Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Arabia On Fire

The Spark that Ignited an Arab Firestorm

On December 17, 2010, 26-year old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi changed the world. The university educated husband and father was trying to scrape out an honest living by selling fruit amid Tunisia's struggling economy. When the police discovered that Bouazizi did not have the required permit to sell fruit, they confiscated his goods, and an officer slapped him in front of passers-by. Bouazizi attempted to file a complaint against the police, but authorities refused to accept it.

After the humiliation, Bouazizi became frustrated, desperate and apparently lost all hope of ever earning a living, no matter how poor. So, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in public. The fruit vendor's self immolation ignited a wave of unrest that is now challenging the established leadership of at least five Arab nations and threatens to spread to Saudi Arabia, supplier of 25% of the world's oil needs.


Bouazizi's fiery suicide attempt sparked protests and demonstrations by ordinary Tunisians fed-up with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1987. Long standing dissatisfaction with Ben Ali's government resulted in him relinquishing his post and fleeing to asylum in Saudi Arabia. The Ben Ali family was reviled as a criminal "Mafia," using their position and power to enrich themselves and punish enemies. Now, former president Ben Ali his much-hated wife of 20-years his junior reside in exile in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, where the reviled Ugandan dictator Idi Amin took refuge after being tossed from power.

Apparently, the protests in Tunisia emboldened Egyptians tired and frustrated with 30 years of oppressive and corrupt rule by president Hosni Mubrak. Hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets and assembled in the now-famous Tahrir Square, which ironically translates into "Liberation Square," turned into the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution. After 18 days of mainly peaceful protests, Mubarak finally relinquished power to the Egyptian military after a series of increasingly bizarre statements and attempts to hold onto power.

Now, the unrest has spread to Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain. The primary economic concern is will the unrest spread to Saudi Arabia and threaten a quarter of the world's oil supply?

Masters of Deflection

For decades the Arab world has been fractured along the lines of religion (Sunni Muslims vs. Shiite Muslims), nation, tribe, village and clan. The majority of Arab and Muslim states (Iran is Persian, not Arab) in the Middle East (ME) have been ruled by various kings, dictators and strongmen. Most, if not all, of these autocrats have proven to be corrupt and oblivious to the real needs of the people. As eloquently stated by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton in a letter to to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that rings true to this day:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Up until now, Arab populations have consented, or at least tolerated the corruption. Since no Arab country is a true democracy (republic or otherwise), there has been no accountability of the rulers to the people they govern.

I have to believe that one primary factor contributing to the tolerance of corruption is that Arab leaders have been experts at using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a red herring to deflect criticism from their own people of their autocratic rule. Fomenting hate against America, Israel and Jews in general was an effective method used by Arab leaders to distract their people from their lack of individual liberties, poor economic prospects and the avarice of the ruling class.

All that has changed.

The Tipping Point

In 2011, a tipping point was reached when the hatred and frustration of Arabs with their political leaders finally overwhelmed their hatred of America and Israel. They have come to see the corruption and incompetence of their own leaders to be as much a threat to their prosperity and security as the usual scapegoats of America, Israel and the West. Bouazizi, the Tunisian would-be fruit vendor, was a microcosm for the experiences of the majority of average Arabs living under dictatorial rule in north Africa and the Middle East. He struck more than a nerve when he lit the match that sparked the fire which engulfed him in flame.

The aspirations of most young Arab men are no different than those anywhere else in the world. They want to marry, earn a living, build a career and raise a family. Faced with the dim prospects for achieving any part of that modest dream set off the Arab youth who took to the streets to demand reform. The result today is that Hosni Mubarak has left power and the leadership of nearly every Arab country is under intense pressure from their own people to change now, or get out.

Economic stagnation, harsh oppression of any dissent (no matter how harmless), incompetence in delivering public services and a growing youth combined to create a tinderbox under the noses of disconnected Arab leaders. While they enjoyed the privileges of stratospheric wealth and power, aloof leaders never saw Egypt coming.

In Saudi Arabia, the unemployment rate among Saudis between the ages of 20 and 24 is estimated at 39.3%. That is astounding, considering that 90% of the Saudi workforce is staffed with foreigners. Workers imported from Pakistan and elsewhere accept significantly lower wages than their Saudi counterparts (sound familiar, Americans?). The Saudi problem is likely to get worse before it gets better, as 47% of the kingdom's population of 18.5 million are under the age of 18, according to Banque Saudi Fransi (BSF). I have my own ideas about how the Saudis can facilitate a peaceful change (The Saudis Should Emulate the British), but the situation is very complex, as the Saudi royal family consists of 7,000 princes, all wanting a slice of the pie.

What's Next?

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. However, the U.S. intelligence community and military were all caught off guard. In an interview with John Stewart on The Daily Show, U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said:
"It has taken not just us, but many people, by surprise. We've got a 30-year relationship with the people of Egypt, and certainly a very strong relationship from our military to theirs."

At this time, we simply do not know where the Arab unrest is going to lead. Will democracy sweep in a wave of elected Islamist politicians, hostile to America? Will moderate Muslims assume power and focus on rebuilding the economies of the Middle East? It is far too early to tell. Truth is, we just don't know where this is all leading. I will avoid mixing hope with analysis, so we will all just have to observe for now.

Make Mine a Supreme, Please...

That said, it is telling that despite the attempts of the Iranian government to evoke anti-American passions, there have been a distinct lack of demonstrators on the Arab Street and in Iran denouncing the United States and calling for the death of the "Great Satan."

In contrast, Iranians protesting for change that were brutally put down by their own government last year are taking to the streets again. Only, this time the target of their dissatisfaction is no longer president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, it is the Supreme Leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That is a tectonic shift for this Persian nation, which is facing the same economic and demographic issues as Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations.

Obama and The Seeds of Self-Determination

Could it be that the seeds of the current Arab unrest were planted in Cairo nearly 18 months ago?

Just a few weeks ago on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birthday (February 6), the American press spent much time focusing on that president's now-famous quote addressing the Soviet Union's leader in front of the Berlin Wall, "Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Years later, the Berlin Wall fell and with it the communist empire of the Soviet Union. Media commentators and others harken to Reagan's 1987 Berlin Wall address as the speech that won the Cold War.

Readers of this blog know that I have criticized president Obama when I felt it was warranted, but one has to give credit when it is due. In his first major foreign policy speech after being elected in 2008, president Barack Obama spoke these words (among others) to the Islamic world on June 4, 2009 in Cairo.

"America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people."

Mister Obama continued:

"No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy."

Apparently, Bouazizi and the Arab world were listening and took these words and ideas to heart.

America knows better than most nations that freedom is not free and that sacrifices in time, money, blood and lives are often necessary to secure the liberties granted by our Creator. With that knowledge, we pray that what started as one Arab man's fiery and desperate protest for dignity will result in peaceful change in the Arab world and Middle East.


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