Collapsing Muslim Dictatorships
“Nor heaven, nor earth have been at peace tonight: Thrice halth Calpurnia in her sleep cried out, Help, ho! They murder Caesar.”
Who knows, this mood may have echoed in the Shah’s palace in Teheran in January 1979, in Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s palace in December 2010 or President Hosni Mubarak’s palace in Cairo. Something equally serious is afoot in Yemen. Even Amman, relatively secure because of its many ventilators, has had its quota of demonstrations.
Across the Gulf of Aden, Somalian pirates continue to confuse particularly when a ship or two is found with western arms for third countries.
Riyadh, Jerusalem, Washington, in that order of anxiety must be in a huddle on the change in Tunisia and chill winds blowing across Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. The State Department has issued a warning that must send shock waves throughout the Arabian peninsula “status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is not sustainable”.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a January 26 speech in Qatar said:
“The United States supports the aspirations of all people for greater freedom, for self-government, for the rights to express themselves, to associate and assemble, to be part of the full, inclusive functioning of their society.”
This is sensible stuff coming from a chastened America, a contrast from the pursuit of “full spectrum dominance” at any cost during the Bush years.
Ofcourse demographic changes, the increasing ranks of the educated unemployed, rising prices, dictators secure in their vaults are all obvious causes for the eruptions. But these should not obscure the overriding reality: insensitivity of the regimes to Palestinian distress.
If the United States were to dilute its support to these regimes, the anger in the Arab street may recondition Israeli thinking.
Those who wield power in Iran, Lebanon and Damascus are not facing the peoples’ ire largely because they reject Israeli unreasonableness. And, who knows, Hizbullah may soon have its very own Prime Minister in Lebanon!
There are some similarities between the current rash of uprisings and developments in the 70s. Just as the United States is in relative decline at present, in the 70s too it was on the back foot, particularly after Vietnam.
There were powerful communist parties in Italy, France and Spain. Communist parties had come to power in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. To prevent this from happening in Afghanistan and Iran, it was essential to eliminate the Communist parties – Khalq and Parcham in Afghanistan and Tudeh and Mojahideen Khalq in Iran.
A plan by the Shah’s secret service, Savak, to eliminate the left in Kabul was accidentally leaked. In a preemptive move by the left, President Daud was killed. Khalq and Parcham came to power. This was the Saur or the April revolution of 1978.
It was now even more urgent to stall the left in Teheran. Ayatullah Khomeini was flown in from Paris. Joint demonstrations by religious groups, liberals and the Left caused the Shah to flee. This is when the Ayatullahs, riding a crest of Shia fervour, eliminated Tudeh. Mojahideen-e-Khalq escaped to Iraq.
Khalq and Parcham in Kabul paved the way for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Meanwhile, the consolidation of the Ayatullahs in Teheran introduced a bipolarity in the Muslim world – Riyadh and Teheran. It was Iran’s opposition to “Kingship in Islam” which caused the Saudi King to adopt a new title: Keeper of the holy shrines of Mecca and Madina.
This competition determined the character of the Islamic force manufactured in Afghanistan to expel the Soviets: it had to be Arabised, possibly even Wahabized to work as a bulwark against Shia Iran.
The Shia-Sunni tension in the context of Afghanistan was challenging enough but it was in the world’s focus. What has gone relatively unnoticed is probably an even more complicated situation in Yemen.
When Pakistan set up a string of Madrasas along the Afghan border to train Jihadis, Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, the Saudi Interior Minister, launched a scheme to create similar Islamic hatcheries for thoroughbred Arabs too. Unlike, Afghanistan, Yemen was contiguous with Saudi Arabia. This Arab Islamic force would come in handy to fight on multiple fronts.
There are various sects of Shias believing in seven, twelve or a continuing chain of Imams. The Zaidis of Yemen belong to this last category. In March, 1924, the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk abolished the Caliphate. But an Imamate continued in Yemen until 1962 when a revolution upturned it.
Yemen remained two countries, with 20 million in the North with its capital in Sanaa under President Ali Abdullah Saleh. South Yemen, a population of four million with capital in Aden, created in 1967 when Nasser’s Arab socialism swept a part of the Arab world, came under Soviet influence. As a reflex, Saleh sought an alliance with the Saudis, a pillar in the American camp.
For Prince Naif, it was a case of killing two birds with the same stone: an Islamic force to fight Sovietism in Afghanistan and Yemen, in addition to checking Shiaism in both.
President Saleh’s half brother, Ali Mohsin al Ahmar was appointed to train the Yemeni Jehadis. They would be the reliable Arab force which, as it turned out, spawned Al Qaeda as distinct from the largely Pushtoon Taleban.
Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Amman: In varying degrees, this elaborate system is now threatened.
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