Winds of change across the Arab world have been carried on the wing of Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook and, then by the mainstream global media. Even the Indian media made an appearance in Tahrir Square. Changes have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and run into artillery fire in Bahrain, but Bush era analysts like Prof.
Fouad Ajami have their fixations. Ajami places Saddam Hussain, Hafez Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, Mubarak, Bin Ali side by side. He would have us believe that Saddam and Mubarak are on the same side of the Arab street. They are not.
Yes, they were both ruthless dictators but Saddam was not overthrown by his own people as Mubarak was. His regime was dismantled by American military might. Unlike Tahrir Square, celebrations in Baghdad had to be contrived.
Remember how Dick Cheney, fearful of losing face, choreographed that theatre in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Worried that “shock and awe” had not brought celebrating Iraqis out on the streets to greet US troops, messages went out to Shia leaders Ayatullah Baqar ul Hakim in Najaf and Moqtada Sadr in Kufa to initiate some “celebrations” at Saddam’s fall.
To coincide with the Shia crowds from Sadr city, beating Saddam posters with sandals, Marines were invited to help pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue in slow motion in front of Palestine hotel. Interspersed were shots of Cheney delivering a victory speech in which he thanked the “religious leaders”.
Of course, emergence of Shia power strengthened contiguous Iran where, in another era, Ayatullahs had been installed as an anti-Soviet force, just as the Mujahideen were manufactured in Afghanistan later. In 1979, Ayatullah Khomeini was flown in from Paris. The simmering against the Shah was allowed to froth over. First, the Ayatullahs proceeded to eliminate the Tudeh (Iranian Communists). Then, Marxists with an Islamic tinge, Mujahideen-e-Khalq were pushed out to Iraq and the Ayatullahs have since been in power in Teheran.
To the chagrin of US’s Saudi partners, the ultimate guidance on policy matters to the new Shia dominated Baghdad comes from Grand Ayatullah Sistani in Najaf. Even Iyad Allawi, US-Saudi candidate opposed to Nuri al Maliki during the nine month stand off on Prime Ministership, paid visits to Najaf.
As it turns out Baghdad may be something of a model for Teheran of the future. One of the debates in the Shia University at QOM is whether the “Islamic Revolution” should be “administered” or only “guided” by the clergy. Surely guide-the-revolution model should be acceptable.
I have meandered a bit. Let me revert to Ajami comparing Saddam Hussain with Mubarak. The two stood on opposite platforms on the central issue agitating the Arab streets and basements – the Israeli/Palestinian process. Mubarak’s dictatorship stifled the street to support the broad US-Israeli stand. Saddam was implacably opposed to what he called “Israeli intransigence”. Why, during Operation Desert Storm, Yasser Arafat, was Saddam’s guest in Baghdad!
There are some common elements unsettling the Arab dictators. One is just this – dictatorship. Another is the “youth bulge”, half the 350 million Arabs are under 30, in search of employment in a shrunken, corrupt, nepotism ridden job market. Sheer economic want would be more pronounced in Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, for example, but clearly not in the Gulf States. Algeria’s volatile history cannot be suppressed. Morocco is an enigma – Sephardic jews have not forgotten Morroccan hospitality after the 15th century Spanish inquisitions. But how do the Palestinians regard Rabat?
Regimes sympathetic to the Palestinian plight would, to that extent, be insulted from peoples’ wrath in Syria and Libya, for instance. Demonstrations in Iran and Libya are part of the internal turmoil in these countries, unrelated to the Palestinian issue.
A majority Shia population in Bahrain opposed to the Sunni ruler makes it unique as does the fact that it is an important western base. A combination of Shia (Huthi) in the north and socialists in South with anti-Americanism knitting both is a lethal mix besieging Sanaa. Bahrain, Yemen and Iraq all with their Shia ferment must create acute anxieties for the Saudis who have borders with all three. Moreover, even their own Wahabi clergy cannot be sanguine with Al Quds once again swimming into focus. Surely they cannot allow the Quds issue to be an Iranian monopoly.
The author is a senior journalist and political commentator and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org