Power is not given up voluntarily, at least not by those who have usurped it by force in the first place. The Muslim East (Middle East) is witnessing unprecedented uprisings by peoples that were hitherto considered too apathetic to move. There was a sense of resignation until, that is, the uprising in Tunisia sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who could not take the public insults of a female police officer any longer, changed everything. His act set the entire Muslim East ablaze; the flames are still raging. How many dictators will ultimately be consumed is still uncertain but a clearer understanding of the reality is crucial.
Long entrenched dictators can be dislodged from power; that is often the easy part. It is not the dictators but the system that maintains them in power that must be better understood. Dictators do not rule in a vacuum; they represent the tip of the iceberg. The ingredients that make up this iceberg are the military, the police, the bureaucracy, the political parties (the ones permitted to operate), judges, courts and a vast network of patronage in which businessmen and politicians develop close relations to help sustain the system and the dictator in power. Since everyone’s personal interests are tied to the system, it is not so easy to dismantle. In fact, the system would often sacrifice the individual in order to dissipate public anger and help stabilize and situation. Tunisia falls into this category.
Let us consider specific examples. Both in Tunisia and Egypt, two long-serving dictators — Zine el-Abidine and Hosni Mubarak — were driven from office within a short period. Yet it would be wrong to assume that the systems that sustained them have also gone. In both countries, vested interests are fighting back to subvert gains made by the people. The military appears to be the first but not the only line of defence. There is another, more invidious factor at work: withdrawal of capital from society, leaving protesters and the disadvantaged even more vulnerable. This is evident in both countries.
Billions have been taken out of each country and there is little likelihood that this money would be returned as long as the political environment remains uncertain. Moneyed classes are also linked with foreign financial interests. In fact, they often work in tandem to advance each other’s interests. Foreign governments, international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and foreign banks withhold capital at the most critical juncture to force governments to tailor their policies to suit external players. If money is given it comes with powerful strings attached. It is during times of upheavals that governments most urgently need cash because production is disrupted while workers still have to be paid. These are the people that live from one weekly wage to the next.
Further, many societies especially Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, are also dependent on tourism for revenue that dries up in times of political turmoil. Why would foreign tourists wish to visit a country engulfed in riots? Naturally, it affects the livelihood of that segment of society that services the tourist industry. Under such conditions, it becomes easier to turn one group of people against another. This has been attempted in Egypt where government-sponsored thugs, disguised as street vendors, were unleashed against the protesters camped in Tahrir Square accusing them of undermining their livelihood. Revolutionary fervor in the absence of power and authority to make decisions can take people only so far. This is the dilemma facing the young protesters in Egypt. They understand the challenges facing them but appear powerless on many issues. It would be unrealistic to assume that they will gain their rights without further sacrifices and vigilance against subversion.
This is the story of the revolutionaries. There are also counter-revolutions underway in places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen. After overcoming the initial shock of losing two dictators in rapid succession, especially Mubarak of Egypt who was viewed as the lynchpin of the colonial occupation of the Muslim East, the Saudis were able to formulate a counter-revolutionary strategy. Their first line of attack was Bahrain where they dispatched troops to crush the people’s aspirations. This has largely been successful. They are also deeply involved in Yemen where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, badly injured in a missile strike on his residence on June 3, is undergoing treatment in a Riyadh hospital. He refuses to relinquish power and the Saudis do not appear keen to nudge him out. In contrast, the Saudis are actively involved in undermining regimes in Libya and Syria with Western help and to plant their own agents in power.
The reasons for undermining the regimes in Libya and Syria are not the same. In Libya the aim is to subvert Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s plans to break loose of the Western economic and financial stranglehold, especially in Africa. This is seen as a threat to Western economic hegemony that could inspire people elsewhere to emulate his example and hasten collapse of the West’s financial system. Syria does not pose a financial threat but it is part of the resistance front against Zionist colonialism. Israel’s weakening would undermine Western strategic and military dominance in the region. In both Libya and Syria, the Saudis are acting as Western Zionist agents by financing anti-government rebels.
While there is no single theory that fits all Middle Eastern uprisings, the struggles of peoples in these lands are not only for fundamental rights. There are also external players involved in manipulating local grievances in order to advance their own agenda. This is most clearly evident in Libya and Syria where the people’s legitimate grievances are being exploited for Western political and geo-strategic purposes. In Bahrain, the situation is reversed: the people’s legitimate demands are being suppressed in order to maintain the rule of a corrupt monarchy subservient to the West.