A Case for Guarded Optimism (February 21, 2011)

News Analysis

Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam, a West Asia hand of four decades standing, cautions against high expectations from post-Mubarak Egypt.

I am amazed to see a quiet celebration of the Egyptian “revolution” still going on in a section of our society. This is uncalled for, as nothing substantial has changed in Egypt so far. It is virtually the same situation, minus Mubarak.

I do admit that a single person gracing presidency for 30 long years does not make a democracy. To that extent, the change is welcome. However, people who are expecting a changed polity will soon be disappointed.

The council that has been entrusted with the interim administration, the approval of a new Constitution and holding of a free and fair election in the months ahead, is composed, by and large of West-leaning individuals. That means the source of resentment that gnaws at the hearts of people in West Asia remains intact.

No area in the world is under the control of Western powers to the extent West Asia has been for at least the last 100 years. Most other areas of the world have fought, resisted and gained greater independence from Western economic, geopolitical and hegemonic interests. West Asia has only been changing West-backed tyrants for other West-backed tyrants. The other kind of tyrants have lost their Soviet godfather, but they still rule ignoring the common good.

Revolutions and revolutionaries in West Asia have not ushered in democracy in the past. It is very difficult to see how over four decades of Col. Gaddafi’s rule in Libya has improved the lives of Libyans or how it could be said to be better than King Idris’s rule, which he replaced.

In the early years of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in Egypt, the whole Arab world was on cloud nine. Deluded by the man’s charisma, they thought their moment—the Arab moment in history—had finally arrived after a long, dark stretch of Western dominance. The joint UK-French-Israeli invasions of Suez (opposed by the US) of 1957 and its failure further increased the stature of Nasser in the Arab and Afro-Asian world. However, the setback of 1967 war destroyed that impression forever. Egypt under Nasser turned out to be no better than under King Farouk.

It was this delusion of Arab socialism and Arab nationalism that brought in a whole generation of young military dictators, who were inspired by Nasser: Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Jaffer el-Numeiry in Sudan, Haffez al-Asad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They proved out to be worst dictators, known for their brutality and murderous thuggery. Compared to these people, the surviving monarchies have been far more humane and sympathetic to the people.

Don’t think for a while that it is an argument for status quo and stagnation in Arab world. However, I suggest that hope be tempered with experience.

Now, coming back to the immediate situation, I would like to posit that a revolution like Egypt’s does not always usher in democracy. Look at ten countries in which such changes have occurred over the last two decades. How many of them are functioning as democracies today? Not many, of course.

The claims of some of our friends in India that the Tahrir Square show was run by the Islamic Brotherhood is amusing, and their boast that the post-Mubarak dispensation is in the Brotherhood’s hands is a dangerous delusion. The fact that we love Islam should not make us get out of touch with reality. The fact is that the Tahrir show had very little by way of Brotherhood presence or guidance, and the present administration is not run by the Brotherhood but by people that America and EU would like to work with.

Interestingly, early on in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, an Indian commentator wondered why so many of the demonstrators were speaking in American accent. It was not because there is a university called American University of Cairo and there is an American University of Beirut not very far away. No, that should not be enough reason for the American accent being so pervasive. Later, it turned out that about 250 people had come back from the United States after getting training in how to demonstrate peacefully for a transition to democracy.

I have yet to confirm the fact in the latter part of the above para, but it is a normal big-power practice to “manage” the inevitable fall of an unpopular ruler who is a Western ally in a way that minimises the adverse effect on these foreign interests. So far, there is nothing to suggest that the Egyptian revolution has spun out of Western control. By the time elections come round, things may change and the Western advantage may shrink to some extent, or great extent. But that is not the case at the moment.


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