Interesting times

2011 has so far been a rife year for change — if anything that’s quite the understatement. So far this year two long-standing regimes have fallen in North Africa, and this seems to be fanning local flames of discontent over large parts of the middle east and northern Africa.

It’s enough to drive some people mad with fear about some kind of greater Islamic Caliphate. American entertainer (and nothing else) Glenn Beck has made it the cornerstone of his show, which has recently become a sort of festival of ranting paranoia that’s led many to question whether Beck is still sane at all — although his general message differs little from what’s coming from the American right wing (i.e. Fox News) generally. Fox News doesn’t care for brown people, that’s hardly news to anyone.

That’s one way to see things. It’s also the wrong way to see things. When you look at these uprisings more closely you find that in each country in which protests have occurred so far, the causes for the protests are pretty much purely local to the place in which they are happening, and that beyond the demands for change there is little in common between them. To claim otherwise is either foolish or dishonest.

This is not to say that each national protest occurs in a vacuum, of course. Tunisia, as the first country to revolt, has undeniably inspired protesters in the other locales by showing them the power behind non-violent resistance. When President Ben Ali resigned he had been in power for 24 years and had built a strongly repressive regime that for most of the protesters had existed for as long as they were alive. That this regime could be toppled with relatively little bloodshed has without a doubt bolstered the spirits of protesters across the region and made them realize that no matter how long a regime has been in charge of their country, it’s just not going to last forever. In fact as soon as Ben Ali’s resignation was announced I had a strong feeling that Egypt would be next to see protests.

Tunisia’s revolt came as a result of two factors: resentment against Ben Ali and his internal security forces, but especially changing government policies that caused the price of food to skyrocket in a very short timeframe. Additionally young Tunisians are a well-educated middle-class people, so long-term unemployment for many of them — it is said to have been running around 15% — was the spark by which the revolution started.

The situation was very different in Egypt, which did not see an economic downturn or sharp price reforms like Tunisia. Rather in this case the impetus was provided by simmering resentment over Hosni Mubarak’s (almost) 30-year rule of the country, particularly the complete lack of political reforms and the authorities’ reliance on brutal gangs of thugs to “maintain order” whenever there were political protests. I’m actually struck at how similar Mubarak’s Egypt was to the Iranian Mullahs regime in that respect — whether you call them “Egyptian secret security forces” or “basiji”, in both cases a brutal repressive regime used uneducated, unemployed people from the country in order to crack heads in the cities whenever the regime feels a threat. But Mubarak was not able to make much of a difference through his thugs, and it’s since transpired that he had initially ordered the army to have a Tiananmen-square style crackdown on Tahrir square and even wanted armoured batallions to just run over the protesters and retake the square by force. Fortunately the army point-blank refused to listen, and from that point on the dictator was finished.

This was just the beginning. Protests have broken out since in Bahrain against the Khalifa family, who control all aspects of political life in the tiny island nation; the biggest grievance there is that there is (apparently) widespread discrimination against the majority Shiite population by the Sunni Khalifas, as well as the (sadly usual) accusations of corruption. One especially salient point made by the protesters is that the police force of Bahrain is being supplemented with Sunni foreigners who are fast-tracked for Bahraini citizenship even if some of them do not even speak Arabic (the local language). The protests there, ongoing as we speak, materialized very quickly; they are not as big as in Egypt, but then Bahrain is a lot smaller and less populated. As an additional factor the protesters are vowing to cause disruptions during the Grand Prix of Bahrain, a Formula One race scheduled to take place in Sakhir on March 14th. Americans will also be particularly interested in the situation there as Bahrain is the home of the US Fifth Fleet.

Protests have also flared up in Iran, in a sort of “round 2” to the green protests which took place last year. There is also some unrest occurring in Algeria, Lybia, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen. In each case the protests have a distinctly nationalist nature and belie the very idea of some sort of pan-muslim uprising.

Personally it’s always been my position that repressive regimes tend to foster and stoke the flames of extremism. It’s not surprising that the bulk of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 operation generally came from places where dissent is not tolerated and political freedoms are few (ya, Saudi Arabia, I am looking at you). In that sense I can’t help but see the toppling of dictatorial regimes by democratic forces to be a fundamentally good thing and conducive to long-term stability in the region.

In that the US find themselves squarely on the wrong side of history by their long-standing habit of backing dictators who could either a)give them what they want in terms of oil and soil to build military bases on, or b)be a hired friend of Israel. Those two factors are still the cornerstone of American policy in the region, so America is clearly on the back foot and really can’t get involved much. Obama pretty much took the best line he could in Egypt, everything considered, but the point has been driven home that these uprisings are not about America or (at least so far) Israel, they are the shouts of peoples who have had enough from local despots.

Interestingly enough these local despots seem so far to have quite a bit in common. The fallen ones are both older (75 for Ben Ali and 80 for Mubarak), largely secular autocrats who have been in power for decades and seem to share a taste for black hair dye. Even in the countries which are currently experiencing protests the trend seems to be largely borne out, with exceptions of course — Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is still a youngster at 45, but Khalifa (Bahrain) is 60, Gadaffi is 68 and in power for 41 years, Saleh of Yemen is 64 and Bouteflika (Algeria) is 73.

What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.

If you’re as interested in these things as I am, I recommend watching Al-Jazeera, either through their web site (http://english.aljazeera.net) or via the Livestation desktop application (http://livestation.com). AJ is the authoritative television station in the area and their coverage blows away all competition.

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