Monday, February 7, 2011

Arab World: Old Order Changeth!

Arab World: Old Order Changeth!
Saeed Naqvi

Some issues have already been settled. For example, President Hosni Mubarak’s son will not succeed him. This takes the future away from Mubarak’s grasp.

There is now a recognition across the Arab world that Al Jazeera news channel, headquartered in Qatar, became the credible carrier of news and images from Tunis to Cairo. BBC and CNN scrambled to catch up. For once they were second or third best.

Al Jazeera is now compulsory watching for anyone trying to follow the West Asian world. For years New Delhi dragged its feet, resisting a full fledged Al Jazeera coverage from India. Some months ago all documentation were cleared. Indeed, a launch party was held, Ministry of External Affairs officials in due attendance. But after all this why are the historic events in West Asia not being televised in India?

Happily Indian journalists, both TV and print, have turned up in Cairo to give us, by way of relief, an Indian perspective on the unfolding events. And they are on their own unlike in 2003 when a bevy of them cheerfully allowed themselves to be “embedded” in Kuwait to cover American “victory” in Iraq.

Just imagine, if the Indian media were to turn up in Cairo in full force, this could well be a defining moment, the Indian global media which would then liven up the foreign office and be seen worldwide.

Tanks, torture, brutal police force, prisons packed like sardines and the frightful “mukhabirat” or secret service are the stilts that keep dictatorships steady. Straightforward information, modern communications, Twitter, Facebook are anathema to such regimes. Little wonder these lines of communication were snapped. Why have Al Jazeera offices in Cairo been shut down but not others? BBC and CNN, for instance. Can they be managed more effectively without the competition from Al Jazeera showing them up?

If you visit the magnificent India House on he Nile, the ambassador in earlier years would have taken you on a tour charged with nostalgia: “There in that sofa sat Nasser and Nehru”.

Nasser died in September 1970 and Anwar Sadat succeeded him in October of that year. Having something of the Muslim Brotherhood in his background, he did not have to grapple with his conscience to abandon Nasser’s Arab Socialism and join the American camp when the cold war was at its most intense. Indeed, in 1979 he signed the peace treaty with Israel for which he paid with his life. He was assassinated in 1981, clearing the way for Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship which has lasted 30 years.

In a bipolar world, non alignment, which Nehru and Nasser had nurtured, seemed relevant. But when Egypt, under Sadat, crossed over to the other side, he had abandoned the Nehru-Nasser idea of non alignment too.

If New Delhi’s relations with Egypt dwindled because of Cairo switching sides during the cold war, it logically follows that there should have been a repair in these relations after the Soviet collapse which caused New Delhi to lurch towards the US and Israel the way Sadat had done. Hosni Mubarak, after all, sat squarely on the Israeli-American lap.

This did not happen. In fact, foreign policy towards the Arab world since the 1990s revealed a different reality. New Delhi’s engagement of the Arab world was only part of its outreach as leader of the Non Aligned. With non alignment having lost relevance, India quite incredibly lost interest in the Arab world – a complete departure from Nehru’s vision. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were exceptions largely because of substantial remittances and oil supplies.

An exponential growth in high tech arms supplies from Israel could have been cited as one of the reasons for tactical Indian distancing from the Arab world. But this did not make sense because most of the Arab states (except Syria and Lebanon) were western puppets.

And now that the democratic urge is ascendant in Tunisia and Egypt, will the world’s new “risen power”, aspiring for a Permanent seat at the Security Council, step out of its diplomatic “purdah” in the Arab world?

For proper perspective of current developments, one has to place the region against the events of past 60 years. In 1951, Britain and the US snuffed out democracy in Iran by removing the elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh because he nationalized Western oil interests. From that day Western strategy in the region has been conditioned by the twin interests of oil and Israeli security.

At the other end of the spectrum, Nasser was stoking political Islam quite unintentionally by keeping in jail for ten long years, Saiyyid Qutub, who spelt out a plan to recreate the Muslim world on Quranic grounds. His book, Milestones, advises Muslims to prepare themselves for “a life until death in poverty, difficulty, frustration, torment and sacrifice”. Qutub recommends “offensive Jehad to carry Islam throughout the earth to the whole of mankind”. Somewhere here are the ideas perfected by Al Qaeda.

It is generally believed that the manufacture of radical Islam in Afghanistan to evict the Soviets eventually boomeranged on the twin towers in New York on 9/11. A key detail in the narrative is missed out. The military in Algeria, with support from the US and Europe, set aside the elections of 1991 in which the Islamic Salvation Front swept to victory with a two-thirds majority. This sent shock waves across Arab populations.

Brazen western insensitivity to peoples’ will in the Middle East is part of the reason for acute anti Americanism in the region. Lip service to electoral democracy but an acceptance only of pro-West outcomes! Hamas’ electoral victory is a case in point. Let us wait for the outcome in Lebanon. When Arab regimes are seen to be obsequiously supportive of such gross injustice, popular anger against these dictatorships is immeasurably higher.

Anger which simmers below the surface for long years begins to look like a condition of normalcy. Quite as imperceptible are demographic changes leading to phenomena encapsulated in catch-phrases like “youth bulge”. This means that more than half the population in the Arab world is under 25! Over 80 percent of those in the shrunken job market have university degrees or diplomas. Add to this the rising prices, growing unemployment and ageing dictatorships becoming ever more brutal and you have a recipe for all that is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and to a more manageable extent, in Jordan.

If God came riding a thunderbolt and all the ills listed above were miraculously removed, there will still remain one which will rile Arab populations until a solution is found: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the mindless building of settlements by Israel.

Will Mubarak be able to ride over this crisis? Will the Army step in? To save an ailing, 82 year old dictator? I doubt it.

In some obscure resort, Americans, Israelis, Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptian (minus Mubarak) must be deliberating the transition, looking over their shoulders, making sure that no paper or computer trail is left behind for an outfit smarter than Wikileaks.

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