State of Disarray in the Arab World, Divided Western Response
North Africa in 2011 is not that of 2010 and prior. Tunisia has made history and now the Arab world, starting with North Africa is in turmoil. All of a sudden, talk of economic growth takes the back seat. It's no longer about the economy but about what's coming next from the political front. After the unexpected and speedy collapse of the Ben Ali regime, governments in neighboring countries and beyond are facing full-blown rebellions. The Tunisian bug is spreading like a fast moving flu and the Arab regimes are running out of vaccines to deal with it. That is except to flex their muscles to repress their own people. Jordan, Sudan, Algeria, Yemen, and more drastically Egypt, to name the most visible stories of the day are facing unprecedented popular action to oust their aging and out-of-touch political leaders.
The crackdown in Egypt has reached its peak. Deaths and hundreds of people arrested, cell phone networks disconnected, social networks like Facebook and Twitter unreachable from Egypt, all of that without even the direct involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still assessing the situation. If it does, Mubarak will face further turmoil, though he will likely brandish the Islamist threat to justify a further crackdown.
The Egyptian popular revolt was not necessarily born as a reaction from the Tunisian experience. Although Tunisia gave the much needed fuel to raise the temperature of the Egyptian people, grievances have been a permanent fixture in Egyptian society for as long as General Mubarak was in power, and even long before that. Among the latest factors that added insult to injury is the rigging of the 2005 presidential elections, probably the most contested elections in nation's history. Just like most of his Arab peers, including the infamous Ben Ali, Mubarak won a pharaonic proportion of the votes, 88.6% to be exact, in a country where there is a substantial shortage of respect to him. How did he do it, one wonders? Mubarak's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, in particular his tactics in securing the Egypt-Gaza border to accommodate his foreign policy goals turned out to be another unpopular decision that is likely to further galvanize opposition. Running the show like he is the King of a monarchy is what the Egyptian people want to stop at any cost. Just like the Assads in Syria and the other regimes across the Arab world, the aging Egyptian leader has been plotting and scheming to be replaced by his son, Gamal Mubarak. Only in the Arab do we see these severe discrepancies in governance and then the leaders suddenly wonder why the people revolt.
But not all is lost in Egypt. Unlike the highly popular and spontaneous Tunisian movement, the Egypt winter revolt has its leaders, including Nobel prize winner Mohamed Al-Baradei. He brings a substantial counter-balance and possibly a more viable alternative to Mubarak's or his permanent enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood. El Baradei or another independant technocrat should be given the chance to drive Egypt into the 21st century, at least on the interim basis.
In Yemen, the revolt and its source are strangely similar to far-away Tunisia or Egypt. Thousands of people demonstrated on Thursday in the capital Sana’a also calling for the removal of Ali Abdallah Saleh, a man who has been in power for a stunning 32 years. In power since 1978 and presumably reelected in 1999, he once again reappointed himself in 2006 for a term ending in 2013. But the Saleh misdeeds do not end there as he has been working for new surprises, such as pushing for a constitutional amendment to allow the president to rule for life. Again just as in Egypt, Syria and almost everywhere else in the Arab world, Saleh has been paving the way for his elder son Ahmad to replace him whenever he decides to vacate the presidential seat. To guarantee no resistance to his plan, Saleh appointed Ahmad as head of the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the Yemeni military. Once again, only in the Arab world.
In Algeria, the situation is not so different although the political environment resembles none of the other countries' models. In almost every other country, the head at the top of the political pyramid is the main ruler. Removing it could trigger a substantial change in the governance system. In Algeria, the President is only one and single chain in a complex web of political operators, including the powerful military. A change in Presidential leadership like we saw in Tunisia, one that could happen in Egypt may mean nothing in Algeria. This is why Algeria had several presidents in a decade, from Bendjedid, to Boudiaf, Zeroual, and now Bouteflika. Still, the regime there is also coming under intense popular pressure because of a severe lack of progress on the economic, social and political fronts. But the riots that have erupted at the same time than Tunisia’s are not new. By all account, Algerian authorities faced in 2010 more than 9,000 protests. That’s a massive number that reflects massive problems, starting with the frequent announcements about record currency reserves amid record poverty and a conveniently absent authority.
While the regime remains largely silent and does not engage into any form of meaningful communication with the press or the people, a great deal of anxiety is felt in the halls of power. Taking a defensive approach, the Algerian regime has been busy cracking down on descending voices, including the banning of a march in Algiers by the legal opposition party RCD (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie) over the past weekend. Thousands of policemen and anti riot agents were mobilized to block the march. The RCD party of Said Saadi has been the most vocal against the government, using the recently released Wikileaks cables that provide additional insights on the working of the regime to energize its base. The capital Algiers is in a state of heightened surveillance. To counter the brewing popular revolt, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s cabinet made decisions to reduce food prices and expand the supply of food commodities, with massive imports of wheat, powder milk, sugar, medicines, fruits, vegetables, and cooking oil. The regime is headed toward a policy of no tolerance to shortages over the coming months, long enough to contain popular complains. Agriculture Minister Rachid Benaassa has been struggling making himself heard to confirm that the stores will not be empty.
Ahmed Ouyahia also ordered a halt of all housing destruction and relocation operations, an area that has been a source of trouble in December 2010 and early this month. Anxious about the popular reaction, orders were given to insure uninterrupted supply of water and butane gas used for cooking and heating in rural areas in particular, and also guarantee the availability of cash in postal offices and savings institutions. One irrational decision was the banning of the sale of gasoline in containers to prevent self-immolation, which increased ever since Bouazizi ignited the Tunisian revolution when he burned himself to death.
On the political front, there is no doubt the Algerian regime and its cabinet are pondering what to do next. A sense of extreme laissez-faire from a government that allowed equally extreme corruption has to be corrected. And a cornered Mubarak besieged by angry mobs is an imagery that does not help. Fearing a revolt, Prime Minister Ouyahia sent a note to provincial governors (Walis), county chiefs (Dairas), and mayors to ask them to get close to the people. A message was also sent to Imams and preachers to remind mosque-goers that suicide was a sin. Rumors of a pending government reshuffle are circulating in the capital, potentially affecting the bulk of the ministers. But there is a great deal of resistance among many in the regime to allow such reshuffle. These extremist voices in the regime fear that by doing so, the population and the opposition could see that as a weakness and may be emboldened to ask for more, or for an outcome similar to Tunisia’s.
Whatever happens in Algeria, solving the problem will be a more complex event. This is because the real power is not the domain of the cabinet ministers, but it is a lesser known group of men, often invisible to the public that call the shots. Ministerial reshuffling or not, it may take a much longer time for the Algerians to catch the Tunisian bug.
Meanwhile, the West is wondering how to deal with the unfolding drama in North Africa and the Middle East. France is looking at its mediocre response to the crisis as its diplomats could not predict the Tunisian rebellion, let alone its outcome. In the early moments of the Jasmine Revolution, referring to the Tunisian revolt, the French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie publicly sided against history by suggesting that Tunisia should use France's expertise to crackdown on the Tunisian people. Ms. Alliot-Marie is also reported by the French media to have been aware that the Sofexi Company was shipping seven tons of teargas grenades between December 2010 and January 2011 amid intense repression from the Tunisian police. The company itself reported that to ship such equipment it had to receive the proper authorization from three authorities: the ministries of the Interior, defense and foreign affairs. The next blunder was about the alleged theft by Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi from the Tunisian Central Bank of some 1.5 tons of gold. The information was apparently released by French intelligence to a reporter of Le Monde newspaper, an information that turned out to be false. The rumor was either meant to contribute to the fast evolving Tunisian mess for whatever political aim, or illustrate the inability of some intelligence services to gather the right information.
At the end, Sarkozy’s management of the Southern Mediterranean zone and former colonies is turning out to be a disaster. Not only France's influence in the Arab world will continue to dwindle, but innocent French nationals are targeted by Al Qaeda in North Africa partly because of the French government sloppy management of its image in the region. All of Sarkozy’s regional initiatives failed to come to fruition including his grandiose view of a Unified Mediterranean. Siding with Ben Ali against his people was one of the many diplomatic blunders. And if it’s not enough, after sacking the French ambassador in Tunis, Sarkozy called his friend and recently appointed ambassador to Iraq, Algeria-born Boris Bouillon to take over the French embassy in Tunis. But Bouillon is called Mr. Business in French diplomatic circles for his American-like style to seek business opportunities for French companies. This is the last thing the Tunisians need. A diplomat who will try to sell them French products and services. Once again, Sarkozy has shown his inability to grasp the gravity of the moment and misses the opportunity to do the right thing.
In contrast, the Obama administration made one giant step forward in supporting the Tunisian uprising, though Tunisia was never of a strategic interest to Washington. Supporting the Tunisian people was an easy choice. And now that Egypt is on fire, Washington is trying to assess whether it should make a tiny step forward in supporting the Egyptian people. Indeed the Egyptian case is more complex as the US has much greater interest in a stable Egypt. Yet there is something clearly different in Washington's attitude that suggests growing intolerance for the intolerable behavior of Arab rulers. This is perhaps Obama seeking to introduce his own signature of an American Middle Easter policy, instead of relying on what his predecessors did. While praising the Tunisian people for their ousting of the dictator, the White House and the State Department continue to pressure Mubarak to change the course of his ruthless policies applied over the past 30 years. Will they succeed in doing so remains a function of plan B. That is a plan that saves everyone’s face, or almost everyone. One that allows a smooth replacement with the like of Al Baradei, a nice retirement package for the old President, and the beginning of a political reform process to benefit the Egyptian people, although that will be through very progressive steps so as to avoid a sudden tectonic shift. Still, this may not be an overnight affair like in the Ben Ali case. This means that from now to the September 2011 elections, Egypt will live eight months of discontent and things can spiral out of proportion.