Vinod Mubayi


When Mao Zedong invoked the ancient Chinese saying to describe the situation prevailing in rural China in 1930, no one would or could have predicted then how aptly it would apply to the events unfolding across the Arab world over 80 years later. Today, February 25, 2011, as these lines are being written, the Libyan dictator Qaddafi appears to be about to become the third “Supreme Leader” to be ousted, following the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt.


Whether the spark was lit by the brutal assault by the police on a fruit vendor in Tunisia or an unemployed worker in Cairo, the highly combustible tinder needed to ignite and spread the flames rapidly had been accumulating for several decades in the entire region.  All of the regimes that are now in the process of being overthrown had become characterized by four main features: a conspicuous lack of any democratic functioning or freedoms of the people; extreme inequality between the haves and have-nots; looting of the state by a small clique of rulers and their cronies, symbolized by the billions allegedly stashed in Swiss banks by Mubarak’s family and the ton of gold spirited away from Tunisia by the wife of the deposed dictator; and subservience to the U.S.  [Qaddafi was an exception until a few years ago when he also decided to capitulate, after his clandestine nuclear program was revealed].  In retrospect it seems that the disdain and hatred felt by the masses towards their rulers had reached such a point that it was only the fear of the dreaded security forces, especially in Egypt, that was keeping the dictatorships going.  The success of the revolt in Tunisia, a relatively small country, emboldened the masses in all the other countries and the element of fear was removed, which opened the floodgates to the uprising in Egypt that has subsequently spread to all the other countries in the region.


Two features of the uprisings can be noted.  The first is the lack of any clear leadership or “vanguard” party leading the rebellions.  Allied to this is the method and tools, the computerized social networks Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, etc., that were adopted by the mainly youthful demonstrators to organize and mobilize people and the slogans of human rights and democratic freedoms used to promote the uprising.  It is somewhat paradoxical that these tools and slogans were the ones used in the so-called Orange Revolutions in Eastern Europe assiduously supported by the western powers and media that were now being used against the U.S.’s own lackeys.  This said, one should not forget the role of the workers, particularly in Egypt but also in Tunisia, whose strikes, demonstrations, and calls for economic justice were an essential element of the process.  The working class upsurge also seems to be the main element that is now a source of worry to the U.S. about the future direction of the polity.  It is possible, for example, that some of the Google-Twitter people who happened to play a leading role in the ouster of Mubarak could be co-opted by the military and its imperial backers into providing a democratic façade; that is going to much more difficult with the workers as it would involve serious structural change in the economy.  The second feature is the falsification of the widespread assumption in the west that any opposition to their favored autocrats could only come from the religious right, the so-called Islamo-fascists.  This has been completely disproven so far despite the wild and somewhat desperate claims of Israeli right-wing leaders and their media.  It should also be recalled that western imperialism is not opposed to the Islamic religious right on any grounds of principle; opposition was and continues to be always about the element of control.  As Noam Chomsky remarked “The general threat has always been independence. In the Arab world, the U.S. and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism. A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological center of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan’s dictators and President Reagan’s favorite, who carried out a program of radical Islamization (with Saudi funding).”  Another fear of the uprisings in Israel, particularly, and also to some extent in the U.S. is that genuinely democratic governments that reflect the wishes of their people would be much more supportive of Palestinian rights than the autocratic regimes.  Mubarak’s Egypt and Jordan’s monarchy were of course active partners of the Israelis while most of the others paid occasional lip service while doing nothing. Popular governments would be much more likely to act in accordance with the sentiments of their public; the Israeli right, which now rules the country unchallenged, as well as Zionism itself regards real democracy in the Arab world as a grave threat, a fact that can simply be ascertained by a casual review of the Israeli media and the speeches of its leaders.


It is perhaps worthwhile to briefly review the history of the Arab Middle East over the last few decades to understand how these autocracies came to power in the first place.  The first generation of secular and nationalist regimes in the Arab world notably Nasser’s Egypt, the Baathists in Iraq and Syria, the National Liberation Front in Algeria, Qaddafi in Libya, had come to power on the back of popular upsurges against colonial and monarchical rule, where the assorted monarchs were little more than a front for their imperial masters.  For a while these regimes were invested with a progressive halo based on some of their actions; membership in the Non-Aligned movement, nationalization of the Suez Canal, construction of the Aswan Dam in the teeth of opposition from the U.S., as well as verbal support to the cause of the uprooted and exiled Palestinians.  All of these “progressive” regimes had, however, one fatal flaw.  They were either led by military officers (e.g. Col. Nasser, Col. Boumedienne, Col.  Qaddafi) or closely allied with the military and did not allow any political opposition or democratic functioning within the organs of the state.  Both the religious right, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the left, mainly the communists in Iraq and Egypt, were ruthlessly suppressed, artistic and cultural life was subjected to heavy censorship, and opposition leaders jailed or exiled.  The great Iraqi communist poet Muhammad al-Jawahiri satirized these regimes in his famous poem:


Lullaby for the Hungry


Sleep, You hungry people, sleep! / The gods of food watch over you.


Sleep, if you are not satiated / By wakefulness, then sleep shall fill you.

Sleep, with thoughts of smooth-as butter-promises, / Mingled with words as sweet

as honey.


Sleep, and enjoy the best of health. / What a fine thing is sleep for the wretched!


Sleep till the resurrection morning / Then it will be time enough to rise.


Sleep in the swamps / Surging with silty waters.


Sleep to the tune of mosquitoes humming / As if it were the crooning of doves.


Sleep to the echo of long speechifyings / By great and eminent power politicians.


Sleep, You hungry people sleep! / For sleep is one of the blessings of peace.


It is stupid for you to rise, / Sowing discord where harmony reigns.


Sleep, for the reform of corruption / Simply consists in your sleeping on.


Sleep, You hungry people, sleep! / Don’t cut off others’ livelihood.


Sleep, your skin cannot endure / The shower of sharp arrows when you wake.


Sleep, for the yards of jail houses / Are all teeming with violent death,


And you are the more in need of rest / After the harshness of oppression.


Sleep, and the leaders will find ease / From a sickness that has no cure.

Sleep, You hungry people, sleep! / For sleep is more likely to protect your rights


And it is sleep that is most conducive / To stability and discipline.


Sleep, I send my greetings to you; / I send you peace, as you sleep on.


Sleep, You hungry people, sleep! / The gods of food watch over you.


With the defeat in the 1967 war and the death of Nasser, any flicker of a “progressive” flame that remained in these regimes was extinguished.  The military, either in its Baathist or its Nasserist or even its Qaddafist garb, assumed control of all political and economic life and began to function as a state-in-itself, especially in the largest Arab country, Egypt; running a large number of economic enterprises, setting up dummy worker trade unions and fake political parties.  After Nasser’s death, the decline of the Non-Aligned Movement and the impending demise of the Soviet bloc, Egypt’s generals, needing an international protector, turned to the U.S.  Ever since Anwar Sadat decided to sign a peace treaty with Israel, aka America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East, Egypt became a faithful satellite of the U.S.  Even lip service to Arab causes, such as the fate of the Palestinians, was practically abandoned as the revelations in the Wikileaks documents show.   As a reward for services rendered, the U.S. rewarded Sadat’s and, after his assassination, Mubarak’s Egypt with a military subsidy of over a billion dollars a year, second only to the largesse showered on Israel.  After 30 years in power, however, marked by rigging of elections, rampant corruption, and torture of opponents, Mubarak’s regime had completely lost all legitimacy with the Egyptian people.  The only friends Mubarak appeared to have left were the U.S. and Israel, which showed extreme nervousness at his impending departure.


While the heroism displayed by the ordinary people is something to be hailed, one note of caution is in order. The conflagrations in the Arab world, now engulfing almost every country in the Maghreb and the Middle East, are frequently described as “revolutions” in the mainstream media.  However, no fundamental transformation of the economy and polity has yet occurred that would justify calling them revolutions so uprising may be a more apt description.  Long-standing dictators have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, while in all the other countries country-wide protests are in progress at the time of writing, with varying levels of violence depending on the whims of the regime in power.  The future is tenuous with various factors, positive and negative, still present.


Sixty years ago, the leader of Great Britain speaking in South Africa said, in a speech referring to the decline of British imperial rule, that “The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not… we must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”  One hopes that the current imperial power recognizes this fact and allows the transformations in the Arab countries to occur based on the wishes of their peoples although the two major factors, oil resources and the presence of Israel, makes this improbable.  The Indian media and government, meanwhile, have said relatively little about these events although they potentially involve many Indians who work in the various countries of the Middle East.  This may turn out to be a mistake as the consequences of these events could be momentous for the entire world.  

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