Friday, January 28, 2011

Arab Unrest: ‘Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold’

Unrest in Tunisia | Credit:

By Ramesh Jaura

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

BERLIN (IDN) - The tidal waves of an overwhelming desire for bread and work are pounding at the Arab shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Tunisia has surrendered to the anger of the hungry and impoverished youth. Egypt is reeling under the unrelenting pressure of the deprived and the oppressed. The fate of Libya and Algeria is hanging in balance.

Whatever the short-term impact of the surge of unrest, the fact is, as the Irish Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats wrote to describe the post-World War I Europe:
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …"

Let us hope Yeats' further description of the European situation then does not apply to Arab states:

"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere …"

Informed reports indicate that those taking up arms -- symbolically speaking -- against the self-centred, self-righteous and unscrupulous governments holding on to power through the barrels of guns directed against the people, are not what Karl Marx called the "Lumpenproletariat" or the "social scum". They are well-informed angry youth determined not to cow down.

Referring to the emerging situation, Ethiopian Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam, who teaches political science at California State University, recalls in his latest article 'Ethiopia - As African Tyrants Fall' a quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

"When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always."

The angry young in Tunisia, who forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14 hope that he will be captivated soon in response to an international arrest warrant for him. They have probably not studied Mahatma Gandhi who "taught ordinary people simple sure-fire techniques to bring down dictatorships", as Prof. Mariam writes. But they know that despots are indeed not invincible.

Gandhi forced the British to quit India. Nelson Mandela succeeded in abolishing apartheid in South Africa. 'No names' have ousted Ben Ali in Tunisia in what has been dubbed as the Jasmine Revolution accompanied, as the Human Rights Watch has found, by enormous bloodshed in southern part of the country.

Prof. Mariam rightly points out that the Tunisian people's revolution provides practical insights into the prerequisites for dismantling dictatorships in Africa.

-- When dictatorships end, their end could come with a bang or a whimper, and without warning. Just a few weeks ago no one would have predicted that Ben Ali would be swept into the dustbin of history with such swiftness.

-- There is always the risk of losing the victory won by the people in the streets by a disorganized and dithering opposition prepared to draw out the long knives at the first whiff of power in the air.

-- When tyrants fall, the immediate task is to dismantle the police state they have erected before they have a chance to strike back. Their modus operandi is well known: The dictators will decree a state of emergency, impose curfews and issue shoot-to-kill orders to terrorize the population and crush the people's hopes and reinforce their sense of despair, powerlessness, isolation, and fear. Obviously, this has not worked in Tunisia. After more than 100 protesters were killed in the streets, more seem to be coming.

-- It is manifest that Western support for African dictators is only skin deep. Ben Ali was toasted in the West as the great modernizer and bulwark against religious extremism and all that. The West threw him under the bus and "applauded" the people who overthrew him before his plane touched down in Saudi Arabia.

-- Ultimately, the more practical strategy to successfully dismantle dictatorships is to build and strengthen inclusive coalitions and alliances of anti-dictatorship forces who are willing to stand up and demand real change. If such coalitions and alliances could not be built now, the outcome when the dictators fall will be just a changing of the guards: old dictator out, new dictator in.

So far Prof. Mariam's guidelines based on a profound knowledge of political processes throughout the history of humankind.

Closely watching events in Tunisia and Egypt from Berlin, I recall the fear that pervaded the minds of 'conservatives' -- averse to any change (not to their benefit) -- as one communist regime after the other fell.

The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 put an end to the East-West Cold War but left even the genuine democrats puzzled what the disappearance of a bipolar world would mean for international peace and security. The search for a patent solution continues more than two decades since.

But those who shouted "We are the people" in the then Eastern Germany and similar slogans elsewhere did not wait for an approval of their demands by presidents, prime ministers and communist party general secretaries. They wanted "regime change" not with the help of a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" or of the unwilling. They took their destinies into their own hands.

There are fears that the Arab despots who have over the years been considered by democratic governments in the capitals of Europe and Washington as "guarantors of stability" and bestowed generously with credits and lethal arms -- to crush any opposition -- might be replaced by 'Islamist' governments whose very mention is like a red rag to a bull.

It is high time that all adherents of democracy, particularly in Europe and the U.S. end the double-speak -- pleading for democracy but propping up systems opposed to basic democratic norms. Remember what President Barack Obama said in his address at the Cairo University on June 4, 2009:

"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

That said, western governments would do well not to interfere in the ongoing process of transformation under way -- in the Arab countries on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and beyond -- without any Lenins anywhere on the horizon.