Posted on 14-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The fall of the Pharaoh raises the question whether the Middle East tumult will subside, or if this is the beginning of an avalanche not seen since Eastern Europe in 1989. While it is easy to get carried away, regime change in Tunis and Cairo occurred because the men with the guns did not act against the protesters. As Iran showed a couple of years back, unfortunately that is not always true. When the generals obey their masters and when the grunts obey the generals, democratic hopes come to a bloody end.

It is also still not clear whether Tunis and Cairo were soft coups, where the public face of the regime changed but little else did. However, some local despots do need to be more scared than others.  On cue the days of rage have commenced in three of the most vulnerable autocracies in the middle east.

  • Iran – When Egypt erupted, the mullahs hypocritically cheered the right of Egyptians to protest.   They should have known that their restive masses were looking at Cairo and drawing encouragement.  Now the embers of the Green Revolution are reigniting.  The opposition leaders are already in preventive house arrest and the riot police are cracking skulls.
  • Algeria – Algeria was the rare Arab country that held free elections in the early 1990s.  When it appeared the Islamists won, the military quashed the results (taking their cues from the Burmese junta who made the similar error of not rigging their elections a couple of years before).  The next few years saw a brutal and bloody civil war.  Though violence died down the last few years, unrest has always simmered underneath.  Now it has erupted.
  • Bahrain – The Gulf monarchy’s presence in this list may seem unusual to people who do not follow the Middle East, but the Sunni monarchy ruling a 70% Shiite population has had periodic bouts of unrest.  After promising to respect peaceful rallies, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has opted for bullets.  Warning:  Violent video below.

The protests in all three countries already highlight one huge difference with Tunisia and Egypt.  These autocracies are willing to spill blood.  The men with guns and batons will have to refuse to take orders for these tyrants to fall or give way.  The list above is also not exhaustive.  Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and to a lesser extent Syria (where you have to frankly be foolhardy to publicly protest) have faced protests.  Then there is the longest ruling autocrat in the region who has seen his fellow dictators on either side of his country fall.  The recent cables leaked by Wikileaks revel how the 41 year regime of Muammar Gadaffi has been tarnished by his licentious progeny.  Even Libya may be facing the unthinkable, public protests.

It is very likely that no more dominoes will fall this go around, but the yearnings for freedom and respect on the Arab street will be harder to bottle up again.  And if one can dream, if Egypt actually manages to create a constitutional democracy the clock will start running out for the remaining autocracies in the region.  The 1990s saw the demise of assorted military juntas in Latin America.  Even though the Chavezs and Ortegas are threatening democracy in the region, by and large military rule is passe in the region.  Lets hope this decade sees similar change from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent, and beyond.

As a final note, do notice how quiet the murderous thugs of Al-Qaeda have been at the sight of the Pharaoh being toppled without suicide bombers.

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Narendra Damle on 16 February, 2011 at 3:45 am #

it is apparanent what happens when Generals obey or not obey Masters, as in Iran and Egypt. It is also apparant when Masters dont obey Generals, as we have seen at times in Pakistan. What is not so apparant is what happens when Masters obey Generals, as so routinely happens in USA


Rashtrakut on 16 February, 2011 at 4:25 am #

Most countries defer to generals on the operational aspects of the war, unless you are Rumsfeld. Otherwise you run into other problems. It is interesting to note that the torture regime devised by Bush’s justice department was done in face of the opposition of the uniforms. The generals, notably former chairman of the joint chiefs Powell were not happy about the cavalier attitude towards the conventions knowing that it could backfire on American soldiers in the future. Almost all of the chickenhawks touting torture never served.

One final point. Obama has not given Petraeus the total free hand he wanted in Afghanistan…and he fired McChrystal when the general stepped out of line. Not as cataclysmic as truman sacking MaCArthur, but it did happen


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