PART I THE END OF AUTHORITARIANISM IN THE ARAB WORLD?

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`Go, Mubarak go!’  USA’s tottering user-friendly tyrants…


By Rahnuma Ahmed

Having grown up amidst popular uprisings, such as the Civil Disobedience movement in 1969, and much later, having participated in mass uprisings, foremost among them, the one against general HM Ershad’s regime in 1990, witnessing scenes of the unfolding peoples’ revolt against the US-bolstered 30-year old Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, relayed live, courtesy of al-Jazeera television, is, well…, just great!

Protestors at Tahreer square, Cairo

Every passing moment contributes to our history on earth, but some moments are crucial for they change history, writes Ashraf Ezzat, medical doctor and political analyst, from Alexandria. What the world now witnesses in Egypt, is not only the crumbling down of a dictatorship that stifled Egyptians for decades but “a whole age of authoritarianism in the Arab world.”

It all began in Tunisia. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, a vegetable-seller, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 after police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand; he died on Jan 3. Protests against unemployment, police brutality and the regime’s corruption increased, leading to the toppling of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, a dictator who had ruled for 23 years, was re-elected president five times, each time winning 99.9%-89.62% votes, who amended the constitution in 2002 to allow the president (read, himself) to stay in power until the age of 75, to be re-elected unlimited times. After a 29 day popular uprising, Ben Ali, who headed “one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes” (Guardian, January 15, 2011),  who was a “stalwart US ally” (Foreign Policy, February 5, 2011) was forced to flee, to take refuge in Saudi Arabia. Prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took over as interim president as soldiers guarded ministries, public buildings and the state TV building, as security forces were authorised to fire live rounds.

“Freedom is expensive and my brother paid the price of freedom,” said Salem, Bouazizi’s brother. “My brother has become a symbol of resistance in the Arab world.”

So true he was, as instances of self-immolation followed soon. An Egyptian man set himself alight near the parliament, a Mauritanian in front of the presidential palace in Nouakchott, the capital, while four unemployed young men reportedly immolated themselves in Algeria.

America’s bout with democracy in the Middle East (and also, in Asia, Africa and Latin America) since World War II has led to nations being ruled by “user-friendly tyrants” (George E. Irani, April 29, 2003). Since the Tunisian revolution, some Middle Eastern and North African tyrants are busy declaring measures aimed at pre-empting civil unrest.

On February 2, president Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen who has ruled for 32 years, announced that he would step down in 2013, that his son Ahmed would not succeed him. But that did not quell the protests, demonstrators gathered for a “day of rage” on Friday February 4. US military aid to Yemen had averaged $20 million a year during the Bush era,

but under the Obama administration, US intelligence and security roles have expanded, military aid to Yemen is expected to reach $250 million this year. (Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2011).

In Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president since 1999, on February 3 promised to end the state of emergency “in the very near future,” to adopt measures for job creation, to lift restrictions on state-controlled media. Opposition leaders, human rights groups, unions, students and unemployed workers however, plan a march on February 12. Algeria forged “intimate links” with the US after September 11, 2001 voicing support for the US-led international `coalition against terror.’ Close cooperation reportedly exists between Algeria’s counter-terrorism and intelligence networks and the FBI and CIA. According to Israeli security experts, they were working with the Algerian military and national security sector (2002).

The Algerian parliamentary elections held at the end of May 2002 were, according to the US, evidence of the “development of democracy.”

In Jordan, despite the Financial Times’ optimism that “internal tensions between different factions in society” make a unified uprising “less likely” (January 17, 2011),  thousands of demonstrators took to the streets recently shouting, “Rifai go away, prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians,” and banners, “Send the corrupt guys to court.” It has led King Abdullah—who has the power to appoint governments, approve legislation and dissolve parliament—to dismiss his cabinet, to appoint Marouf Bakhit as prime minister in place of Samir Rifai. But Bakhit, a retired major-general, prime minister from 2005-2007, earlier, national security advisor and ambassador to Israel, has not been welcomed by many, including the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and Jordan’s largest opposition party. Bakhit, deemed to have “a history of oppression and corruption” was the mastermind behind the rigged 2007 elections. “There is no reason to stop the protests now,” says IAF head Hamzah Mansur. Public anger at high inflation, unemployment and rampant poverty is coupled with resentment at a “rubber stamp parliament.” Rifai’s recent announcements of a $550 million package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products (rice, sugar, livestock, liquefied gas), pay rise for civil servants and security forces were swept aside by rising protests including the right to directly elect the prime minister, to a demand for changes in “how the country is now run.” Jordan, a key CIA counter-terrorism ally, is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid on a per-capita basis, it has received more than $6 billion in development aid since 1952, the reward for having “pursued one of the most consistently pro-American foreign policies in the Middle East” (Foreign Policy, January 31, 2011).

While the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, at a high-level security conference in Munich warns of a “perfect storm” enveloping the Middle East if leaders do not implement political and social reforms to meet the demands of their people (al-Jazeera, February 5, 2011), tensions have emerged within the US administration and on Capitol Hill over the CIA and other spy agencies failure to warn president Obama adequately (Washington Post, February 3, 2011). Intelligence officials insist they had warned of “instability” but did not know what the “trigger mechanism” would be. As the National Security Council spokesman put it, “Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and start a revolution? No.”

President Obama’s high-sounding advice to Mubarak to listen to what is “being voiced by the Egyptian people,”l his own message to the Egyptian people (a televised address following Mubarak’s address to the nation), “We hear your voices” is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy, one that evades the unequivocal language in which Tahreer square protestors speak, “Obama needs to be clear…either he stands with Mubarak, or he stands with the Egyptian people” (al-Jazeera, February 4, 2011).

Or, as Hasan Mohammad, Egyptian living in the US, demonstrating outside the White House and the Egyptian embassy in Washington put it, the US should ask Mubarak to “get out now” for Egyptians can do “everything else themselves.” He added, “He [Mubarak] wants to destroy Egypt before he leaves. He thinks he inherited Egypt from his parents, he thinks Egypt is his. No, Egypt is everybody. Egypt is Egyptian; it is not Mubarak.” Other protestors want an end to US military aid to Mubarak, a placard outside the White House read, “Dictator made in the USA.” Another bore a sign equalling $30 billion in military assistance to Egypt with 30 years of dictatorship.

The US, writes Paul J Balle, has kept Mubarak in power, it gave his regime $1.5 billion in aid last year “mainly because he supported America’s pro-Israel policies, especially by helping Israel to maintain its stranglehold on Gaza” (`The Peoples Revolt,’ February 6, 2011).

Israel blockades Gaza on one side, while Mobarak blockades it on the other. Johan Hari writes of watching Egyptian soldiers refusing to let out sick and dying Palestinians for treatment which they cannot get in Gaza’s collapsing hospitals (The Independent, February 4, 2011).

But there is no reason for the US administration to begrudge the huge amounts of aid as much of it goes back to American defence contractors : Lockheed Martin has taken $3.8 billion from Egypt in the last few years, General Dynamics $2.5 billion, Boeing $1.7 billion (Pratap Chatterjee, Egypt’s Military-Industrial Complex, February 4, 2011). For the Egyptian people, however, there are solid grounds for resentment : US economic aid to Egypt in 2007 amounted to $455 million but translated to only $6 per capita. The total economic aid in 2010 of $200 million provided less than $3 per capita income.

Further, injury is heaped on these insults as tear gas canisters fired by Egyptian security officials in Cairo last week reveal they are manufactured in the US (ABC TV), as 12-gauge shotgun shells show “Made in USA” stamped on their brass heads (Sydney Morning Herald). Hillary Clinton’s “perfect storm” brewing warning conveniently overlooks these when she intones, we condemn in the “strongest terms [the Egyptian government’s] attacks on peaceful demonstrators.”

Her slick denunciations also overlook allegations that Egypt’s near-total internet blackout was enabled by a California-based technology company’s sale of equipment which allows the Mubarak government to track online activity, as she urged the Egyptian government to “ensure journalists ability to report on these events to the people in Egypt and to the world,” to not “violate international norms that guarantee freedom of the press.”

And, as the US resists calls to cut military aid to Egypt, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, in an ABC TV interview, speaks of “plenty of [US] military presence throughout the region,” of the defense department’s “higher state of awareness.” The military, he said, is ready to provide any “response or support” in the crisis. This was later clarified, the four-star admiral had meant the US military’s readiness to evacuate American nationals.

As for Mubarak, he too, he says, is “fed up.” “After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go.” It is only the fear of Egypt falling into chaos which prevents him.

Fed in corruption over and above his head and ears is more accurate. Tyrants user-friendly toward the US are known to amass huge personal fortunes, and, as Pepe Escobar writes, “According to a mix of United States, Syrian and Algerian sources [Mubarak’s] personal fortune amounts to no less than US$40 billion – stolen from the public treasury in the form of “commissions”, on weapons sales, for instance. The Pharaoh controls loads of real estate, especially in the US; accounts in US, German, British and Swiss banks; and has “links” with corporations such as MacDonald’s, Vodafone, Hyundai and Hermes. Suzanne, the British-Irish Pharaoh’s wife, is worth at least $5 billion. And son Gamal – the one that may have fled to London, now stripped of his role as dynastic heir – also boasts a personal fortune of $17 billion” (Asia Times, February 4, 2011).

Kaan tanle matha ashe, a Bangla proverb, meaning if you pull the ear, along comes the head. Egyptian calls for putting Mubarak on trial, must be supported globally. For pulling the dictator’s ear, will serve us the military-industrial head that breeds and furbishes authoritarianism in the Middle East.

More, next week…

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