Sleeping off the revolution

WITH unremitting euphoria gushing forth from Tunisia and Egypt I went looking for Henry Mencken’s exact words that might describe my reluctance to flow with the tide.


“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin,” he barked at me from what I imagined must be a flower-bedecked casket. Let me see if my self-alleged cynicism finds endorsement in the turmoil affecting those countries that strongly look to me like non-oil-producing parts of the Afro-Arab world.

Several questions come to mind at once. Is the upsurge part of the ongoing big game between China and the West for the untapped spoils — primarily oil — of Africa? If so, why did it take four decades or more of dictatorship for people to come out on the streets in the affected countries, and why now?

The Americans and, by implication, Israel, had self-admittedly ‘missed’ the Iranian revolution, so are they more prepared this time to not let things slide out of control? And what are the guarantees that the secular-religious alliance, which appears to be spearheading the movement in North Africa and is resonating elsewhere — Jordan and Yemen, for instance — will not implode with its contradictions or turn upon each other?

And finally, given that everyone with a big or remote stake in the unfolding drama wishes to settle the crisis in their favour, what is in it for Iran? Would there be an effort by the more deeply entrenched West to revive Arab nationalism — secular or religious — to become its cat’s paw for an anti-Iranian upsurge? Or have the Chinese queered the pitch for the West already?

Clearly, there are no easy answers but let me attempt the last questions first. The timing of the upsurge in Tunisia and Egypt has by chance coincided with the revelations of a humiliating surrender of the Palestinian struggle by the West-backed moderates in the West Bank. With Hezbollah fortifying itself in Lebanese politics recently and Hamas handed a winner by the exposed diplomatic shenanigans, Arab despots and their ‘revolutionary’ successors alike would need to work for greater credibility with the Palestinians before any of them can begin to wean the issue away from Iran’s grasp. Until then, a blow by any Arab state against Iran would fall short of the credibility bar.

On the other matter, why have the Chinese blanked out the turmoil from their Internet? They have done what they naturally do: switch off in times of flux. China has been camping in Africa since the days when it checkmated Soviet advance in the continent. As part of this effort, China provided arms and military equipment and helped build roads and railroads.

Since the late 1990s, China’s policies towards Africa have been closely linked to the objectives of its major state-owned company, China National Petroleum Corporation, in tapping African oil and gas. China had invested in 27 major oil and natural gas projects in 14 African countries by the end of 2005.

Subsequently, its oil imports from Africa increased at an annual rate of 30 per cent, slightly higher than that from the rest of the world at 26 per cent. Angola accounted for half of China’s oil imports from the continent and narrowly overtook Saudi Arabia to become China’s top crude oil supplier. Leaning on Africa was part of China’s move for a back-up to the volatile Gulf.

There is no genuine reason not to see the happenings in Sudan, which borders Egypt, as intertwined with the overall unrest witnessed in Africa. The western-led religious bifurcation of oil-rich Sudan is part of the game. China has benefited from its experience in Sudan. About half of China’s equity oil comes from Sudan, and 65 per cent of Sudan’s oil exports go to China.

It was not without reason that French President Nicolas Sarkozy called a meeting of African states in Nice in June last year where for the first time he tacitly acknowledged the success of China’s expansion in Africa by calling on French businesses to emulate it.

Without mentioning Beijing by name, Sarkozy declared it was time for Europe to use infrastructure investment along with development aid and fight to increase its influence in Africa once again.

“Africa is our future … the African continent is asserting itself more and more as a major player in international life,” said Sarkozy. The summit spurred Europe’s new drive to step up its investment in Africa and imitate China’s successful formula of undertaking infrastructure projects and supporting private investment to win hearts and minds.

In a battlefield, which Africa is poised to become as Nelson Mandela’s sagacious presence wanes with age, winning hearts and minds would be a maudlin strategy. Scorched-earth tactics are a better option. Tunisia, a French outpost, and Egypt, an American buffer zone for Israel, were required to be overhauled as political vehicles for a larger strategy.

There is a flaw in the game plan though. China has the demeanour and the capacity to sleep off the North African revolution, which it suspects is heading for a tame draw. There are too many interests including among the so-called revolutionaries to accept anything more adventurous.

Lessons from history back up this view. Right from the democracy movement against Zia’s dictatorship in Pakistan or the Janata Party experiment against Indira Gandhi’s totalitarian rule, left-right alliances have ended in victory for the right. Iran was another example where the communist Tudeh party was the bulwark of the revolution before it was hijacked by the mullahs. Tudeh was decimated.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the stakes are too high for an Islambouli prototype to be ushered in. That leaves the secular protesters to do their bit — to check the food crisis and runaway inflation when they are given power. But we didn’t need revolutions to run food ration shops, did we? I wonder what Mencken would have said.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.