by Jeff Strabone
One way that novels and films differ from the real world is that events that mark the end of a narrative fiction tend to be just the beginning in the non-fictional world. Case in point: revolutions. A revolution is never the end of the story in real life. If the razzle-dazzle of mass protest, the minting of fresh martyrs, and the deposition of decades-fattened tyrants are the marks of a real revolution—one that permanently alters the material conditions in the lives of societies and nations—then revolution is mere prologue to the messier story of laws being rewritten and power redistributed. If the people left standing after a revolution are lucky, their story will quickly turn to the boring, non-narratable prose of parliamentary debates and trade agreements devoid of drama and conflict. (See Central Europe, 1990–2011.)
What, then, will be the story of the Arab revolts in 2011? It is too soon to know even what genre of tale will be told. In lieu of predicting what will happen next, I offer instead some first thoughts on the exciting events so far and what they will mean for the Arab states, the United States, and Israel.
1. Show us the money
One of the first things that the free citizens of Egypt and other kleptocracies will have to do is audit the government’s accounts and get back the money stolen from the state. Estimates of the loot from the Mubaraks’ thirty-year crime wave range as high as a surely exaggerated $70 billion. Even if the true amount is one-tenth of that, there is still a massive amount of public revenue to be reclaimed.
However high or low, the money will not be easy to track nor to get back. As the New York Times for February 18 reminds us, Egypt faces another economic complication: the military.
The Egyptian military defends the country, but it also runs day care centers and beach resorts. Its divisions make television sets, jeeps, washing machines, wooden furniture and olive oil, as well as bottled water under a brand reportedly named after a general’s daughter, Safi.
In countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran, the military operates its own ‘gated economy’. A republic is only civilian-ruled to the extent that the military lacks its own independent bases of political and economic power. Even if every last Mubarak-pilfered gineih were returned, the larger problem of extricating the military from the economy would remain. For the fifty years since U.S. President Eisenhower gave a name to the military-industrial complex, Americans have struggled to minimise its influence over their government. The Egyptians would be blessed to be facing such a comparatively simple problem as that.
2. Israel’s stake in Egypt’s future
The top two recipients of U.S. aid for the past thirty years have been have been Israel and Egypt. Israel’s annual gift has ranged from $2.3 to $3.1 billion a year over the last decade, Egypt’s from $1.5 to $2.0 billion. Without the many billions to Israel over the years, their republic might not have endured for the past 62 years. Without the many billions to Egypt, Israel would not have had a friend at its southwestern border. Looked at starkly, the U.S. has paid Mubarak to be Israel’s friend at the cost of the livelihoods of the 80 million Egyptians whose hopes and aspirations he stifled for the past thirty years. This is a depressing calculus of human suffering, and that’s without factoring in the suffering of the Palestinians.
It’s safe to say that no democratically-elected successor in Egypt will be as Israel-friendly as Mubarak was. Why does this prospect alarm Israel? Israel has depended on Egypt for at least two things whose terms are likely to change: border security at Gaza and energy supply.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza since 2007 continues to produce suffering on an epic scale, as measured by its 70 percent poverty rate (CIA), its 65 percent infant anemia rate, (WHO), the pitifully low 60 percent of its population whose homes are connected to sewage systems (ICRC), and so on. This blockade would not be enforceable without Egypt’s assistance.
Nor would Israel be able to meet its energy needs without the Arish-Ashkelon Pipeline from Egypt. A special Israel-devoted branch of the Arab Gas Pipeline, it supplies 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas. As reported by Forbes on February 5, the pipeline has been disrupted by a mysterious explosion. Coincidence?
Israel’s greatest fear about a democratic Egypt may be that Mubarak’s successor—Pan-Arabist, Islamist, or whatever—could threaten to end the blockade and turn off the gas until Israel allows the Palestinians to form their own sovereign state.
(Yes, Israel has recently discovered large natural-gas fields, named Tamar and Leviathan, but neither is operational yet.)
3. Bahrain: international war brewing?
The big hot spot this week has been Bahrain. Bahrain is one of only three states with a Shia majority, the others being perennial hot spots Iran and Iraq. And now that Iraq is, however non-functionally, a democratic republic, Bahrain remains the only Shia-majority country ruled on a discriminatory basis by a Sunni minority. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the maritime cops of the Persian Gulf and counterweight to Iran.
Because of the Saudi royal family’s antipathy towards Shias, Bahrain has the potential to become a regional war. The Saudis’ expression of support for Bahrain’s Sunni-minority rulers, as reported by The Washington Post for February 20, may already be a barely veiled threat of military intervention against Shia revolt. A Saudi invasion would be bad, to put it concisely.
Whatever one makes of President Obama’s performance as world leader so far, every Shia Bahraini should say al-hamdulillah that Shiaphobe Dick Cheney is not calling the shots anymore. Expect the neocon hawks to squawk to high heaven if Shias come to power in Bahrain. It will make fearmongering about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood look like a mime show by comparison.
4. At long last, Palestinian flower power?
I have been saying for years, not entirely facetiously, that the Palestinians’ main problem is that they lack a great rock band or a hippie movement. What do I mean by that? Whatever one may think of Israel’s policies, the Palestinian cause—human rights and democratic participation in a republic that recognises them as citizens—has always been a just cause. And yet, the Palestinians have always been their own worst enemies: corrupt leaders, internal schisms, and, of course, the bad P.R. that comes from violent actions against innocent civilians. (There’s even an opera about it.) One does not have to be a pacifist to see that the Palestinians’ tactics over the decades have hurt themselves more than anyone.
The question—the challenge, really—that the success of non-violence in Tunisia and Egypt lays down for the Palestinians is, Will they finally wake the hell up and realise that non-violence can work for them, too? As long as the homemade rockets of Hamas terrify Israelis across the border, Israel will be able to frame its military response, whether one deems it disproportionate or not, as retaliation.
It’s as if Hamas is playing by some outdated guerilla calculus that provoking crackdowns from one’s enemy will engender more popular resistance. I tend to believe that such tactics just get more people needlessly killed on all sides and sets back the development of viable political and social institutions. And in a post-9/11 world, any non-state actor caught throwing a stone, be it the first stone or the thousandth, risks total warfare under the guise of counterinsurgency. (See recent events in Sri Lanka, as ably recounted by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker for January 17, 2011.)
The success of the first intifada in 1987 in restoring the Palestinians’ cause to a global audience was due to the images of boys being shot at and their bones broken by the Israel military. With the rules of the game changing around them, the last best chance the Palestinians have would be to put flowers in the barrels of the IDF’s rifles and sing ‘Imagine’ or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in Arabic. The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades would have to make way for Gandhi- and MLK-inspired peace brigades.
5. Et tu, U.S.?
Could events in the Arab countries spark campaigns for justice here in the States? Labour revolts in Wisconsin and Ohio, shocking in and of themselves, have even more shockingly been invoking Egypt in their rhetoric and signage. Still, I would not get my hopes up too high. Mass, sustained civil disobedience at the corporate headquarters of insurance ‘providers’ and banks and petrol companies remains a long way off. Instead, Koch-funded campaigns continue to succeed at electing Republican governors who then refuse federal money to build high-speed rail networks . (See Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and more to come. Special shoutout to New Jersey.)
When Americans begin to thirst for health care, re-pedestrianised cities, and the return of usury laws with the same fervor that Egyptians have shown in clamouring for democracy and the rule of law, only then will we know the revolution is here.
6. Gay rights as sign
The coming constitutional showdown between human law and divine law in the revolutionary Arab states may turn on the question of gay rights and sexual freedom generally. On paper, Islam is no more homophobic than Christianity or Judaism. (See Leviticus 20.13). The different outcomes in the various parts of the world have more to do with the relative political strength of those who want the state to perform a moral-policing role. In the U.S., even Supreme Court justices believe that the individual has no constitutional protections against a crazed majority who would legislate against sexual freedom. (See Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).)
The New York Times for February 20, 2011, in a sign of things to come, reports on the Tunisian military’s action to defend brothels from the mob:
The second phase of Tunisia’s revolution played out in this city’s ancient medina last week as military helicopters circled and security forces rushed to carry out an unusual mission: protecting the city’s brothels.
Police officers dispersed a group of rock-throwing protesters who streamed into a warren of alleyways lined with bordellos shouting, ‘God is great!’ and ‘No to brothels in a Muslim country!’
Let us wish the Tunisian prostitutes well.
7. Who will play Ceausescu in this story?
If 2011 is the 1989 of the Arab world, who will be its Ceausescu? Nicolae Ceausescu, for those of you too young to remember, was the intractable communist dictator of Romania from 1964 to 1989. After peaceful regime changes in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, the world turned its eyes to Romania, but the self-styled Genius of the Carpathians was not going out like that. He instead turned his guns on his own people, only to have the guns turned back on him and his wife on December 25.
At this point, Muammar Qaddafi, dictator of Libya, looks poised to play that role. Reports and rumours leaking out of Libya this week speak of planeloads of mercenaries flown in from elsewhere in Africa, snipers aiming at funerals, and machine guns in the streets. A man who creates his own calendar upon coming to power cannot be expected to leave without a fight.
And who better to play the Ceausescu role? Aside from the well-publicized pain and suffering this madman has caused, from the dancefloor of the La Belle discothèque in Berlin to the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, let us not forget that Charles Taylor of Liberia (currently on trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity) and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone got their training in Libya. Of all the dictators currently in power, he has ruled the longest, since 1969, and, when we factor in his role in the wars in West Africa in the 1990s, may have the most blood on his hands. May he get all that he has coming to him.
And may all the peoples of the world live free with leaders of their own choosing and with easy access to medical care as every human being deserves. Let’s hope that something close to that awaits us all in this life.