|Volume 5 Issue 04 | April 2011|
Dinosaurs in our Midst
MIR MAHFUZ UR RAHMAN takes an incisive look at the 2011 revolutions in the Arab world.
While the Ice Age may have killed the dinosaur species, many metaphorical remnants of the species have survived long past their sell-by date. The Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa, all the way south to Zimbabwe, are littered with old men, or young men, claiming authority from dead old men, who have ruled long past their sell-by date.
This expiry date has not crept up on them suddenly. Decades of ignorance of not only democratic practices but also of robbing of their basic human dignity has led them to be sitting in glass houses atop power kegs.
Enter the Dinosaurs:
Each nation has its own circumstances and specific history, but what has linked the sudden wave of rebellious tendencies is a combination of length of regimes, urban unemployment, lack of democratic rights, changing demographics and wide scale looting of state resources by rulers.
In fact, if one reviews the numbers related to each of the factors (see Table 1) it is astonishing that these rulers have been able to keep their position till today.
The Middle East as we know it has a complex mosaic of history, culture, religion and politics and has been a zone of play for the entire world's Great Powers for the past two centuries. It would be incorrect to refer to the entire area as a monolithic bloc as, while the entire region shares Arabic as the dominant language, there are complex regional rivalries for resources and superpower attention at play.
The non-Gulf Middle East, excluding the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Oman, is the more explosive Middle East, due to greater global media penetration and overseas travel for work by its peoples. The countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Yemen, have had lesser human development and more openly repressive and brutal state security apparatus. The lack of oil, larger population, weaker human development investment and greater poverty has given rise to greater degrees of accessibility of various ideologies, ranging from socialism, pan-Arabism, to private enterprise, in these states. The lack of democracy has focused the rulers' attention to development of state security systems and large standing armies, either individually or collectively, as stakeholders in the continuation of their rule.
The Middle East today comprises more than 300 million people, of which the vast majority live outside the oil rich Gulf states. While they are allowed to work in these states, the urban poor of these countries live in their own regions and suffer the indignity of being perceived as "paupers" by the Gulf states and trouble-makers by their own rulers.
In fact, the average unemployment rate is 15% in the Arab world, but it reaches 40 per cent among people between the ages of 15 and 24, totaling 66 million out of the total Arab population of 317 million.1 To travel through the Arab world right now is to experience a mood of disgruntlement and doubt, especially amongst those under 30.2 The number of unemployed people under 30 in the Middle East will increase from the current 15 million to 100 million by 2020 if status quo remains, the area having the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world.3
Enter the Superpower:
And the US focus in the region was based on three main issues: 1) Continuous flow of oil, 2) Search of Al Qaeda and other radical groups, and 3) Keeping the peace between the countries in order to allow it to focus on the above two issues.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, and fall of the USA-USSR rivalry over proxy regimes in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the rulers of the Arab Middle East countries, have been able to play on the superpower's fears of political-radical Islam and ignorance of local conditions, to obtain military and political backing from the USA.
The enhanced role of the USA as the pre-eminent unipolar dominating external influence on the region was established by the Bush Sr. administration's "boots on the ground" strategy of sending almost 500,000 American soldiers and leading the 1991 UN backed Coalition to eject Saddam Hussain of Iraq out of Kuwait.
Prior to that, it was quite unthinkable to believe that the leaders of the Arab world, especially in the Gulf, would allow US soldiers on the ground, without believing that this would greatly weaken their religious and temporal legitimacy in the minds of their peoples. However, the events were not normal, but it is only when conditions are not normal and stress is put into a structure, that the core structural relationships and conditions emerge.
On August 2, 1990 President George Bush issued a statement indicating that, while the US overseas basing system should remain intact, by 1995 US global security requirements might be met by an active force 25% smaller than in 1990. On that same day, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The massive introduction of US troops into the Middle East during the Gulf War led to the proclamation of a New World Order rooted in US hegemony and US military power.
New military bases in the Middle East were established, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where thousands of US troops have been stationed for more than a decade. Currently, there are US soldiers also based in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and UAE.4
However, little was done by the biggest power broker in the region, to push any of the rulers to legitimise their rules through elections, whether national or local, and begin to address the decade-old issues of urban poverty and employment.
The changes in January and February 2011 have already been referred to as the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, where the former Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawi, who is widely considered incompetent and a Mubarak loyalist, is in place with the support of the US administration. The change in Tunisia has also been marred with the chance by Prime Minister Ghannouchi to hang on to power after the departure of President Ben Ali.
However, the changes by the urban youth being pushed in Libya, Algeria, Syria and Jordan will not disappear due to the arrival of the state security police and the overhead bombing by NATO F 16 and Mirage fighters. The demands of these people have been ignored for decades, and with the demographic changes towards increasing urban majority in the non-Gulf Middle East, these demands will need to be addressed.
1 "The New Danger in the Middle East: Unemployment", Feb 13, 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com
Mir Mahfuz ur Rahman obtained a M. A. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and is an observer of international politics.
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