الثلاثاء، 1 مارس، 2011

The Great Arab Revolt

Juan Cole
This article appeared in the March 7-14, 2011 edition
of The Nation.
February 17, 2011

Under European colonialism the Middle East had a few
decades of classic liberal rule in the first half of the
twentieth century. Egypt, Iraq and Iran had elected
parliaments, prime ministers and popular parties.
However, liberal rule was eventually discredited insofar
as it proved to be largely a game played by big
landlords overly open to the influence and bribery of
grasping Western powers.

From about the 1950s, the modern one-party states of the
Middle East justified themselves through the struggle
for independence from those Western colonial empires and
the corrupt parliamentary regimes. They undertook land
reform, developed big public sectors and promoted state-
led industrialization. In recent decades, however, each
ruling party, backed by a nationalist officer corps,
increasingly became little more than an appendage of the
president for life and his extended clan. The massive
networks of informers and secret police worked for the
interests of the central executive.

These governments took steps in recent decades toward
neoliberal policies of privatization and a smaller
public sector under pressure from Washington and allied
institutions?€?and the process was often corrupt. The
ruling families used their prior knowledge of important
economic policy initiatives to engage in a kind of
insider trading, advantaging their relatives and

The wife of Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali,
the notorious former hairdresser Leila Ben Ali, placed
her relatives in key business positions enabled by
insider government knowledge and licenses that allowed
them to dominate the country. The US Embassy in Tunis
estimated in 2006 that half the major entrepreneurs in
the country were related by blood or marriage to the
president. In Egypt, Ahmed Ezz, for example, benefited
from his high position in the ruling National Democratic
Party and his friendship with Hosni Mubarak?€?s son Gamal.
Ezz has been formally charged with usurping control of a
government-owned steel concern and of rerouting its
products to his own, privately owned Ezz Steel company.
In the past decade, Ezz went from controlling 35 percent
of the Egyptian steel market to over 60 percent, raising
a chorus of accusations of monopoly practices. Since the
Mubaraks rigged the elections so that the NDP always
won, and the party officials favored by the president
prospered, Egypt was ruled by a closed elite.

The policies of these one-party states created
widespread anxiety among workers, the unemployed and
even entrepreneurs outside the charmed circle, seeming
to create an insuperable obstacle to the advancement of
the ordinary person. Everyone could be taken advantage
of or even expropriated at will by corrupt state elites,
who had the backing of the secret police. Workers?€?
strikes were crushed by security police. The presidents
even began putting on regal airs and grooming their sons
as successors, ensuring that the family cartels and
cronyism would continue into the next generation.

The one-party states also pursued distorted development
goals. Among their few achievements was the reduction of
infant mortality. They put tremendous sums into
universities and higher education but inexplicably
neglected K?€?12 education for the rural and urban poor.
The result was large numbers of young villagers, slum
dwellers and workers with limited opportunities for
advancement, and phalanxes of unemployed college

Fear of the perpetuation of a closed economic and power
elite drove Tunisians and Egyptians to focus on driving
the Ben Alis and Mubaraks from power. The narrowness of
the dominant cliques had disgusted even the regular army
officer corps, who in any case were close to the people
because they commanded conscript armies. When the crowds
came out so determinedly, they declared their

Other regional mafia states have scrambled to mollify
their publics. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman who has
ruled Yemen since 1978, announced that he would not run
for yet another term in 2013, and that no attempt would
be made to install his son after him. He was trying to
deflect the severe criticisms of his nepotism (his half-
brother is head of the air force, and nephews are highly
placed in the security apparatus). These pledges were
code for ending the dominance of the state and economy
by relatives and friends of Saleh.

The nepotism and corruption of the ruling clique in
Yemen is all the more explosive because the country is
already deeply divided. The tribal north has a different
history from the south, which had a lively worker
movement and even, briefly, a communist government
before Saleh forcibly unified the two in 1990. Religious
and tribal rebellions, as with the Zaydi Shiite Houthis
in the north and a radical Islamist tendency in the
rural south, make Yemen anything but stable. The
country?€?s declining petroleum revenues and its
increasing water crisis make the economic pie even
smaller, increasing public disgust with the Saleh
cartel. Having the government and the economy in the
hands of an unrepresentative and greedy clique is a
recipe for further unrest.

Likewise, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said
he would not seek another term; his opponents have
charged him with operating secret torture cells and a
private army, and aspiring to become another corrupt
strongman. Since Iraq?€?s petroleum riches are in
government hands, it would be easy for a few key cabinet
members to use them for sectional and even private
purposes, a source of constant anxiety among Iraq?€?s
suffering populace, which lacks electricity and even,
often, potable water.

Algeria?€?s corrupt state petroleum elite, represented by
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is also being targeted
by street crowds. The country?€?s ruling generals had
allowed a Muslim fundamentalist party, the Islamic
Salvation Front, to run in the 1991 parliamentary
elections, on the theory that it would not win. When the
fundamentalists took a two-thirds majority, the generals
canceled the runoff and threw the country into a vicious
civil war between secular urban elites and lower-middle-
class or rural fundamentalists that took an estimated
150,000 lives. Because the generals won the civil war,
and the army stands behind the regime, it is harder for
the urban crowds to gain traction. In Tunisia and Egypt,
there was no similar history of rancor between people
and army, and no fear on the part of the officer corps
that they would be tried and executed if the government
was overthrown. In addition, the Algerian petroleum
state, like the Gulf oil monarchies, has the resources
to bribe much of the public into quiescence or to deploy
well-paid and loyal security forces when the bribe does
not work (as seems to be the case in Bahrain, where the
Sunni monarchy has chosen violent repression of the
restive Shiite majority).

In Egypt and Tunisia, once the ruling families were
gone, the interim governments promptly froze the
accounts of regime cronies and in many instances
initiated legal proceedings against them. Seeing the
writing on the wall, the ambitious resigned en masse
from the now notorious former ruling party; the RCD in
Tunisia was dissolved altogether.

Many among the demonstrators, whether union organizers,
villagers or college graduates, seem to believe that
once the lead log in the logjam is removed, the economy
will return to normal and opportunities for advancement
will open up to all. Somewhat touchingly, they have put
their hopes in free and fair parliamentary elections, so
that the Middle East may be swinging back to a new
liberal period, formally resembling that of the 1930s
and ?€?40s. If these aspirations for open politics and
economic opportunity are blocked again, as they were by
the hacienda owners and Western proconsuls of the mid-
twentieth century, the Arab masses may turn to more
desperate, and dangerous, alternatives.