The People of the Middle East: “If We Don’t Fight Now, We Will Lose Everything”

February 2, 2011


Pro-Mubarak gang members/protesters stream into Tahrir Square, 2 February 2011

The balance is wildly shifting in the Middle East – the people on one hand, viscious state machineries in the other.

In Yemen, long serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh has said that he will be stepping down in 2013, as part of his own public relations strategy to head off rising popular discontent and mobilization. A “day of rage” has been scheduled by activists in the capital Sa’na this Thursday, and mass protests have already been held. These efforts have caused Saleh to (temporarily) abandon attempts to change the Yemeni constitution to allow him to rule for life, while he has explicitly stated that his son will not succeed him when he does step down.

Like Mubarak, Saleh has presided over a social catastrophe. As Deutsche Welle reports, “conditions in the country have continued to deteriorate under his rule with about 40 percent of the population surviving on less than $2 (1.45 euros) a day and at least a third of Yemenis suffering from chronic hunger.” And this has spilled over into a political nightmare, with secessionists growing stronger in the south and Shiite religious fighters from the al-Houthi movement causing trouble in the north.

And Saleh sits atop a volatile state structure, much like Mubarak. Conditions in Yemen tend towards radical political changes and stasis is not an option. As Kate Nevens of Chatham House says, “Power is situated within what is known as a ‘shadow elite'” while any “successor would inherit is a system of complex patronage networks and balancing acts which are highly dependent on personal relationships forged by Saleh.”

Those who are fighting (non-violently) against Saleh are becoming bolder. As Tawakul Karman of the group Women Journalists Without Chains puts it, “If we don’t fight now, we will lose everything” – boldness personified from someone who has already been imprisoned by the Saleh regime and is under constant surveillence.

They are also consciously feeding off the energies created in Tunisia and Egypt. As Mohamad al-Mutawakel, of the Common Forum opposition alliance has put it, “I think Mr Abdullah Saleh will learn from Egypt and Tunisia… he is clever enough to make a change…If he doesn’t make political reform and have free elections, it will be Tunisia.”

But what are the prospects for the removal of Saleh’s dictatorship any time soon? After all, he has felt comfortable enough to set a generous time-scale for leaving office. And he has deliberately cultivated a veneer of pluralism, staging debates between “youth leaders” and “civil society” on the state TV station. In the background, Yemenis will know, lies an extensive network of police and the armed forces, and a deeply militarized state.

Nevertheless, the toppling of Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia, and the tottering of Mubarak’s in Egypt has sent waves of fear through the spines of Middle Eastern autocrats. The moment is real. As the Globe and Mail reports, in Bahrain, “the King has met with advisers, security officials and Sunni and Shia clerics, pressing upon them the need to abide by the system and respect the law” and has “promised that Bahrain would see political reforms and improvements in living conditions in the coming days.”

These changes may address some of the social problems afflicting Bahrainis, who see little of the country’s massive hydrocarbon wealth. As an unnamed professor suggests, “People in Bahrain may dream of changes when they watch the news these days, especially that the economic boom in the country has not added much to the standard of living of ordinary people, as in Egypt.”

In very few countries can the air of elite complacency be fully retained. There are few signs, however, that the Saudi monarchy are particularly worried. In Syria too, the Assad dynasty is holding smugly firm. As Bashir Assad puts it pithily, “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform…If you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action and … you are going to fail.” It has been suggested (by Assad himself) that Syria is “immune”  from the contagion of revolt, and that economic liberalisation coupled with political firmness and autocracy has skilfully lessened social tensions.

Will Syria be the China of the Middle East? Given that Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali were enthusiastic neoliberal “modernisers” and were keen to welcome international capital, the argument seems weak. What tends to fall in Bashir’s favour, although he would be loathe to admit it, is that regime change in Syrian would be an Israeli nightmare. Hence, he can expect assistance from the US and Mossad in quelling any unrest. Even with Mubarak teetering, Israeli politicians are nearing hysterical tones in defending him, positing the Muslim Brotherhood as the inevitable alternative. Bashir Assad can rest easy in expectation of Netanyahu’s total support should Damascus be overrun by pro-democracy campaigners.

As I said, Bashir would grate at any such suggestion. Indeed, talking to the Wall Street Jounal this week, he opined that one of the reasons for Syrian stability was its lack of relations with Israel, and its relative commitment to pressing territorial claims against it. This does, in fact, make a difference, but Assad would be aware that he is no great hero for grumbling about the Golan Heights. As he says, it is important to appear “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people” and the belief that Israel should not be occupying the West Bank, building settlements and holding onto the Golan, is what he primarily means by this. In this sense, his position is slightly strengthened by being a timid critic of Israel, albeit one in a long line of Arab leaders with a resume devoid of meaningful actions to back that up.

Ironically though, Bashir may survive unscathed (altthough mass protests are threatened for the weekend) because of Israel – not because of Assad’s fervent hatred of the Jewish state, but because Israel needs autocratic neighbours and will invest heavily in order to protect them.

But it is too late to invest in Egypt. Efforts to depend the loyal Mubarak are faltering, amidst what seems to be popular disdain at his lachrymose speech yesterday, which promised departure from office within the year. Violence has begun to spread, with so-called “pro-Mubarak protesters” confronting and attacking the masses of pro-democracy campaigners (and the press). Apparently, the internet was switched on again as they began theit assaults, “in time to show the world that Mubarak actually had some supporters left” as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman puts it.

Mubarak is probably trying to stage a revival, an “Operation Ajax” for the twenty-first century (the original sought sucessfully to reverse the  election of Mohamed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953). As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen reports today, “from the morning there were thousands of his supporters on Cairo’s streets, mobilised presumably by the ruling party, the NDP” taking part in demonstrations that were “well organised, not spontaneous.” As “Numbered buses unloaded supporters. Many placards looked as if they had been made by professional sign writers.”

Yesterday, soldiers stood by as people streamed into Tahrir Square in central Cairo, frisking people for weapons but turning few away and not intervening in the protests. Today, as Bowen notes, the army had changed its tune. “As the pro-Mubarak marchers were gathering, they issued a statement calling for the people occupying the square to leave – and their soldiers made no attempt to stop President Mubarak’s supporters bursting into the square.” Others report that ID cards taken from pro-Mubarak demonstrators who entered the square showed the bearer to be a member of Mubarak’s police, while journalist Reham Saeed, “saw men with police uniforms go into hotels on the way to Tahrir Square, then come out wearing civilian clothes joining the pro-Mubarak protesters.”

The tactics used by Mubarak are organized, but hardly polished. As the AP reports, protesters in Tahrir Square were effectively cavalry charged, with “some galloping in on horses and camels and wielding whips.” At the fringes of the square, “pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings, dumping bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds.” Many came armed with machetes, for clashes which have left hundreds wounded, and an unknown number dead.

Foreign journalists were not spared. A Swedish team was held and accused of spying for Israel, while CNN reporter Anderson Cooper’s team was attacked by government thugs, and al-Arabiya has reported a correspondent as missing. J.J. Gould, filming in the square relates how “right by the Egyptian Museum entrance, five men in plainclothes grabbed me, hit me three times, twice in the back and once in the chest” before they “grabbed my video camera and still camera, shouting “memory card,” and tried to break it when they couldn’t figure out how to remove it. Then two of them grabbed my arms and ejected me from the square, onto the Nile corniche.”

The comparisons with Ajax, though historically resonant, are not practically apt. This is a desperate government that is embarrassing itself internationally. Unusually, the press corps are reporting pseudo-gangs deployed to break up anti-government protests as organized by the state. The government has unleashed forces so ill-disciplined that they have attacked numerous foreign journalists.

Mubarak has opted for the immediate application of force against what he sees as the epicentre of the campaign against him. The ferocity of this needs to be noted. As Gould reports:

“The pro-Mubarak group flooded the square, and its strategy became clear: All the entrances to the plaza were being probed and, if found lightly defended, overrun. I was now on the outside among the forward surge; no one was permitted to leave, but a trickle of captured protesters came out, each surrounded by at least a hundred screaming Mubarak supporters, and being beaten so intensely that I couldn’t see their faces, only a circle of waving sticks and fists, raining down on whatever unfortunate was at the center. One female protester was brought out, thrashed, and delivered to a military unit inside the Egyptian Museum grounds. At one point a man was being crowd-surfed out and beaten; one of the pro-Mubarak men said he was a “Chinese journalist.” “We will stay,” the man said, “and then go into the square and take it over.”

As the strongmen of the Arab world (and beyond) wait to see if their thrones will be threatened, much depends upon whether the Battle of Tahrir Square (no “colour revolution” fits here) will destroy any residual legitimacy that Mubarak commands, or whether it will lead to his isolation from foreign sugar-daddies, and the further emboldening of protesters. It could yet prove pyrrhic. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Bashir Assad and the King of Bahrain, will surely hope so, but if the wave of the people rises again tomorrow, who can rightly tell?


One Response to “The People of the Middle East: “If We Don’t Fight Now, We Will Lose Everything””

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Samuel John Urquhart, Samuel John Urquhart. Samuel John Urquhart said: A moment to fight, this is the turning point in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. The Battle of Tahrir Square […]

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