even mention the Serbian protest if it wasn't for the fact that I feel as though that same kind of bullshit might be put forward in the United States, courtesy of your local tea party.
Not really related, Lebanon's 'crisis' is more outrage over the breakdown and reformation of the government. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is being replaced by Najib MikatiSaad Hariri's coalition was dissolved by the resignation of Hezbollah officials over his refusal to denounce and cut the funding of a United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It is believed the tribunal concluded that members of Hezbollah were responsible for the murder, though their indictment will not be revealed publicly unless charges are brought by the Lebanese government. Most of the protesters are Sunnis who object to the dissolution of Hariri's government and are alarmed at the growing influence of the Shia-aligned Hezbollah.
On January twenty-fifth, eleven days after Ben Ali left Tunisia, protesters in Egypt selected a police holiday as the time to stage protests against the government. Police brutality, freedom of speech, free elections, and a variety of other reasons were cited, but whatever the motivations, the protests were massive and grew steadily. It wasn't long before the protests spread, foreigners Zerg rushed the airports for a way out, internet and cell phone operations in Egypt were shut down by the government, and police were taken off of the streets and replaced with military forces. The Egyptian military forms a third side to this conflict; the government only serves at the behest of the military, but the military has largely been neutral with regards to the protest; providing basic security while protesters swarm around (and even on) armored personnel carriers and tanks. While pro-government protesters took to the streets on the second, resulting in conflict between the two groups, the military now largely acts as a buffer between pro- and anti- government supporters.
The unrest in Egypt has been notable for its relative civility. Don't get me wrong, shopping centers have been burned down, almost every city with protests has a low police presence and a high level of looting, even before the violent clash brought about by the presence of counter-protesters. The anti-government demonstrators have, however, done a remarkable organizational job. They've established their own security forces to screen entrants, verify identification, and check bags at entry points. They have distributed food and water to thousands of protesters (admittedly, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood [which is its own kettle of fish within the larger kettle of fish]) and even managed to detain and either evict or turn over to military forces present, their own troublemakers and suspected government agency infiltrators. It's impossible to know whether they're witch hunting for government troublemakers, but since Iran used their plain-clothed Basij militia to harass, incarcerate, and kill protesters during the election crisis in 2009, the presence of government-aligned personnel in their ranks is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.
The rest you've heard; Mubarak has been ruling a long time. For much of that time, he's used his country's quiet, brutal machinery to put down a determined Islamic insurgency. None the less, he's a skeezy dictator who is a friend of America because he supports peace with Israel, so his friends in the region fall in the demographic between his shadow and his own reflection. No one knows what Egypt is going to look like after he's gone (the protesters come from a variety of backgrounds, including both secular academia and political Islam), but it will probably not be very friendly towards Israel or very unfriendly for Islamic extremists.
Hopefully, the image of a relatively modern Egypt, one thirsty for true democracy and populated with students hungry for political expression will be the sort of promising, predominantly Islamic representative government we want in the Middle East. Egypt, with the Suez Canal, oil industry, tourism, and foreign aid, does well for itself economically. Unlike many of the countries here, the economy is not a major cause of unrest. With any luck, an economically viable Egyptian state will realize the devastating consequences of fundamentalist extremism and war with Israel. I know I'd like to see an image of Egypt which breaks down standard American stereotypes of brutal Middle Eastern regimes, backwards Islamic nations, and Bronze-age, oasis-in-the-desert imagery.
Syria's worth noting because it isn't have any problems. Again, brutal regime, plain clothes police, restricted internet access, etc., but aside from that, things are fine. Brutal enough to put down revolution, both democratic and Islamic. While Syria hates Israel (still claiming the Golan Heights that Israel took in the 1967 Six-Day War) and is even sanctioned by the United States under accusations of 'exporting terror,' it is run by an Awalite minority (a Shia sect) and even fought a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in 1982 (resulting in the deaths of thousands). In 2004, Syria finally pulled troops out of Lebanon which had been stationed there since the Six-Day War, though not without being implicated in the bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Their President, Bashar Assad, killed put down a Kurdish uprising in 2004, resulting in twenty-five deaths. Despite the sanctions, Syria is opening up to outside investors, even as other Western governments are thawing towards it. Syria is a brutal regime that's persisted for decades, but its people are well-fed, safe from the chaos of war and insurgency, and united in the hatred of a common enemy. It isn't beholden to the United States, and it's not afraid to pull its punches or keep its abuses quiet.
I hope all of this works out. It's kind of an obvious thing to say, but if you throw two-dozen roosters into a cock fight, you don't place a bet until some of the feathers have settled. Right now, there are a number of feathers still in the air in the Middle East. It looks like most of these 'revolutions' will come to nothing; some leaders will say some things, some laws will get shifted around, but whether or not the reigns of power are passed to a democratically elected governing body, a new dictator, or simply cut off while someone cuts the horses throat and drinks its blood, very little will be done to address the underlying conditions which cause the most active of these riots; limited economic opportunities, rising food prices, and increasing populations.
While Egypt, South Sudan, and Syria will probably come out of this okay, Tunisia, North Sudan, and Yemen have a surplus of angry, young men and a shortage of jobs, goods, and governmental ability to address that. There isn't a magical economic or social equality button that democracy will actuate to save the day. Pakistan has a democratic government and it still holds and enforces blasphemy laws. Iran is ostensibly a quasi-democratic government, but we saw how true even that modest claim was in 2009. Iraq is a democracy, one riddled with sectarian strife, corruption, and insurgency.
Even if we clear the hurdles of succeeding at democracy, that's not even to say these states will be positively inclined to the US or Israel. Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen all have close ties to the United States. Many blame that association with the troubles those countries are facing. I think that those accusations are true, in part. By allying themselves with us, but deciding not to initiate a shift to democracy, these states have tried to have their cake and eat it too. While they can't fully commit to oppressive central control because of their association with us, they'd suffer a massive power shift without our economic aid. When their judgement day comes, they'll forget the carrots, but remember the sticks. Syria, on the other hand, which has never had close ties, can fully commit to bastardly oppression and make do with what they have. They've also done a pretty good job of resisting the influence of Islamic extremism, one of the chief reasons we cite for why we put up with guys like Mubarak, al-Malaki, and Saleh.
The best kind of Middle Eastern government starts looking like an oppressive, secular, right-wing apparatus that fights off Islamic extremism as well as democratic opposition. One that simply claims no ties to the United States. The only problem with this that often the easiest scapegoat to unite the people of the region against is Israel. Even Egypt, which settled a peace agreement with Israel, has a scapegoat in Islamic extremism instead. If we can lick that problem, then maybe we can finally step out of the region and start ignoring it again.
It's as realistic as any other theories you're reading about right now.
Most of the information from his article was gathered from BBC news.
Map (mostly) courtesy of Google Maps
Original image of fuckingcamelguy courtesy of...some news agency. Still trying to remember where I got if from.