Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Too many to arrest

Anger and resentment has been seething not for months or years but for several decades across the Middle East.  The particulars from one case to another differ obviously, but the complaints of corruption, petty and profound arrogance, and deafness to the demands for economic opportunity, a place to live, and respect for the dignity of the person are common.  For younger people, the complaints often come down to the fact that a person cannot afford to marry, or live a decent, even marginally fulfilling life.  I have heard these complaints firsthand and often in Egypt, Iran, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

To stifle and choke the complaints pantheons of national security agencies and political agents have been at work.  However, when the moment comes, as it now has, when not just 100 or 200 but 10,000 or 100,000 people persist in demonstrating, the economy of scale overwhelms the resources of repression.  There are just too many people to arrest, or to beat or to gas.

In some places, not least Bahrain, the complaints coincide with sectarian differences and disparities in privilege that are extraordinary because they are so readily noticed.  In short, the demonstrations in Bahrain were eminently predictable.  Travel from cosmopolitan capital Manama to the predominantly and very distressed Shi'i city of Sitrah, and the differences are abrupt and stunning. Sitrah, along with many of the Shi'i villages in Bahrain, is a dreadful place to live.  Or stay in your chair and look at unemployment or per capita income data for Bahrain.  The data speaks volumes about the inequity that defines Bahraini society.  President Obama has praised King Hamad for his reforms, and former President Bush extolled the King as a democrat, with the result that both presidents provoked justified ridicule for their blindness. 

In my experience, people in the Middle East have sought models of change for years.  In years passed they watched Algeria with fascination, until the army provoked a civil war; Yemen, until a civil war erupted in 1994; Lebanon, where Hezbollah provided a military model of resistance; and, Turkey, where religiously oriented politicians came to power constitutionally.  However, the Tunisian and Egyptian models are unqiue: they are not examples of top-down reform, or of elite deals, but of people grabbing their own destiny and facing down oppression.  In that sense, what has happened is powerful and, I suspect, long-lasting.  

Regimes, as in Algeria, Syria and Iran, habitually adopt a tough iron fist policy, but the iron fist depends on the people being intimidated and cowed. It is precisely the importance of the Tunisian and Egyptian exemplars that there were observable tipping points, ones beyond which savagery becomes counter-productive and self-destructive in face of large numbers of people who are neither cowed nor any longer intimidated.

It is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which political authority fragments in Yemen under the weight of demonstrations, and it is not a stretch to imagine serious demonstrations in Iraq continuing and growing in scale, just to take two of many examples.

In the coming months, it will be fascinating to watch the ruling elites change their game to pre-empt demands. Their steps will divert money from budgets to underwrite new subsidies for food and fuel, anti-corruption will become the flavor of the year, and efforts will be made to demonstrate that the people on top are listening to the masses.  A lot of this is going to look staged and theatrical and soon become the bunt of jokes and derision, the feedstock for Facebook, instant messaging and other social networks.  The real tests will be whether the kings, emirs and presidents are truly ready to release their grips, to increase accountability and to open up political space.  

In other words, will they embrace structural changes that potentially diminish their power while simultaneously attempting to meet long frustrated and ignored economic demands?  

I expect a rocky ride.

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