Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Europe in 1989, Middle East in 2011: Has the Iron Curtain fallen to people power once again?

Some years are rightly remembered as being momentous in the history of human existence. 1989 was surely one of these, and judging by the tumultuous events which have swept across a host of countries in the Middle East, long denied the freedom and democratic rights we take for granted, 2011 is set to become another. Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian ruler since 1981, has already fallen amidst an unstoppable display of people power and common desire for reform. Yet we cannot romanticise these protests, which draw natural parallels with the events of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe, in the light of those whom have already perished at the hands of the mechanisms they are so committed to destroying. In Libya, despite the communication problems brought on as a result of the political struggle there, reports have reached the outside world of between 100 and 300 deaths. The ‘revolution’ in Egypt achieved its aims with a similarly high level of bloodshed, the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirming that 302 people had been killed, not all of these protestors, since unrest broke out on 28 January. Yet for the citizens of Libya, it appears the government of Muammar-al-Qaddafi, commonly referred to in the West as Colonel Gaddafi, is willing to fight on until the end, no matter the consequences. As stated today by the Libyan leader’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi:

“Our spirits are high and the leader, Muammar Gaddafi, is leading the battle in Tripoli and we are behind him, as is the Libyan army.

“We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even to the last woman standing...We will not leave Libya to the Italians or to the Turks...Our spirits are high.

“Our army will be in Libya, and Muammar Gaddafi will be in it until the last moment...We will eradicate them [enemies] all.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s rule in Libya is said to have lasted 41 years and 173 days, since 1 September 1969, a length unthinkable in Western democratic societies, where ten years is considered a long time and, sometimes derogatively and in a tongue-in-cheek manner, suggested to entail some of the hallmarks of dictatorship. Make no mistake about it though, Gaddafi’s rule is the above, and if the army continue to back his increasingly alienated and baseless position as leader of Libya, and critically not of the Libyan people, then his power will remain untouched. Crucial to the collapse of 1989, where regimes long bolstered by the assurance of military assistance from the Soviet Union should internal revolts become too difficult to handle, as applied in the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine in Czechoslovakia in 1968, faced a population unwilling to return to quiet acquiescence, was the change in policy of Mikhail Gorbachev. He would not send troops into Poland and Hungary, thereby hastening the demise of the regimes in these countries and across Central and Eastern Europe. Sadly for the Middle East, there is no monolith ruling over it with an iron grip, relentlessly keeping it in line until the grip is slowly loosened, to be replaced by a flood of change, popular uprisings and the toppling of corrupt, faceless dictators.

The revolt hasn’t merely been confined to Libya and Egypt. Indeed it was Tunisia where the wave of popular revolt began, against the leader of the Republic of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President since 1987. The protests themselves were sparked in late December following the act of self-immolation by protestor Mohamed Bouazizi. The President was finally ousted on 14 January, following weeks of protest alleged to have been organised primarily through labour unions. Sources state that 219 were killed during the ‘Tunisian Revolution’, as it has come to be referred. Bahrain was the next state to experience major unrest, this time directed against the unelected monarch, head of the Al Khalifa ruling dynasty, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. Bahrain is certainly a very different case to the others, being just one of many examples of a ‘rentier state’ in the Arab world, and economically dependent on the substantial revenues derived from the export of natural resources. Unlike the other countries plagued by unrest, Bahrain is an economically successful state, ranked 34th in the world by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for GDP per capita, above Russia and Brazil. Despite the reported human rights abuses in Bahrain, and the lack of democratic values and multi-party politics of the Western World, its citizens have fewer economic reasons for demanding reform. Libyans, ranking 48th, Tunisians 97th and Egyptians 116th, all of whom do not enjoy the substantial welfare state in existence in Bahrain, all benefit the least from the relative successes of their countries.

Indeed the people of Bahrain it appears have reason to celebrate, for after a rather briefer period of unrest than in the other states, and far fewer needless deaths (a reported seven), the King has agreed to enter into a dialogue with the various opposition movements. How the situation will end up is not yet clear, but it may be said that the people of Bahrain have set an example to the rest of the Arab world, along with their fellow protestors in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Whether any positive, and obviously this is a very subjective term, change will emerge from the events of the year so far remains to be seen. As for the parallels with 1989, it appears that rather than citizens longing for the wealth and freedom of their neighbours, a wave of popular revolution has swept across countries previously symbols of stability in the extreme. With conflicting reports of Colonel Gaddafi having fled Libya and declared himself ready to fight until the end, time will tell as to whether his damaged dictatorship can heal the wounds inflicted on it by a people denied democracy and fairness for over 40 years. The outside world has already renounced its previous ties with the Libyan ruler, just after his own people have done the same. Yet with the armed forces still seemingly fiercely loyal to the crumbling regime, it appears the bloodshed is not over yet.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Left Foot Forward

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