|The Great Arab Revolt
This article appeared in the March 7-14, 2011
edition of The Nation.
THE ARAB WORLD'S presidents for life and absolute monarchs are quaking
in the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Arab
politics had been stuck in a vast logjam for the past thirty years,
from which its crowds are now attempting to blast it loose. The
protesters put their fingers on the phenomenon of the vampire state
and concluded that before anything important could change, they had to
put a stake through its heart.
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 buddies.
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 graduates.
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 neutrality.
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
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 1992 parliamentary
elections, on the theory that it would not win. When the
fundamentalists took a two-thirds majority, the generals canceled the
election 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,