Friday, 28 January 2011


The specter of widening Middle East sociopolitical unrest is now real enough to cause concern in US and EU that have historically backed tyrannical Arab regimes that the people in the streets are now fighting. Social unrest has spread from Tunisia to Algeria - a country that one Arab journalist compared with Colombia in terms of systemic corruption and illegitimate economic activity; to Jordan, Lebanon, and the latest and most intense social unrest in Egypt and Yemen, the last two the poorest among the rebelling nations.

All of them characterized by widespread institutional corruption under repressive authoritarian regimes serving the interests of small interest groups in their respective countries, the question is how long before social unrest strikes at the heart of the Middle East, at Saudi Arabia and then, the entire house of cards will come crumbling down and with it the oil-based economy. Stability will eventually be restored if such a scenario were to unfold, but not before a great deal of global financial, economic, and political instability that could bring more insurrections.

It is difficult to place the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon into a unified theoretical mold; just as it was to place the Iranian Revolution while it was taking place. These uprisings are not necessarily about creating a socialist society - none that is evident at this juncture while social unrest is unfolding. They are not liberal-bourgeois trying to create 'Western-style democracies', because there is no broad popular ideological and political support in that direction, no matter what the US and EU want for the day after. They are not proletarian like the Bolshevik Revolution, or peasant revolutions like those under Mao or Ho Chi Minh, because the social structure and traditions of these countries is strikingly different than early 20th century Russia or China
The uprisings are not military-social revolts like that of Nasser who was a curious mix of a non-aligned nationalist reformer fighting the vestiges of British colonialism in Egypt. They are not religious like that of the Iran's ayatollah Khomeini; they are not ethnic separatist like those of Kurdish rebels in Turkey, Iraq and Iran; they are not nationalist anti-imperialist like those that the Middle East experienced in the interwar and postwar era; nor are they inspired or supported from external sources as was the case of Communist regimes assisting revolutionary movements; they are not 'Robin Hood' revolts like those of Villa and Zapata; and they are not backed by Osama Bin Laden & Al Qaeda, despite the links with Yemen and other Middle East countries - their only goal after 10 years seems optimal public exposure for the sake of satisfying some spiritually cathartic purpose.

If they are none of the above, in what unified theoretical mold do Middle East social uprising fit? How can we make sense of them realistically without becoming lost in political science theoretical jargon that works faster than surgical anesthetic for the brain? The current Middle East social uprisings have certain common characteristics: they are carried out by Muslims from the right, center, and left political spectrum; they are multi-class struggles involving Islamists and secularists against political, military and socioeconomic elites that use repression as a permanent governing tool; they lack a coherent ideology as a mass movement but agree on the common goal of fighting against political tyranny and social injustice; they use the modern means of communications, including web and cell phones, but they are not dependent on such means as Yemen proves - the poorest country in the entire region.

As grass roots movements, they contain elements of the above and they include a popular base mostly from the lower middle class and working class, and in many cases women - to have women confronting male soldiers and policemen in the streets adds another dimension to the social dynamics of these uprisings. The common goal of the masses in the streets in all the Middle East countries is to dethrone authoritarian regimes and their institutions that enrich a few families in the respective countries and foreign corporate interests. Because these Middle East authoritarian governments are inexorably linked to the US and EU politically, militarily, and economically, the people in the streets are rebelling against the 'foreign neo-colonial masters' of the region as well.

But why now, why social upheaval in the Middle East in 2011? Is it economic recession, endemic political corruption, or a myriad of social causes, all elements that were present last year, last decade, etc. Is it internal dynamics alone, America's 'war on (Islamic) terrorism', and other external forces (contagion) play a role in the spreading of the uprisings? Although the Middle East experienced over twenty multiparty parliamentary elections between 1985 and 1996, twice what it experienced since 1960, the vast majority of the population did not see such elections as expressions of democracy in the manner that the majority of the people in Western countries are convinced that democracy is in essence the ballot box and the freedom to speak (within the constraints of implied self-censorship) and of course to shop, yes to shop with guaranteed customer satisfaction or your money back - thank God for shopping to keep people 'happy'!

Observance of human rights, regular elections of top and local leadership, freedom of the press are some of the main criteria the West uses to judge if a country is 'democratic'; owing to Liberal ideological assumptions, deliberately ignoring any mention of social and economic justice.
The weak state structure under strong authoritarian rulers resting on the armed forces and police is one of the things that almost all of the Middle Eastern countries experiencing social unrest have in common. The realization on the part of activists involved in social unrest that may turn into revolts is that their countries have a potential to realize optimal economic and social development. However, they know that such progress is obstructed by a small clique around authoritarian regimes supported by external forces - by Syria, Iran and the West in Lebanon; by US and France in Tunisia; by Saudi Arabia and US in Yemen; by US and EU in Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria.  

Social unrest, uprisings, revolts and revolutions have their own internal dynamics and can only fit into theoretical models long after they have taken place and a new government is in place - and even then the theoretical model never accurately represents the empirical experiences that defy theories. With that caveat, it is safe to predict that no Middle East country is likely to wind up with a leftist regime. In the early 21st century, Marxist ideology rooted in revolutionary action is deemed anachronistic. This is owing to the collapse of Communist regimes and the reality that existing Communist regimes, especially China are thoroughly immersed in the market economy. Moreover, largely because of Islam's prominent influence, Marxism in any form as ideology or movement has historically had only a marginal role in the Middle East.

A social uprising that may evolve into a genuine widespread popular revolution can start out centrist and move to the left, or start out left and move to the right, or it may be the case, as in Iran that a charismatic nationalist-Islamist leader may emerge out of coalition from disparate groups to unite them and seize power. The only question for the US and EU is the evolution of social unrest, whether it will result in a pro-West regime or into another Iranian nationalist nightmare as far as American and European governments are concerned. The most likely scenario in the Middle East and the one that the West fears is indeed the 'nationalist' style regime whether it is on the Iranian model or the Nasser model. The people in the streets recognize the potential for a better society, and they can easily be led by someone who promises a strong nation - for nationalism is the greatest strength that has helped revolutionaries throughout history into power and/or toward power consolidation. Nationalism remains the drug of choice for the masses, for it transcends ideology, religion, ethnicity, race, and social class.

The State Department is taking no chances with the possibility of Arab nationalism arising from the current widespread social unrest that could spread even wider, or it could just end within days and make a return at a later time. 'Twitting', 'Facebook', 'U-tubing' diplomacy is intended to reach people that use such means throughout the world. US is trying to make sure that it establishes good relations with friendly pro-West successors to the old and utterly corrupt pro-West authoritarian rulers. In Egypt Mohamed El Baradei, former International Atomic Energy Agency, cannot wait for Hosni Mubarak's corpse to get cold - and after three decades in power Mubarak may survive until next fall, or he may go into freeze mode if the various opposition groups currently divided converge to send him on a mission to find Tunisia's former president. Other than offering status and legitimacy, does El Baradei represent anything different institutionally than Mubarak, domestically or internationally, even now that he is with the Muslim Brotherhood? Is this real change for Egypt? Today, next week, sooner or later, the fate of the Arab Middle East rests with nationalist regimes that may not be as accommodating to the West as the current authoritarian ones.  

No comments: