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A Big Effin’ Deal January 27, 2011

Posted by Sobek in News.
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Maybe some of you have read about the unrest in Tunisia.  Most recent news is that the country just issued an arrest warrant for the former president, who fled to Saudi Arabia with his family.

Why should you care?  African dictators get deposed all the time, right?  Because to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, it’s a Big Effin Deal.  Or it could be, anyway.  It’s a strong enough possibility that I’m genuinely freaked out.

"Game Over." The beginning of the end for the Arab "strong man" dictator?

Tunisia

Now-former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has been in charge of Tunisia for twenty-three years now.  As far as African dictators go, he was actually pretty good.  Not so much with the democracy thing, but a willing partner with the US, and comparatively good with human rights.  His wife is what got him unpopular: she came from a dirt poor family that, after her marriage, got spectacularly wealthy.  (It wasn’t through hard work and perseverance.)  So we got some corruption, and we got a rising unemployment rate.  We also got Wikileaks publishing State Department cables describing how wealthy the wife was, and that really pissed Tunisians off.  And then, a little while ago, a poor vegetable seller who had his cart confiscated by police for not having a vendor’s license set himself on fire and burned to death as an act of protest.  That act sparked the riots that eventually led to the President hopping a plane to Saudi.  Probably a smart move, all things considered.

As things stand, the Prime Minister has stepped up and taken the reins of power, and there’s still some demonstrations going on because the PM initially said he was keeping Ben Ali loyalists in their positions.  That will probably change soon, under pressure from the protesters.  But there’s no way to know for sure.

Egypt

But Tunisia isn’t really the problem.  It sucks to lose an ally, of course, but there’s no way to know whether that will happen, because we don’t know how things will shake out.  The problem is that the success of the demonstrations has sparked similar unrest in, so far, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt.  Protesters in Yemen and Egypt in particular (I don’t know about the others) have been seen waving their own countries’ flags alongside Tunisian flags.  In other words, they’re asking “why not us, too?”  Both countries have bigger poverty, education and Islamicist problems than Tunisia.  Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, during which time he has shown no hesitation in cracking down on dissent  by any means necessary.  He has also publicly supported the Israeli peace process, and accepts US military and economic support, which adds fuel to the fire.

Point is, Mubarak’s situation is probably as precarious as it has ever been.  Today I read reports that his son, rumored to be next in line for the presidency, fled the country with his family.  Mubarak is completely incommunicado.  No one knows where he is — maybe in a fortress at Sharm el-Sheikh, maybe in Cairo (probably not), maybe he’s left the country.  The largest public square in Cairo is full of tens of thousands of protesters who have started camping out there.  I hear rumors that something very, very bad will happen tomorrow.

Riot Police Confront Protesters in Cairo

So why do we care about Egypt?  It’s the most heavily-populated Arab country.  It’s the birthplace of Islamic radicalism, beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood (which is not necessarily radical, but all of the radical groups spring from it).  If it topples, there is no reason to believe any Arab government will survive.  Think about that.  In a few short months, we could see totally new governments in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states.  (I’m leaving out Syria and Lebanon for a reason).  None of them are safe, if their restive populations all ask “why not us, too?”

Incidentally, this is exactly what radicals like Seyyid Qutb have been predicting and planning since the 1950s.  Qutb is the spiritual forefather of all Sunni radicalism, including al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Gama’a al-Islamiya.  Qutb claimed that every one of the Arab states was apostate, and if true Muslims could take over one country, the rest would fall like dominoes, and then the rest of the world.

But Will That Really Happen?

Here’s where the uncertainty really begins.  Young Egyptians and Yemenis are saying they want what Tunisia has.  But they don’t actually know what Tunisia has.  No one does.

Consider the case of Iran, 1979.  The Iranian Revolution was caused by a coalition of groups that all agreed on one thing: we hate the Shah.  Communists, secular pro-Westerners, moderate Islamists, and Islamic hard-liners all agreed on that one point, and together they made it happen.  In late 1978 and early 1979, there was no particular reason to think the Revolution was a bad thing.  After all, the Shah was a thug.  Most of the complaints about him were true.  His secret police, SAVAK, really were murdering people.  He really was living in opulence that further humiliated the growing numbers of poor people.  So if he’s deposed, no big deal, right?  That’s what Carter figured, when he pulled all his support for the Shah over human rights abuses, thus ensuring the government collapsed (thanks, Jimmy).

After the Shah was gone, the real fight began.  All the disparate groups realized they actually hated one another’s guts, and they started a vicious civil war.  No one could have known, in February 1979, who would rise to the top in the wake of that war.

Just so in Tunisia.  “We hate the President’s wife” is a slogan that only gets you so far.  Now that she’s gone, the jockeying for power will begin.  Who will emerge victorious?  No one knows.  Will it be an improvement over an anti-democratic, corrupt dictator?  Maybe.  But maybe not.

In the summer of 2009, I whole-heartedly supported the Iranians who protested the massive election fraud that returned Ahmedinejad to power.  I didn’t know who would win if Ahmadinejad lost, but there was literally no way it could get worse.  Anyone else would be either status quo or better.  So why not revolt?

As I said, Mubarak has his issues.  He is an ally of the US, but he kinda sucks as an ally.  He is anti-democratic, and doesn’t mind having his guys crack a few skulls.  But Egypt could get worse.  It could get a whole lot of worse.  al-Zawahiri may be hiding in a cave in Waziristan, but there are dozens of would-be Zawahiris in Cairo right now, dreaming of the return of the Caliphate.

So What Will Determine the Result?

I don’t know, but here are a few things to consider.  Last week, Tunisia’s Ben Ali ordered his military to fire live rounds on the protesters, and the military refused.  That was the end 0f Ben Ali’s presidency.  In 2009, the Iranian government told the Basiji militiamen to use deadly force against the protesters, and they did so with gusto.  Iranians soon figured out that protests were hazardous to one’s health, and they stopped going outside.  The protests were crushed quickly.

Iranian Police Suppress Demonstrations in 2009

I believe Mubarak has it in him to order troops to fire on Egyptians.  I don’t know whether Egyptian soldiers would do it.  Some, maybe, but all of them?  Enough of them to get the message across?

If he doesn’t, and if he stays out of the spotlight, the furor could die down.  Or it could keep going until Mubarak flees.  I strongly suspect that if he flees (if he hasn’t already), he will never come back to Egypt.  Not as a free man, let alone as a President.  Fleeing now will be seen as surrender, and the only thing left will be for the civil war to begin.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is already strong.  If the government collapses, it will get stronger.

Jordan is possibly our best ally in the region.  It is relatively prosperous and free.  It is less likely to fall than Egypt or Yemen, but if Egypt and Yemen go, Jordan will be on shakier ground.

What of Syria?  Bashar Assad will have no qualms with ordering his men to shoot, and his men won’t hesitate to do it.  Syria is safe.  What of Lebanon?  Hezbollah just demonstrated this week that it has enough political clout to control the country.  Hezbollah won’t allow protesters.

Non-Conclusions

Or, you know, it could all blow over.  As I said, there’s no way to tell just yet.  But in case any of you are wondering why I’m a little freaked out right, now, this is why.

[Pictures were inserted into this post by Michael, just to sex it up after Geoff gave us a sidebar link at Ace of Spades HQ.]

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Comments»

1. Lipstick - January 27, 2011

Great synopsis Sobek.

Years ago I read that the U.S. gives Egypt a billion dollars a year because they signed the peace treaty with Israel. If this is true and Mubarak skimmed just 10% per year, he would be fabulously wealthy and could have bowed out years ago and lived wherever he chose as a respected “elder statesman” of sorts.

These dictators just can’t seem to give up the power…and I suppose that drive and ambition is what lead them to attain the power in the first place, but they never seem to know when to quit.

2. xbradtc - January 27, 2011

Yep.

Though I would add that I’ve seen the argument that high food prices (thanks, ethanol!) have also had an influence on the simmering discontent in Egypt and other Arab countries. It wasn’t the causal factor, but perhaps a necessary precondition, if you will.

3. A Big Effin’ Deal « Innocent Bystanders | Bring the heat, Bring the Stupid - January 27, 2011

[...] A Big Effin’ Deal « Innocent Bystanders. [...]

4. Lipstick - January 27, 2011

So the Green movement may lead to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt.

5. Lipstick - January 27, 2011

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is already strong. If the government collapses, it will get stronger.

Yeah, Mubarak has kept a sort of lid on that stuff and here’s where we get to the “he’s a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch” argument.

I’m old enough to remember Carter’s hostility toward the Shah and look what that got the world.

6. Merovign - January 27, 2011

The West has a nasty habit of making the perfect the enemy of the good, and then getting the worst in return. We seem to have written Turkey off, Tunisia is not under anybody’s control, and our reaction to Egypt has been blunted to say the best.

Yay. Wait, is that the worst I hear coming?

7. skinbad - January 27, 2011

How much of this is more likely because of Iraq? Will it be Bush’s pyiric, phyrric, firic, phyric, pyhhric Pyrrhic victory?

8. Tweets that mention A Big Effin’ Deal « Innocent Bystanders -- Topsy.com - January 27, 2011

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by April, April. April said: Must read–extremely helpful article on what's happening in the Muslim world http://bit.ly/exhmAZ via @gabrielmalor [...]

9. Neal5x5 - January 27, 2011

The problem is that the most organized and well funded of all the anti-government/status quo organizations in the area are also Islamist in nature. The pro-democratic groups are splintered along tribal and other lines without a central voice. When Arab nations are presented with a democratic choice, the West may not be very happy with who takes power. I guess that’s one of the great dangers of democracy: genuine expressions of the will of the people are great, but what if the people are assholes?

10. Cathy - January 27, 2011

Thanks Sobek.

11. Tweets that mention A Big Effin’ Deal « Innocent Bystanders -- Topsy.com - January 27, 2011

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Walter, Chris Coon. Chris Coon said: A Big Effin’ Deal – What this weeks unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen etc Means : http://bit.ly/hh7dLu #tcot #Islam #p2 [...]

12. MCPO Airdale - January 27, 2011

Sobek – Excellent post. My problem with our support of Mubarak has been Egypt’s turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms from Hezbollah to Hamas in the Gaza strip.

13. Cathy - January 27, 2011

^ Good point, Chief. Keeping track of the details from history about regimes, deals, insurrections, etc. have never been my forte.

I’m not for isolationism, but anytime the U.S. starts sticking itself into the goings on in another nation’s conflict I get concerned about the risks we are taking given what we have few guarantees about what might happen in the future.

It seems pretty clear to me that our good intentions can turn into our own road to hell.

14. MCPO Airdale - January 27, 2011

Sobek nailed it on what happened in Iran and the iWon is as naive as Jimmah was back then.

15. The Arab World: A New Mess « Muslihoon - January 27, 2011

[...] wanted to respond to Sobek’s post on the recent troubles in North Africa and elsewhere. But I didn’t want to post such a long screed at Michael’s place and abuse his [...]

16. Michael - January 27, 2011

^^^

Worth reading, and as long as the usual Musli post.

17. Vmaximus - January 27, 2011

I asked this a Musli’s but perhaps some of Michael’s people can comment as well.

I have been reading Montesquieu lately and he is a fan of parliamentary monarchies.
While not ideal, do you think something like that would work in say Pakistan?

Say a General that delegates social freedoms to parliament?

just a thought about what has been percolating around in my 2 functioning brain cells.

18. Danial - January 28, 2011

Hello.
How are U Sobek?
thank U for choose this topic.
I think this is start.start of a big Jihad against traitor dictators and attain to freedom.
today my brothers in Egypt and Tunisia want to end anti-Islamic regimes.this is start.

19. Cathy - January 28, 2011

I’m glad you are still visiting us Danial.

Blessings.

20. lauraw - January 28, 2011

Danial, what kind of governance do these protestors want? What does true Islamic governance look like? Do you believe Iran is a pure Islamic state?

21. Pupster - January 29, 2011

22. Danial - January 29, 2011

Hi Lauraw.
I think Arabs are tired from secular governments.Ben Ali,Mubarak and Malek Abdollah/king of Jordan/.and also they are tired from traitor kings and sot governments.Like Libya,Saudi Arabia and Yeman.
Now,Iran has not a pure Islamic government.but I thinck it is better than other Islamic countries.
Just there were three real Islamic governors during history.Prophet Mohammad,Imam Ali and Imam Hassan.


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