Popular Upsurge in Arab World

Popular upsurge in Egypt for ouster of its dictator Hosni Mubarak which started on January 25 triumphed on February 11 when he was forced to leave the country paving the way for an elected government by September. It has ignited revolt in other Arab countries in Africa and in gulf countries.

The situation varies from country to country. The most conspicuous case is that of Libya where the armed forces are trying to crush the revolt against 40 years of autocratic rule of Muammar Gaddafi. More than a thousand people have been killed so far. In a tribal society, Guddafi commands loyalty of one million strong Warfallen tribe. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen, the upsurge may take the form of Shia-Sunni conflict.

In many respects Egypt was a unique case. Its importance lies in the fact that with a population of 64 millions, it is the most populous and largest Arab country and lies close to Gaza on the border between Israel and Hamas controlled part of Palestine. Its president Mubarak had set a record of corruption. He is estimated to have amassed a fortune of $70 billions and is believed to be the richest person in the world. His corrupt and autocratic rule as also rule of other dictators in the Middle East was supported by USA as it believed that alternative to dictatorship in the Muslim world, in general, was Islamic fundamentalism.

The example of Iran is cited in this context where Mussadag’s regime was overthrown by Islamic revolution led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. In Pakistan dictators had been best allies of America. But Islamic fundamentalism itself was initially encouraged by American to counter growing Soviet influence. In Afghanistan the Soviet supported regime was overthrown with the active help of Mujahideen who were armed and trained by America.

That dictatorship is no guarantee against Islamic fundamentalism is best illustrated by the example of Saudi Arabia which has an absolute dynastic rule of Shah Abdul Aziz and where people do not have even elementary democratic right to vote. It had supported Hosni Mubarak and given asylum to the deposed Sultan of Tunisia. It is also the source of most fundamentalist form of Islam. Its Wahabi brand of Islam, with American patronage, has undermined its liberal forms elsewhere. “Saudisation” of Pakistan, through network of madrasas financed by Suadi Arabia for instance, has damaged its liberal traditions like Sufi, Barelavi, Deobandi and other forms of Islamic thought.

No doubt Muslim Brotherhood was supporting the popular revolt in Egypt. But it clearly said that it had no leadership aspiration. It is too weak to do so and supported the popular movement as it did not want to be completely isolated. Moreover, Christians, with 11% of its population, too, joined the movement in full strength. The demonstrators included all shades of persons, young, old, men, women—including in Western attire. Many persons in the crowds spoke live on TV that they were secular, democrat and wanted freedom. Al-Queda, deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawabri, in his video issue on February 18 said that “demonstrations in Egypt were led by secular liberal activities for greater democracy in sharp contrast to the Islamic state. Democracy replaces God’s laws with man’s.”

Brotherhood is supporting Mohamad El-Bardei, who had emerged as the most known face of the revolt. He is a Noble Laureate and was the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He began his overt opposition to Hosni Mubarak a year ago and won over a widespread following among the young and middle classes. Egyptian authorities harassed his supporters. Nor is he a favourite of America partly because he is being supported by Muslim Brotherhood and partly because he was not tough enough against Iran as head of the IAFA as USA wanted him to be.

However, his own views about Islamic jehadis are known. In a recent newspaper article he writes. “The option in the Arab world is not between authoritarianism and Islamic jehadis.” He described Egypt’s revolt as of a rainbow variety of people “who are secular, liberal, market oriented and if you give them a chance, they will organize themselves to elect a government that is modern and moderate.” He wanted “independent judiciary and free election unlike the last election which was completely rigged and could in fact had a role in provoking widespread revolt of the people.” He criticized the West for having brought the Mubarak’s fiction that a democratic Egypt “will turn into chaos or a religious state without him.” (New York Times, Feb 13, 2011).

Moreover, Egyptian nationalism with a civilization of 5000 years old, which Egyptians call “Ummul-duniya (mother of the world) of which sphinxes are eloquent witnesses and Alexandria library, a rich treasure of knowledge in its time is no asset for fundamentalism.

What was unique in Egyptian revolt was its non-violent character which in the words of American President Obama was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King (the latter claimed to be the disciple of Gandhi). The revolt was not organized by any party and led by any leader. Twitters, Facebook and other social networking sites coordinated the rebels.

What after the transitional role of the army? It had endeared itself to the people by the way it dealt with massive demonstrations. On the first day of the revolt an old man kissed forehead of an officer of the army that had come to Liberty square and told him “you are one of us.” On one occasion, it inadvertently killed some protestors. But soon it offered handsome apologies. Thereafter the army simply helped the people to maintain order and prevent stampede. The onus now is mainly on civil leadership. Its success or failure to evolve a consensus on an alternative system will have impact far beyond the borders of Egypt.

India has a special reason to welcome emergence of a democratic Egypt. For it can revive its old friendship when Nehru and Nassar, along with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia led the non-alignment movement which played a vital role in international politics in fifties and sixties. It has also reason to celebrate success of first Gandhian experiment in non-violence outside India. In fact India needs to relearn use of Gandhian methods from Egypt, in particular by the violent movements currently taking place in some parts of country. Moreover after a few days of evacuation of Indians, 90% of them decided to stay back as they felt quite safe and at home in Egypt, whereas they are leaving Libya in panic. Some Indians who were unable to return to India from Libya tried to cross the border to Egypt to seen safety.

Situation in Libya is in contrast with Egypt in many respects. Unlike Hosni Mubarak its dictator Geddafi, has vowed to “fight to the last drop of his blood.” He no longer enjoyed support of the USA or Israel. Far from non-violent revolt, rebels with hunting guns have occupied eastern part of Libya and central towns like Benghazi, Zawiyat and Misrates but are facing stiff resistance from the army and loyal tribes, supported by tanks and air force bombing.

A spokesman of rebels representing all religions, said, “we want a mainly secular constitution.”
Libya has 46.4 billion oil reserves and 5.5 trillion natural gas reserves, largest in Africa. The west has a more stake against its blockade by Libyan dictator. There are therefore moves by the Western powers to encourage Egyptian armed support to rebels. Gaddafi reportedly called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking his support because his action in Libya was akin to Indian action in Kashmir. Not long ago, he had said in the UNO that Kashmir should be independent. Pakistan, in acknowledgment of Gaddafi support, has named a stadium after him.

In 2003, even the Western leaders had arrived at an understanding with Gaddafi according to which “Libya’s oilfields would be fully opened up to the West and the US and their banks and corporations will be tapping the country’s revenue stream. Bush administration claimed that its efforts were bearing fruit.

The understanding did not last long mainly due to suspected links of Gaddafi with the Islamic extremists. Now the West and the US have frozen all international reserves. But according to IMF estimates central Bank of Libya has about $110 billion international reserves, enough to cover three years of Libya’s imports.

While Arab League supported the Security Council resolution for “no fly” zone over Libya, many Arab countries did not support the massive US led military offensive against Gadaffi regime Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa voiced concerned over air strikes against civilians. Abu Khali who publishes popular website, “the Angry world” also warned that the Western military intervention in Libya was intended to “legitimise the return of colonial powers to our region.” Some neutral or passive people are reported to have taken to streets chanting anti-America slogans.” At the movement, the situation has become more complicated.

The upsurge for democracy has affected other Arab countries in varying degrees and indifferent ways . In Yemen, with 40%, Shia population, an unprecedented demonstration at its capital Senna demanded ouster of autocratic rule of Ali Abdullah Salah since 1978. His armed supporters, mostly Sunnis, took over the Al-Tehrir square of Senna. He, however, sought to buy peace by declaring that neither he nor his son would run for presiding in 2013. The protesters in Sanna, interestingly, carried protests with images of late Che Guevera, leader of the communist revolution in Cuba.

Other Arab countries with sizable Shia population which have been touched by his upsurge for democracy include Bahrain and Kuwait. Bahrain is a strong ally of Saudi Arabia and an oil rich emirate. Its Muslim population (82%) is evenly divided between Shias and Sunnis (41% each). There are strong demonstrations against US embassy and for an end of gulf state’s monarchy and for political reforms. As protest gathered strength, Saudi Arabia sent 1000 armed forces to help Bahamian government.
In Kuwait another oil rich emirate out of 85% Muslim population 45% are sunnis and 30% are Shias. The target of protest is its Prime Minister. Demonstrations are going on for his ouster. Iraq where the Western powers overthrew Sunni leader Saddam Hussain’s regime an to build a model of democracy for the Arab world. The Sunni minority 34% population and Kurd ethnic population are far from reconciled with the regime of Nuri al Maliki, the Prime Minister. Apart from sectarian factor, his regime is accused of large scale corruption. There was a demonstrations against him, in Falluja, a Sunni town west of Baghdad, in which a dozen protesters were killed.

The ripples of democratic upsurge were felt even in Saudi Arabia. It is also the richest and most influential country of them with $440 billion in foreign revenues. Its population of 25 millions has rarely witnessed a protest. It is the closest ally of the US which deals with the Muslim world through it.

As the democratic wave sweeping across the Arab World reached the Saudi soil, its Shia minority (10%) and some Sunni intellectuals gave a call for reforms and demanded a constitutional king face book is another instrument used by the dissenters. Though some shias have been arrested its 87 year old monarch, in an effort to pacify dissent, doled a grant of $36 billion for welfare of the people.

A brief survey of a specimen of the Arab countries would indicate that there is hardly any country that is wholly unaffected by the winds of change. Whatever be the final shape the Arab world takes, it would never be the same again. Democratic countries, including India can play an important role in giving a positive turn to forces of change in building a democratic order in a vital part of the world. The ground for which seems to be prepared as the turmoil so far has given sufficient indications that people in the Arab World, are seeking alternative other than autocracy and religious fundamentalism.