Political observers were saying that Tunisia will not be the end of the story when it comes to revolt of the people against dictatorial regimes. They were right. Egypt has caught on since then and Mubarak is almost out of the job. Signs of a small conflagration have appeared in Jordan as well as in Yemen. It is a matter of speculation whether popular revolt will head on to other oppressive Arab regimes. Whether the tide is arrested or not, it is remarkable that people who were assumed to take it lying down no matter what the amount of repression or economic distress they would have to put up with, chose not to remain passive even at the cost of their lives. There may also be the risk that the fruits of such protests may be opportunistically recuperated by extremist factions lurking behind the scenes in those societies. This will be too high a price to pay.
We also saw protests in Greece over austerity measures adopted to correct the excesses from the fiscal profligacy of the previous political regime. Unions protested over several days in Paris, almost bringing everything to a halt, over the proposed extension of retirement age from 60 to 62. But these were demonstrations of a different nature compared with what we are seeing these days in parts of the Arab world. In Arabia, the protest began against increasing inequality. The gap has widened to such an extent between the haves and the have-nots that there was a spontaneous surge against authority by the population as a whole. In Tunisia and in Egypt, the army has not sided with the oppressors as it customarily does in oppressive regimes. It means that the sense of injustice in the mass of the population was strong enough to make the army, a conventional supporter of power, pick up the fight rather for the cause of the victims of power.
All the events in the concerned Middle East countries have occurred against the backdrop of generally weak economic conditions. There was the financial meltdown of 2007. The economic recession which followed has caused millions to lose their jobs and million others have not been able to enrol on the labour market. The youth were among the most unemployed. With weak economic data persisting to this day, prospects of better days to come have been receding. Meantime prices of basic items have been going up, as it were, to take an additional toll on workers already reeling under the effect of unemployment. Poor economic conditions in large parts of the world have given people the courage to go down to the streets, something that was unthinkable only a couple of months before. Injustice exerted by oppressive political regimes just became the final trigger of the protest movement. Thus, a new life has been breathed into the streets with a catch-on effect.
It would also appear that technology and mass communication among the protestors has been a key factor triggering the initial mass protest movement in the Arab world. This means that where alternative means of communication exist for the masses to get their act together, no amount of official clouding of genuine day-to-day problems can prevent the volcano from erupting. While regimes such as the one in Egypt have blocked internet and other social networks, this has not prevented the mass movement gaining momentum. The question is whether the totalitarian regimes will succeed to keep the people from coalescing views on the need for regime change. Assuming they did so, will that not amount to merely postponing the inevitable consequences of unpopular rule? Time will tell.
There are certain lessons to be learnt from the events unfurling over the Middle East. When people are unconvinced about the good faith of their rulers, they can rise to get back their power even in the most unexpected of places on earth. No one is insulated against such protest movements which can have dramatic consequences for the seats of power. No strategy that was based on the stability of mutual acceptance of oppressors and the support by the latter of the geopolitical strategy of rich country interests can be assumed to hold on forever. The tide may turn. This is why the best strategy for politicians is to look into what is best for their peoples, not for their own enrichment or for the advancement of the interests of superpowers. In this borderless world, only governments which always keep their ears to the ground in anxious concern for the welfare of their peoples will survive.
* Published in print edition on 4 February 2011
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