Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Revolt of the day:
The drive for reform beyond Egypt

Has anyone seen Hosni Mubarak? News reports have been circulating speculations as to his whereabouts. It’s been generally assumed that the former president of Egypt has been ensconced at his villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, since being ousted from power on Feb. 11. But The Washington Post cited someone who said Mubarak had boarded a plane to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and was headed from there to Germany.

Anything’s possible. This is the age of jet travel. He could be anywhere on the planet. DJ Hosni Fayrow could be kickin’ it in Malibu, puffing a blunt with Snoop right now, for all we know.

If Mubarak is absent for the time being, what’s very much front and center is the spirit his ouster has unleashed, both domestically and elsewhere in the region. The downfall of Mubarak, rather than the end of a process, appears to be anything but, as people in other countries across the Middle East mount aggressive drives for governmental and social reform.

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In the last month, we’ve seen demonstrations in Tunisia — the so-called Jasmine Revolution — that led to reforms in the government there. In the last 10 days, Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he won’t run for re-election again — a pre-emptive move no doubt spurred by events in Egypt.

In the last 72 hours, we’ve seen demonstrations in Algeria, resulting in a pledge from the government of Abdulazaiz Bouteflika to end a 19-year-old state of emergency.

In Yemen, protesters pressed for reforms despite the promise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh not to seek re-election in 2013.

In Bahrain, protesters spanning the generations called for a new constitution and a more representative parliament.

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And in the last 24 hours, in Iran, protesters hit the streets in an echo of what sparked the tumultuous events of June 2009.

AP reported Tuesday of a pushback against Iranian pro-reform protesters, with Iranian lawmakers in parliament seeking to have opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami put on trial and sentenced to death — a reflex response to Monday’s skirmishes between government opposition protestors and Iranian security forces. One person was killed and about 1,500 people were arrested in the clashes, AP reported.

On Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, visiting Iran, offered advice to the governments in the region, a statement of that which should be perfectly obvious. "When leaders and heads of countries do not pay attention to the demands of their nations, the people themselves take action to achieve their demands," Gul said, as quoted by IRNA, Iran’s state-run news agency.

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Gul’s statement explains both the current reality and the wider expectation, shared among analysts and Arab scholars, that what’s happened already changes the game, alters the rules of engagement — mainly the rules by which the citizens of the Arab world get engaged in the process of saving itself.

Robert Malley, Mideast program director of the International Crisis Group, said this Saturday on CNN:

“Arab states have been basically mute, basically absent from diplomacy, from anything they say mattered to them: the future of the Palestinians, the future of Iran, the future of Iraq, the future of Sudan, on issue after issue, the Arab world has been dead. I think what we’ve seen on the streets of Cairo is the first act of trying to reclaim their own destiny.”

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Implicit in Malley’s analysis is the idea that if those states continue to be the passive observers he says they’ve been in the past, the door would be ajar (if not wide open) to the instabilities of fundamentalism, or the dangers of terrorist bad actors pressing the advantage of a momentary regional chaos. Action trumps inaction, which is exactly what a power vacuum requires.

For all the sleepless nights that Washington and Tel Aviv have had over the last three weeks, it should give them some peace of mind that, whatever their long-term prospects might be, these uprisings had genuinely populist beginnings. Despite the claims that the U.S. government played the puppetmaster of events in Egypt, there’s far more evidence that the Egyptian Revolution was a fully organic, indigenous expression of the Egyptian people. It was their show, start to finish.

And what’s happened since then across north Africa and beyond has to be seen in the same home-grown context as that which emerged in Egypt: a young, growing and increasingly disaffected demographic chafing under a regime’s authority has a gauntlet-throwdown event, an Enough moment that distills and clarifies the dissatisfactions of the wider population — one that makes it necessary to hit the streets.

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To the degree that all of that is a template recipe for the unrest we’ve seen already, it’s one that reinforces the natural drive for personal freedom and self-determination. As such, it dovetails with American interests and should be a given for American support — if, of course, we can get it past the cultural wars, the unrest in the halls and offices of Capitol Hill.

And as the next phase of this rolling revolution develops, Malley suggested (on CNN) that a jockeying for position will take place, a leveraging of position not on the streets but in the offices where “techniques of mobilization and demonstration” by pro-reformists would be studied by the governments and their respective militaries (or, in Egypt’s case, the government that is the military, until elections later this year).

Using Tunisia and Egypt as examples, Malley said the clashes between governments and protesters have been “like two chess players; we’ve just seen two rounds where both sides are learning the moves of their opponents.”

The result: A clash of ideologies that plays out in the media and in the Arab street. The social media outlets of Twitter and Facebook, and the search capabilities of Google have had as much to do with mobilizing the energies of the opposition as any clutch of protesters in the streets, and they’re ultimately more effective, since those tools can be used privately on a 24/7 basis to communicate with like-minded partisans across town and around the world.

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It’s the height of irony that a part of the world many think is hopelessly backwards may be leading the world into a new approach to waging the war for public support — the storied “hearts and minds” — without which a revolution hasn’t much hope of succeeding.

There’s a panoramic range and scope to the emerging Middle East chronicle that makes it irresistible: as a story to journalists; as a policy pursuit to politicians and diplomats; as a mission to the ones who matter the most: the people who live there.

Wherever Hosni Mubarak is right now really doesn’t matter. What matters is why he is wherever he is right now, instead of in the presidential palace. The sweeping human drama that in 18 days ushered him out of an office he held for 29 years is instructive. We’re seeing now how its lessons are all too transferable to the wider Middle East.

Image credits: Tunisia watches Egypt: Al Jazeera. Protest in Algeria: Mohamed Massara/EPA. Protest in Yemen: Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press. Twitter page fragment: © 2011 Twitter Inc.

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