Arab world on the threshold of change


By Ekramur Rashid

Doha (Qatar): There is a long history of popular movements in the Arab World. A popular movement arose to oppose the colonial domination as in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon during the late 1950s after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The tripartite aggression by Britain, France and Israel in October 1956 to reclaim the control of the Suez Canal caused an outpouring of popular protests in all Arab countries in support of Egypt. The turbulent year 1956 was probably the last for a major pan-Arab solidarity movement until the pro-Palestinian wave of 2002. The 1980s saw waves of strikes and street protests in Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt protesting cutbacks in subsidies, price rise, pay cuts and layoffs as a result of IMF recommended structural adjustments programme. The first Palestine Intifada (1987-1993) combined demand for self-rule with democratic governance, and the reclaiming of individual and national dignity. The late 1990s and 2000s produced the next great wave of Arab street politics, a wave which continues today. There are new sings of a new Arab street with a post-nationalist, post-Islamist vision and novel forms of mobilization, e.g., the 2004 democracy movement in Egypt to end Hosni Mubarak presidency. Now this movement is bringing the campaign onto the streets. The Cedar Revolution, a grassroots movement of some 1.5 million Lebanese from all walks of life demanding a meaningful sovereignty, democracy, and an end to foreign meddling, resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebnon in 2005. These are all breaks from traditional Arab politics in that they project a new post-ideological struggle which combine the concerns for national dignity with social justice and democracy.

Why change? Certainly there is the long-building youth bulge and spread of new information technology like Internet, email, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and especially a satellite channel like Al-Jazeera.

Frustrated youth are now rapidly moving to exploit these new resources to assert themselves and to mobilize. For example, Egyptian youth used Facebook to mobilize some 70,000 mostly educated youth who made calls for free speech, economic welfare and elimination of corruption.

Not only information technology is responsible for the clamour for change but the social structure throughout the region is also changing rapidly. The structural changes likewise, educational development, urban expansion, increased number of women in workforce and new media are responsible.

There is an explosion of educational institutions which produce higher levels of literacy and education, thus enhancing the class of educated populace. Expanding educational institution, especially the universities, produce hundreds of thousands of graduates each year. The graduates have a new status and expectations. The new generation is different from their parents in outlook, exposure and social standing. At the same time, these societies are rapidly becoming urban. A creeping urbanity is permeating into the traditional rural societies. There are modern division of labour, modern schools, expanding service sectors, electrification, especially a modern communications system, which generate time-space compression between the urban and urban worlds. The boundary between urban and rural is becoming increasingly blurred and rural populations are no longer rural in the traditional sense.  The technologies of mobilization seem to play a crucial role in the Tunisian and Egypt uprising.

Revolution coming in these Arab countries that have refused to learn all those years as they rule their countries without listening to the voice of their people. If governments do not listen to the legitimate demands of their people, the masses would have no option but to force the autocratic leaders out of office. After the successful Jasmine revolution, youth populations suddenly believe that change is possible. But all Arab countries are not same. Each has a distinct political history, culture and political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography.

In Yemen, the Tunisian example was emulated against the president who has been in office for the last three decades now. The outcome is yet be unknown.

The fire spread to Egypt, where the situation seems to be outstripping that of Tunisia and Yemen. Scared stiff, the embattled Hosni Mubarak was forced to take desperate actions dismissing his government and creating overnight a new position of Vice President (for the first time in his 30-years rule), which he has filled, of all people, with the country’s intelligence chief. He is also appointed a new Prime Minister in a vain effort to appease the angry protesters. More intriguingly, Mubark has imposed curfew that the protesters have defied. In a clear manifestation of the collapse of law and order, the police have deserted their posts, looting is going on unchecked and unfortunate lives have already been lost. Indeed, Mubarak is facing a desperate situation and is adopting desperate measures to retain power. But indications are that he will not survive. There are strong signals that the measures he has taken are not only too little but too late. One basic fact is that the political and religious sentiments come together to oust autocratic rulers. When the situation is settled, the different ideas of groups will come together to provide a reliable democratic system for their country.