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In Pragati: Opportunities post Arab Spring

In the October 2011 issue of Pragati, I make the case for greater Indian awareness and engagement with a rapidly changing Middle East.  India has historically walked the tightrope, balancing its relations with often warring actors in the Middle East; but India’s growing stature in the world will attract more vocal criticism of what some might see as New Delhi’s duplicitous positions.

While India must no doubt protect and promote its national interests in this turbulent region, it must also use its goodwill to promote ideals that it holds dear.  The recent killing of Col. Qaddafi, the brutality of the al-Assad regime in Syria and troubling actions of the Egyptian army post-Mubarak all indicate that “popular” uprisings are not a sufficient condition for the emergence of democracy in the Middle East.

Real democracy can only come in the Middle East through the slow, and sometimes frustrating process of legislative reform that allows greater participation of citizenry in deciding their future with the support (and urging) of democracies in the West, and indeed, India.  India must learn to embrace this role as its global visibility grows.

India’s growing ties with Middle Eastern countries are a reflection of its growing stature on the world stage. How India chooses to engage with these and other countries will help define what sort of power India will be. In the past, India avoided criticism of Middle Eastern countries for a myriad of reasons. While this has proven to be a successful strategy, an emerging India will increasingly be challenged on what some might perceive as duplicitous positions.

For example, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticized the West for using force to bring about regime change in his speech at the UN General Assembly, he chose not to draw attention to the brutal suppression of human rights by regimes in the Middle East. While he steadfastly supported the right of the Palestinians to statehood, he refrained from drawing attention to the sub-conventional war imposed on Israel by state and non-state actors.

Worse, while India chose to abstain from a UNSC vote condemning Syria’s human rights record, its ambassador, in an interview with CNN-IBN, virtually endorsed the al-Assad regime’s brutality by dismissing reports of the number of Syrians killed during the protests as “exaggerated.” India has an interest in ensuring not only a stable Middle East, but also one where citizens have a stake in deciding their own future.

As India emerges as an important actor on the world stage, it must use its goodwill and growing power to influence its friends in the Middle East, and must work with other countries in promoting shared ideals in the region. In this regard, the India-U.S. “West Asia Dialogue” launched in July
2011 is a welcome sign.

Read the entire article in this month’s Pragati. (Web link; PDF; 2.2 MB;)

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In Pragati: The twists in the Middle Eastern revolutions

In this month’s Pragati, I argue that while despots in the Middle East may be out, the ruling establishments will still continue to maintain control.  A delirious Western media has consistently misinterpreted the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as pro-democracy and pro-freedom movements; they are neither.  At best, these are anti-establishment movements that will only yield a new generation of despots in the region.  But hope for democracy in the Middle East is not lost.

In its enthusiasm to support the mass social movement in Egypt, the world failed to appreciate the history of post-colonial Egypt, the Mubarak regime and its support structure. Mr Mubarak, like his predecessors, Naguib, Nasser and Sadat, is a product of the military-security structure that has dominated post-colonial Egypt since 1952. Even as Mr Mubarak transitioned power to his vice president Umar Sulayman and deputy prime minister Muhammad Tantawi (as indeed General Naguib did, albeit under coercion, to General Nasser) the military-security apparatus’ hold over Egypt will likely remain. Indeed, the jubilation on the streets of Cairo after the army’s take-over indicates that democracy and freedom became lesser issues than the people’s desire to see the last of the man they blamed for Egypt’s social and economic ills.

In this regard, the United States erred in continuing to push for Mr Mubarak’s expeditious exit after he announced his decision to withdraw from the presidential elections in September 2011. With Mr Mubarak  “gone,” and calm restored to the streets, the regime is unlikely to be under pressure to institute meaningful, time-bound democratic reform in Egypt. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in this month’s Pragati. (webpage; pdf).

 

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Rocking the Casbah

Social mobilization and the role of the Internet in the Middle East

In the midst of massive street protests, Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) decided to pull the plug on about 3,500 border gateway protocol (BGP) routes to Egypt, thereby cutting off the country from the Internet.  A significant step, because much of the mobilization for the disobedience movement occurred through social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague at the Takshashila Institution, Srijith, writes on the importance of importance of an open, unfiltered Internet to any democratic setup.

For reasons beyond merely Egypt’s ability to control information flow, this blog had previously articulated why Egypt will not go the way of Tunisia.  Even as Cairo simmers, The Filter Coffee stands by that argument.  But the Egyptian experience raises interesting questions on the role of the Internet as a tool to mobilize and sustain social movements in the Middle East, more so the Arabian Peninsula. It also raises questions about the scope for a Tunisia-style social upheaval in the Peninsula.

Consider this excerpt from Bogon Monitoring (via Vyūha)

Yesterday there were 2903 Egyptian networks, originated from 52  ISP’s. Transit was provided via 45 unique isp’s. Today at 2am UTC, the numbers look quite different, there were only 327 Egyptian networks left on the Internet. These were originated 26 by ISP’s.So 88% of the Egyptian networks is unreachable! [BGPmon]

Social upheavals are few and far between in the Peninsula.  Certainly, no precedence exists in the modern history of the states that form the GCC of any such upheaval.  There have been occasional bouts of unrest in Bahrain, but those are largely on sectarian grounds.

So hypothetically, if social, political and economic circumstances in any country in the Peninsula came to mirror those Egypt or Tunisia, could a popular uprising even be mobilized?  The NDP was able to render 50% of Egypt’s ISPs (some, presumably, privately-owned) inoperable in a relatively short span of time.  In the Gulf, of course, there are but a handful of ISPs in each country, and even that is a charitable numeration.

The UAE, for example, has 5 (1 major, 4 minor) ISPs.  These are either wholly-owned by the regimes or operate at their will.  As telecommunications companies, these operators also provide a variety of other services — cable TV, telephone and mobile communication.  If there is the slightest probability of a popular mobilization in the Gulf, it is almost certain than there will be a virtual information blackout.  Western governments will, of course, pressure these regimes to restore communication, but only to a point, for they too understand the implications of instability in that part of the world.

Therefore, if social media is to be  a vehicle for the democratization of the Middle East through social movements, what hope does it give those who romanticize of a “liberated” Middle East?  The answer should worry such proponents.

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l’affaire Tunisie

Why the Maghreb is not the Khaleej.

Some quick thoughts on events as yet unfolding in Tunisia.

Much has been written recently about the so-called revolution in Tunisia and its probable impact on the rest of the Arab world.  Robert Fisk, for instance, rattled off the names of every other Arab country he could think of when asked if he thought the revolution could be contagious to the rest of the region.  Admittedly, somewhat unfair to pick on Mr. Fisk when the vernacular press in Tunisia’s neighboring countries has spent almost every waking moment since the revolution asking, “are we next?”

Some factors make the events in Tunisia different from others (العربية) that have occurred in the greater region. Unlike almost any other upheaval in the region’s recent history, this was not an Islamic movement.  Further, it also invalidates the claim that Arab societies were incapable of bringing about change intrinsically and without the support of foreign powers.

However, it would be erroneous to extrapolate this “revolution” in Tunisia to the greater region, particularly the Peninsula.  The Maghreb, after all, is not the Khaleej.  Three primary factors inhibit the sort of Rousseauian rebellion in the Peninsula currently being romanticized in the West.

First, the Heads-of-state: with the exception of a few, rulers in the Peninsula derive political power to rule from dynastic allegiances (contrast this with how heads-of-state in Libya, Algeria and Tunisia came to power).  This is not to say that the leaders in the Peninsula cannot be disposed, but that it will most likely come from within the family (e.g., Oman 1970, Qatar 1995, etc.) than take the form of a people’s’ revolt.

Second, Police states: the contrast of real curbs on social and political freedom and high levels of human and economic development make a Tunisia-like uprising improbable. Harder, because of curbs on freedom and equally unlikely to inspire a economically satisfied population.  Third, United States: While the U.S. pushes for a democratization of the Peninsula, it also has a vested interest in preserving the region’s monarchies.  It provides billions of dollars worth of military equipment to them and trains their officers.  When needed, it has shown a willingness to come to their aid when their power is threatened (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).  This is a far cry from the rapport the Maghreb has with the U.S.

Indeed, as Amr el-Shobaki makes some very valid points in January 18th’s al-Masri al-Youm, about why it would be difficult to even envision a similar uprising in Egypt, much less in distant Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, protests have lately taken a single, monotonous form, often rallying people around sectarian causes. The Egyptian regime, unlike its Tunisian counterpart, allows these protests to give citizens an opportunity to vent. This strategy serves to diffuse people’s anger and prevent the transformation of issue-specific protests into larger social and political movements.

The protests that took place in Tunisia reflect a healthy society. The Tunisian education system may be the best in the Arab world (the country’s illiteracy rate is no more than 10 percent), and the Tunisian General Labor Union actually defends workers’ rights. It respects the principles of trade unionism despite the fact that some of its leaders support the ruling party. In contrast, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) runs itself in haphazard fashion and has distanced itself from independent worker organizations like the Real Estate Tax Collectors’ Union and the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.

Egypt is also plagued by religious fundamentalism that has made it impossible for Egyptians to protest under the banner of universal values, such as freedom, equality, combating unemployment and demanding a minimum wage. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia is not home to any Salafi movements. Nor does it have preachers who boast thousands of followers and who lead many youth astray. Tunisia does not have a Muslim Brotherhood that is intent on mobilizing thousands of people to defend its own agenda rather than the national interest, nor does it have religious leaders who spread ignorance and sectarianism. [al-Masry al-Youm]

So is democracy doomed in the Peninsula?  Not necessarily, but it almost certainly will not come about as a result of a popular uprising.  The democratization of the Peninsula is a long term project involving painfully slow political and legislative reform, whose wheels have only recently been set in motion.  In this regard, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman will lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the region to perhaps emulate.

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