As a new dawn breaks over the Nile, and Egyptians wake up to their first morning of freedom, Luke Bozier looks back 22 years to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
As a new dawn breaks over the Nile, and Egyptians wake up to their first morning of freedom, Luke Bozier looks back 22 years to the wave of liberty that swept through Eastern Europe – and sees troubled times for the Middle East’s remaining dictators
In 1989, in an attempt to diffuse growing unrest in the Polish city Gdansk, members of the then Soviet Polish government entered into talks with the leader of the ‘Solidarity’ movement, who sought to bring about radical social and economic change in Poland. The Polish Round Table agreement resulted not only in Solidarity movement members joining the existing government, but it led to wide-sweeping changes and the ultimate downfall of the Communist bloc. Protests in Gdansk had made history not only in their city and country but to the wider region.
We have seen with the ultimate success of the mass movement for change in Cairo that the January 14th revolution in Tunisia was not a stand-alone event. The knock-on effect is set to be more historic than a single revolution, and will reverberate for years to come.
The potential is there for this to be a similar moment to 1989; the Mubarak regime was brought down directly because of the way the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was brought down – Egyptian people were inspired and motivated by events in Tunisia and the wall of fear was destroyed. In a dictatorship, fear is everything, and when the fear has gone, the balance of power tips in favour of the people.
As of today, roughly 90 million people live in post-revolution Arab countries – that’s the combined population of Egypt and Tunisia; the only other democracies in the region are Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Lebanese democracy seems permanently paralysed by religious divides, the democracy in Iraq is nothing more than fledgling and the democratic choice of the people in Palestine in 2006 wasn’t recognised by the world.
There are 22 member states of the Arab league, and at the start of the millennium not one of those countries was a democracy. Now there are three almost democratic countries, and Egypt and Tunisia. That leaves 17 countries, around 250 million people living with varying levels of repression and lack of opportunity and freedom.
We’ll now inevitable look around the region to see which dictator might be next to be deposed. Each country is different, and the risk of revolution isn’t as high in some places, particularly the richer gulf countries, whose populations enjoy very high standards of living and have very little to protest about. Economics was the main trigger of the Gdansk movement, and economics is one of the main factors in the current round of revolutions we’re seeing in the Middle East.
Yemen has the lowest GDP per head in the Middle East/North Africa region. We’ve already seen a growing protest movement there, and President Saleh has guaranteed that neither he nor his son will be on the ballot in the 2013 president election. Nobody can tell if that guarantee is enough to quell growing frustration with the lack of economic opportunity in Yemen.
Yemen poses a particular security worry for the region and the West. there’s a strong separatist movement in the south of the country, and Yemen is known as a haven for Al-Qaeda and other terrorists due to its lax security and difficulty in building strong security apparatus. A number of high-profile terror plots were designed there, including the Christmas Day attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit, and the attempt to blow up planes carrying freight into other US cities last year.
As is the norm in any dictatorship, there’s almost nothing of an alternative political class to the existing ruling elite; a revolution in Yemen will no doubt raise hairs in London and Washington.
The other countries that come to mind now are Libya and Algeria. They are both run by very repressive governments, have no freedom of speech or press, no pluralism in their politics, and both have large populations of young people who are yearning for a better future.
Colonel Ghaddafi has led Libya since a coup in 1969, and is widely expected to attempt to hand over the presidency to his son at some point in the next few years; having seen what Tunisians and Egyptians have been capable of, I doubt that handover will go smoothly if at all. Algeria is suffering under food price rises, widespread corruption and a disaffected youth.
So there are some countries who are more at risk of immediate deep political change. There will be different factors at play, and different triggers in each of the countries. I’m sure that in 20 years there will still be dictatorships in the Middle East, but fewer of them. All across the region from now on, politicians will be careful when making decisions, when considering rigging an election or plundering their nation’s wealth for themselves and their families.
Remembering events on the streets of Cairo and Tunis will no doubt regularly send a shiver down the spine of a dictator.
When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man struggling with economic conditions in his small town in the middle of Tunisia, having been humiliated when his fruit stall was trashed by the local police, sat down in front of the mayor’s office with a can of lighter fluid and set himself alight, he could not have imagined the historic, long-lasting and wide-sweeping changes which he was about to put into action.
He not only led to the downfall of a wicked regime in his own country, but it looks like he has sparked a similar moment to Gdansk in 1989; hundreds of millions of people are likely to be much freer in the near future directly because of his actions and the protests he inspired.
The best democracy in the world is that which comes from below, from the people, rather than from bombs and war. There’s some concern in the West that democracy in the hands of Arabs is somehow unsafe; I don’t think those concerns will be confirmed, and at this moment we should all be congratulating and celebrating with the people of Egypt for the amazing achievement they took for themselves.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.