Monday, February 7, 2011

Arab World at the Precipice

Arab World at the Precipice
Saeed Naqvi

The two million protestors at Tahrir Square have triggered memories of my other visits to Cairo.

The interview with Hosni Mubarak is preceded by an elaborate drill through the Ministry of Information – filling a form here, submitting an outline of the questions there.

Here I am, about to interview Egypt’s President, but this fact does not seem to place me on any pedestal with the otherwise disinterested officials. What does bring a smile to their eyes is the place of my origin.

“Sahafi al Hindi?” (Journalist from India?) This leads to handshakes and greetings. Suddenly, they all turn their heads towards the TV screen. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, British Commander of UN forces in Bosnia is holding one of his briefings in Sarajevo. Some more bodies of Muslims have been found in villages along the Drina river.

“Slowly, they will finish us all” Exclaims one, holding his worry beads in both his hands. There is despair, anger, rage, not targeted at anyone object of hate. It is a sort of ranting, an expression of helplessness. Hosni Mubarak in their circumstance had become the symbol of their distress.

All Muslim distress anywhere was available on TV (global TV having been born since Operation Desert Storm). As happens when fleeting images determine the national mood, all anger was focused on Mubarak, collaborator with “our enemies” and oppressor-in-chief at home. And now when I see millions in Tahrir I ask myself: why did such an uprising not take place decades ago, when I witnessed the anger of those officials? Would it not have been tidier then?

Yes, it would have been tidier, but it would not have been possible. Those officials were past their middle age. Today, almost half of the 350 million Arabs are in their 20s – Youth bulge, is the catch phrase. Over 85 percent of those in the shrunken job market hold university degrees or diplomas. Prices have skyrocketed, and economies have stagnated.

When I met Mubarak, 9/11 had not happened. In fact he was complaining how US policies in Afghanistan had bred “Islamic fundamentalism” which, after expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan was “plaguing you in Kashmir and us in Egypt, in Algeria”.

He was dissembling when he bracketed Algeria with Egypt. In my view, the Algerian experience in the 90s deserves to be examined separately to understand the present anger in the Arab world. I have some sense of it because I had accompanied Rajiv Gandhi to Algeria where, at President Chadli Benjadid’s prodding, he somewhat impulsively recognized Polisario, the Soviet supported movement which claimed Spanish Sahara, vacated by Spain soon after Franco’s death. The territory was hotly disputed by Morocco, on the other side of the cold war. After a fashion, Islam had been introduced into the intra-Arab quarrel.

The reason I believe Hosni Mubarak was less than honest on Algeria was because he had endorsed Western plans to set aside the results of the Algerian elections in 1991. What had happened was this.

During the first Algerian Legislative election in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front won over a two-thirds majority. The military’s fear was that with that size of majority, the Salvation Front could change the constitution and “democratically” impose an Islamic State.

Since the Salvation Front had direct links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the ascendance of Islamists in Algeria would automatically spread the contagion throughout. Little wonder, Hosni Mubarak endorsed the US and European decision to support the Algerian army in setting aside democratic results. Algerian Civil war followed.

Just imagine, a Civil War was preferred to an Islamic formation. Who knows power may have moderated this formation. Moderation, not extremism, may well have radiated from Algeria. What the West (and Israel) prefers not to understand is a simple fact: in dictatorships, supported by the West, the only political ventilation is provided by the mosque.

Far from learning this lesson, the West took its eye off this issue in the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Instead of employing America’s unprecedented power towards an architecture of moderation in West Asia and beyond, George W Bush, embarked on a project of “full spectrum dominance” – and fell flat on his face.

This garish celebration of Capitalism’s victory did bring out in relief an apparent ideological vacuum – Socialism and Communism on the Left and Fascism and its variants on the right had suddenly became insubstantial.

The mosque, always the congregational space in Muslim societies, also became the space for an ideology of discontent. There was no other coherent system of beliefs. So anti-Americanism became a powerful belief system. History’s most powerful country became an enemy figure because its extraordinary power was seen to be at the disposal of Israel which, after a brief demonstration of reasonableness following the Oslo process, turned to unprecedented hawkishness on the Palestinian case. Moreover, in the guise of fighting terrorism, it was, in Arab eyes, targeting Muslims.

Hosni Mubarak becomes a hate figure in the Arab street because he has been an inseparable part of the Western-Israeli concert, which, in addition to its other perceived sins, has brutalized Palestinians. Had the Israelis pushed for peace with Palestinians, the ground beneath Mubarak’s feet may not have slipped so irretrievably.

And now that he is poised precariously on the precipice, there is acute anxiety in Jerusalem and Washington on one issue: what will his successor look like. Does someone like Mohamed Elbaradei, former IAEA Director General, have it in him to rally the opposition against Mubarak? This is one of the questions Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt (and India) will ask in Cairo where he is now parked on a “special mission” from President Obama.

Back channel Israeli diplomacy must be working overtime to forestall any outcome which leaves any levers with the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is that no alternative to Mubarak is possible without the Brotherhood having a say in it. In 30 years of Mubarak’s repression – torture, police brutalities, packed prisons, penetration of “Mukhabirat” (secret service) in every walk, have enabled the Muslim Brotherhood almost as a reflex to expand as the only organized political force waiting for exactly the opportunity which has opened up with the Egyptian protests. Mubarak’s chant to the Americans, “If I go, they come” today rings hollow.

The West, in serious decline since 2008, has been too preoccupied with its own problems. It may well have taken its eyes off the subterranean shifts in the Arab world, inducing a sort of stupor in aging dictators like Zine El Abidine Bin Ali in Tunis and Mubarak in Cairo.

The world was taken by surprise with the rapidity of Bin Ali’s collapse and Mubarak’s impending fall. Now, juxtapose the rejoicing in Arab streets to the grim mood in Israel.

Listen to Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
“… few Israelis believe in-a-hopeful outcome. Instead, the grim assumption is that it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power. Israelis fear that Egypt will go the way of Iran or Turkey, with Islamists gaining control through violence or gradual co-optations.”

This is a very real fear. But this need not be the only way the scenario unfolds. The biggest obstacle to a harmonious future is a mind-set which recoils on the term “Islamic”, almost habitually mixing up Islam with terrorism.

Shimon Peres once told me: “Look, we have to live in this region, with our Arab neighbours”. He added: “if trust comes, love will follow”. Peres does have a way with words, but that exactly is the route to follow. What we are witnessing may well be a moment as historic as the fall of the Berlin wall. The stakes are so high that there can always be a twist in the tale.

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