A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I realize I can bark my brains out; the caravan has probably already moved on, but could we just stop for 3 seconds and check the safety net before we go off the deep end? No doubt there are powerful forces crawling across the Middle East and North Africa; all the conditions are right. Every country in the region has the same set of circumstances: a young population, a growing middle class, a reasonable level of education, a contracting economy, unemployment, rising prices and an old and decrepit leadership. This is the perfect storm. It might even be the long-awaited Arab Revolution. However, before we all hitch up the bandwagon let’s remember this isn’t 1989, no wall has come down, Benghazi isn’t Berlin and democracy is not on the march. It isn’t even on the crawl. Let’s quit with the self-congratulations for a minute (like western governments even did anything?) and put down the pom-poms. Nothing has been accomplished but everything has been set in motion. Get real. This is the way it is.
Okay, Hosni Mubarak is gone. So what? At this point the army is still in charge. This is the same bunch of guys who’ve been running the show since Nasser kicked King Farouk out of the country in 1952. In essence, what happened in Egypt was a really, really weird kind of show-of-hands election and the incumbent (Mubarak) was defeated. However, he didn’t actually have a challenger. There is no political organization available to govern after him. The problem the army faces now is how to hold a semi-free election without giving the country away? They know that for every young professional in Cairo, dreaming of democracy there are seven guys upriver who think this is a golden opportunity to get the girls back in their bags where they belong. The military needs to make it look good without letting the Moslem Brotherhood take control of the country. Egypt depends on foreign aid and foreign tourists to survive; an Islamic revolution — freely elected or not — would ruin everything.
In Bahrain, when the people gathered in Pearl Square in Manama demanding reform, Shaikh Hamad listened for a while. But absolute rulers don’t have to take that kind of abuse — or so he thought. He sent in troops with tanks and automatic weapons. Unfortunately, the western media noticed that they were all stamped “Made in America.” Within minutes the State Department was in full damage control mode, burning up the Internet, telling the royal family to withdraw the tanks or they weren’t going to get any more. Suddenly, the troops were gone. Now, it’s all goodwill and dialogue, but the only tangible change (so far) is the Grand Prix was cancelled. Personally, I think the king is just waiting ‘til CNN’s not looking.
In Iran, where nobody gives a damn what CNN thinks, anti-government demonstrations are old news. They’ve been going on, back and forth, ever since the Ahmadinejad government fixed the national elections two years ago. Invariably, any time people in Iran gather for anything more than a birthday party, the government response is brutal and ruthless – not necessarily in that order. There will be no democratic reform in Iran in the near future — even though the demonstrations will continue. The Iranian people are on their own, and they know it.
In Yemen and Algeria the battle for the streets is still going on. Both governments are trying a combination of economic reforms and ungodly violence to keep control. In both countries, the people are disorganized, and several factions are scrambling to put together a cohesive movement. At this point, their only demand is the current regime step aside and hold free elections. This isn’t going to happen unless – as in Egypt — the military takes control and rewrites the constitution.
Which brings us to Libya and the impending civil war. The problem with democratic reform in Libya is Muammar Gaddafi himself. He has been in power since 1969 (longer than anybody except Castro and the Queen.) The only Libyans who remember a time without Gaddafi are retired now. For 40 years, there has been no political dialogue in Libya, so it’s doubtful that the people currently shooting at each other are willing to give a try. They want Gaddafi out; that’s it. They may be calling for democracy, but unless they’ve been taking secret courses from The Learning Annex, how do they even know what it looks like? Besides, Muammar is not one to go quietly. Nor does he have a room full of generals advising him to leave for the good of the country. This fight is not over, and believe me, even when it is, it won’t be.
And finally, Tunisia, where the whirlwind all started. Actually Tunisia has the best chance of surviving the turmoil and bringing true democratic reform to their nation. Their size, history and population give them some big advantages in the search for reform. Maybe, if they can solve their problems, the long, hard, old-fashioned way, then other nations in the region can follow their example.
If this is the Arab Revolution, it’s about to hit a snag. It’s called history. It teaches us that most revolutions don’t end the way things did in 1989. Daisies don’t normally grow where the tanks were, and any eventual democratic reform is going to be long and hard — and maybe even bloody. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that. It would be far better if we stopped cheerleading for a while and started dealing with the facts — before the caravan actually does go by and we’re left behind, wondering what happened — again.