A Big Effin’ Deal January 27, 2011Posted by Sobek in News.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]