Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revolutions in the Middle East

Trends Journal is a reputed organization, that comes up with predictions or trends across the world. They rightly predicted the world economic crisis of 2008, and the ascent of Gold prices in the first decade of this century. Recently in December 2010, in their year end report, Trends Journal came up with predictions for 2011. Out there in the top predictions, was the youth of the world will unite, and there will be civil unrest across the world. It hasn't been too long since then, In January of 2011, rightly so, there was a revolution in the north African country of Tunisia and its President of 23 years was ousted in a matter of days. It all started with a self-immolation of a Tunisian youth Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17' 2010 citing unemployment and poor living conditions with no hope. What started as minor protest turned out into a huge revolution in the country and within a month, the leadership had to take an exile outside the country it had fondly ruled for more than two decades. As always as history repeats, a small incident in a part of region who no one notices, can overthrow mighty dictators and even could trigger wars. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the first major war in the modern world, namely the First World War. They often turn out to be the triggers, to long time issues faced by the people.

The major reasons for the revolutions, agreed universally across the press are
1. Rising food prices,
2. Rising unemployment,
3. Political corruption.

It is coupled with other problems, common to the middle eastern countries, lack of political change because of dictatorship, no freedom of speech or expression, lack of opportunity, and over all hopelessness. The Internet facilitated the revolution through social network sites like facebook, twitter, etc., where people came to know each other in cyber space, and realized people in the country share the same woes. It is not the technology that creates people's movement. But it just serves as a medium to bring out the aspirations of the people. The media often exaggerates the role of internet for sensation. In real-time, a successful revolution takes all people together, rich and poor, literate and illiterate who look for genuine change. If the revolution is just based on internet, it may fade in a matter of days, and wouldn't sustain the changes accomplished. Now there is a interim government in place which has promised to move out in six months, and lets hope we have a free and fair election in Tunisia, which represents the aspirations and has the confidence of Tunisians.

The Tunisian revolution took a sudden turn into other middle eastern nations., which have the same degree of the same problem. Now, there is a revolution in Egypt to oust the President of Egypt Mr. Hosni Mubarak who has been in power for 30 years now. The median age of an Egyptian is in mid 20s. This means half of the people of Egypt haven't seen a President other than Mr. Hosni Mubarak in their lifetime. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is bigger in size and population, and is a strategic power in the region, with the Suez canal at its whim., it has trade importance. Bulk of the oil is exported to Europe through the Suez Canal. There have been street protests all over Egypt and yesterday we had a "Departure day" protest. In spite of that, Mr. Hosni Mubarak has still managed to hold-on to power still at least. He has appointed a new cabinet, a new Prime Minister, and new vice-President. The vice-President being a first of its kind in 30 years of Mubarak's presidency. This move suggests all is not well in the Egypt ruling class, and at least they acknowledge the protests are out of genuine anger. With the intensity of the protest, it looks like Mr. Mubarak, a close ally of western powers including the United States for 30 years, will be leaving or its safe to say, it is the "beginning of his end" of power in Egypt. The military is co-operating with him so far, and a lot depends on its role. We will wait it out to see how it unfolds in the next few weeks.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have created a domino effect on other middle eastern countries in Jordan,Lebanon, Yemen too. Jordan has a monarchical system of government, with the king appointing the Prime minister. The king has appointed a new Prime minister on Feb 1 2011, after initial protests. Most media have mentioned the Jordanian kingdom still has respect with the Jordanian people, and may survive this scare. But looks Yemen's ruler are not going to be that lucky. Unemployment is as high as 45% in Yemen and its President Mr.Ali Abdullah Saleh has been its ruler since 1978. Yemen continues to be a poor, impoverished, backward country in the middle east. Prior to this, Yemen has been in the news very often for bad reasons, like the frequent American drone attacks inside Yemen on suspected terrorists, and many evolving new radical splinter groups calling Yemen its home., which the western nations call it a serious and real threat. Recent attempts like the "underwear" bomber on the Detroit bound flight, had traveled to Yemen and may have been trained there. So it appears, there are inherent problems in Yemen with massive youth unemployment that people become radicalized. It is also a possibility, that religious extremist organizations can exploit the situation and rise to power in this uncertain period. The President of Yemen has went on record, saying he is not going to run for another term in office when his current term expires in 2013. This is a sign of him losing grip, and offering concessions to people. If the people manage to throw out Mr. Hosni Mubarak successfully in Egypt, then Yemen has high probability that it would take center stage of revolution next. On its western side, it could be Libya. Libya has authoritarian rule from its President Gaddafi for over 40 years, the longest serving living leader.

Almost all the governments in the middle east are authoritarian dictatorship or it is a puppet government of the western nations historically. There isn't freedom of speech or expression or an open society in this part of the world for a long time. Leaders have always not evolved from the masses but just appointed by powerfull segment of the population. Culturally all these countries are same., and go back in history for thousands of years. It is a normal reaction of the people to be inspired when people's movement in neighboring countries manage to throw over the leadership and ask for a increasing say, on who they should be ruled by. The current ruling class have no big legitimacy and they bank in on the oil wealth and have managed to survive politically, and have not earned its citizen's loyalty. The powerful rulers amaze wealth worth billions of dollars for their family, and it is just a matter of time they become targets of ordinary citizens, whose life has become more difficult than usual. The western nations, prefer a stable middle east and have helped the dictators be in power with money and weapons, for the sake of stability in the region, and hence oil supply to the growing world. Now that the western economies in financial crisis themselves, this set-up is being challenged.

What is next? It appears the domino effect is going to spread at least in "principle" to other parts of the world, not just in middle eastern countries. However the success of them isn't that clear and remains to be same. With capitalist governments being subject to scrutiny after the recent economic crisis in the world, people have become emboldened to revolt. Protest could hit Europe. We saw the protests in Greece, Ireland recently. Portugal, Spain have a debt problem, and in the days to come, we might see similar protest there too. Eastern European countries are in financial mess, and we could see massive movements there. The former soviet blocks are vulnerable. Increase in food production and labor market improvements are necessary. Youth employment must go up in any growth. Protest spreading to Pakistan is a realistic scenario, with the present government being inefficient, and unable to deliver. Violence is on the rise in recent years with sectarian clashes. The predator drone attacks in the country by US, has angered and raised anti-western feelings. The inability of the government to stop them, has made the government a target for the people. Inflation in the country is running at record levels. Recent handling of relief efforts in earth quake, floods by the government was poor.

India context:

The problems that created the unrest in middle east, namely, price rise of essential commodities, unemployment, corruption apply to India as well. If people come out and protest in the streets else where, it is a possibility it will happen in India too. Unemployment is masked with the family system intact. But the government of India is no safe either. The price rises and corruption are so rampant in the country, if a revolution is needed to stop them, then we should welcome it. It will be a revolution to refine the system and bring in significant changes to eradicate corruption in government and politics. Since its democratically elected, people have a chance to overthrow rulers every 5 years., but if the elected officials do not want to solve fundamental issues facing the people, then a revolution in place to make them do it, is not a bad option. If things don't happen voluntarily it needs to be enforced. I believe, the recent arrest of former telecom minister Mr. Raja in the 2G scam is just a congress government reaction, to let the people of India know, it is serious about corruption. Obviously the Congress government knows, the domino effect would come to India, if it doesn't react, and Mr. Raja is one easy target.

Revolutions happen through out history. It is very interesting, we often highlight the rallies in Europe as 'protests', rallies in middle east as 'revolutions'. Both have the same effect of overthrowing the current ruling class. In Europe its more "anti-capitalist" movements taking hold, and in middle east it is "anti-dictatorship" rallies. Usually the system gets refined when masses protest. At the end of a significant revolution, some of people's problem are solved, and some aren't. If the revolution leads to fundamental changes in society, then it is good. If the revolution merely changes leadership and there is no significant improvement in government policies, practices, standard of living for citizens, the revolutions merely fail like the Orange revolution in eastern Europe. In some case, they go from bad to worse. History will judge the merit of these revolutions and its after-affects on people. At least it is true that the current status quo is not good and deserve's people's movements across the world.