Spotlight on Geopolitics

The domino effect

About two weeks ago, the US Secretary of State still believed that “the Egyptian government is stable”. Not to be outdone, the department’s spokesman, PJ Crowley, proclaimed to the world that Egypt was “an anchor of stability”. These assessments come after a long series of mistakes and blunders that seem to have become the hallmark of the American foreign policy establishment in the past thirty years or so.

Mubarak’s downfall has reignited protest movements in Algeria, Morocco, Yemen and even Bahrain, the latter of which cannot be said to be short of money. The 350-million strong Arab community has suddenly decided to raise against corruption, against the lack of the most basic human rights, unemployment and poverty. In many respects, the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt – written off as next to impossible only a few weeks ago, given these countries’ huge security apparatus – clearly testifies beyond a doubt to the existence of the domino effect.

To be sure, 2011 is the year of the Arabs in the same way 1989 was the year of Eastern Europeans. The fall of US-backed regimes is similar in nature to the implosion of Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe, with the difference this time being that nobody expects the United States to implode as a result.

On February 12, Mr Mubarak’s counterparts from Algeria and Yemen have again proved that dictators do learn from each other, albeit the wrong lessons. President Bouteflika has tried to disrupt marches by interrupting Facebook and Twitter and by bringing into the streets 30,000 heavily-armed police forces against a few thousand demonstrators. As for President Ali Saleh, he preferred to pay thugs to occupy Sanaa’s Tahrir Square, who attacked anti-government demonstrators with traditional knives. The main lesson they should have learned by now is that hard power (military and special security troops, tanks in the streets) is no match for soft power, or “people’s power” if you will…

Sure, Arabs are dissatisfied with their lot, and for good reasons, too. Arab populations are young and their countries do not offer them opportunities or hope for the future. With very few exceptions, unemployment exceeds 20 percent and – as in the cases of Egypt and Yemen – the majority of the population lives under the poverty line, having to make do with less than 2 dollars a day. Their leaders have been in power for decades, are repressive, intolerant of opposition and totally lacking in empathy for their countrymen’s woes.

There is, however, another no less important reason why Arab nations are suddenly asking for democratic and personal rights in the streets or Rabat, Algiers, Sanaa or elsewhere. By now, most Arabs feel upstaged by other Islamic nations like Turkey or Indonesia, which for a decade now have developed Islamic democratic models and have deposed their dictators or sent their military back to the barracks. Islamic democracies might not conform to the Western liberal model, but they do work in practice and that’s all that matters for now. And who knows ? In ten or twenty years we might witness the birth of democracy with Chinese characteristics, which again might not conform to the Western model, but would satisfy Chinese needs and aspirations.

The huge transformations now underway within the Arab world cannot, of course, be supported wholeheartedly by the United States, for obvious reasons. The European Union, on the other hand, is in a much better position to help the emerging democracies of Egypt, Tunisia and others build functional institutions, much in the same way it helped Central and Eastern European countries after the fall of communism. As unsettling as the Arab popular movements against dictatorships might be for some politicians in the West, we have no real alternative to lending a helping hand to the democratisation drive now underway across the region. (sources: Le Monde, Reuters, The Guardian, BBC, The Economist, Deutsche Welle)

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