Monday, 21 February 2011


The situation across North Africa and the Middle East is becoming increasingly volatile with the spread of social unrest infecting the entire region that has a number of Asian countries, including China, concerned about the future of their regimes. Chinese President Hu Jintao recently warned central government and provincial officials about impending social unrest, inspired by the uprisings in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Not only does China have vital economic interests in the Middle East and Africa, but Chinese opposition groups are using the same methods as many Arabs to mobilize popular support.

The Chinese foreign ministry attributes the causes of the uprisings from Morocco to Iran and Yemen to anachronistic social and economic structures, and more specifically to very sluggish economic growth and lack of any social development. In other words, the causes are not political but mostly economic. But if these are the sole causes of the Islamic uprisings, why is there social unrest in China, why does president Hu expect even more unrest, and why does the regime believe it must be cut at the root before it grows?

Preventing unrest according to the Chinese entails providing rapid economic and social development. But if the solution for the regime's steady popular support is rapid economic and social modernization as the Chinese argue, how can we explain persistent political opposition in China that has enjoyed rapid economic growth and modernization min the last decade and it is expected to continue in the next several decades?

In Beijing and Shangai especially political activists have been urging Jasmine revolution mobilization on the part of regime opponents. Naturally, Chinese police immediately took action to quell the nascent threat of revolt. One reason that China placed partial restrictions on internet use is because of concern that social mobilization these days can be carried out electronically, instead of the old fashioned way through villages by party cadres as Mao's followers did it.

While China faces protests and demonstrations about a number of issues and it has varied responses to them, it does not tolerate direct challenges to the regime, and the punishment is swift. The Communist leadership is well aware that despite phenomenal economic growth and modernization, many people want a more representative regime. For its part, the regime hopes to save itself by giving people a growing economy and social reforms within the context of the one-party state.

If steady economic growth and modernization is the solution, then all nations facing such fortune would benefit politically. However, that is not the case. How can we explain that in the local elections of Hamburg, Germany, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party was crushed by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD)? Why did only 21.9% of the voters in Hamburg support Merkel, given that Germany has Europe's strongest economies, and one of the strongest and most modern in the world? Germans are not in the streets like Arabs across North Africa and the Middle East, but they are showing their leader the exit because the national economy is strong but the social structure is suffering.

Even more difficult to grasp for many around the world, why are Libya and Iran facing popular uprisings, given that both have rich oil revenues, thus enjoying strong national economies, both regimes project themselves as revolutionary, both have a history of independent if not anti-West policies. Have these 'revolutionary regimes' become status quo to the degree that a new wave of rebels deems them reactionary, not much different than regimes of the rest of the Islamic world?

Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi has a history of presenting himself as a 'rebel' who pursued 'progressive' domestic policies in comparison with the rest of the Arab states and radical foreign policies until a few years ago. Of course, Libya is well integrated with the western capitalist economy and its aging leader appears to have much in common with the rest of the authoritarian Arab leaders currently challenged by their disgruntled citizens. Libya is rich in oil reserves, it has billions invested in EU, and it does not have have the endemic poverty of Egypt, Yemen, or Tunisia.

Popular demonstrations in Tripoli and Benghazi are an expression of resentment for a four-decade long authoritarian rule that although progressive in comparison to the rest of the Arab world, static in terms of what many young people demand today of a democratic government. Like Mubarak, Gaddafi has threatened that the situation will evolve into a civil war, after reports of many protesters dead and wounded. Gaddafi is promising political, economic and social reforms, and he has already made some concessions. But there is no doubt that most protesters want regime change and that is why the protests persist, just as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt until their leaders left the country. Reports that on 21 February 2011 he fled the country will only embolden the political opposition.

From Morocco to Yemen and north to Bahrain and Iran, anti-government protesters demand political reforms just as they seek economic and social reforms, regardless of how the national economy and economic institutions are performing. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is right on target calling for genuine broad-based dialogue on social and political reforms. The time for dialogue, however, may have passed and the only way to settle social unrest is either for the authoritarian governments to prevail using tanks in the streets, or for the protesters through popular pressure to bring about regime change. The Middle East-North African revolts where the youth and women are heavily represented may be paving the way for other parts of the rest of the world to undertake meaningful social and political reforms as the UN secretary-general advocates, or lose power.

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