// archives

Arab Revolutions

This tag is associated with 2 posts

Arab Revolutions, China and Oil

25 February 2011

Arab Revolutions, China and Oil

by Gwynne Dyer

Muammar Gaddafi’s speeches grow ever more delusional: last Thursday he accused al-Qaeda of putting hallucinogenic pills into the coffee of unsuspecting Libyan 17-year-olds in order to get them to attack the regime. But he also said something important. Defending his massacres of Libyan protesters, he pointed to the example of China, arguing that “the integrity of China was more important than [the people] on Tienanmen Square.”

The Chinese regime will not be grateful to him for making that comparison, but it is quite accurate. Gaddafi, like the Chinese Communist Party, claims that there are only two choices: his own absolute power, or chaos, civil war, and national disintegration. The “integrity of Libya” is allegedly at stake. Also like the Chinese ruling party, he is willing to kill hundreds or even thousands of his own fellow-citizens in order to maintain his rule.

Ruthlessness will not save Gaddafi now: he has already lost control of more than half the country, and the oil revenues that enable him to reward his allies and pay mercenaries will soon dry up. But ruthlessness certainly did save the Chinese Communist regime in 1989, when the army slaughtered between 300 and 3,000 young pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s central square. Might it need to deploy such violence again in order to survive?

So far the current wave of revolutions has been an entirely Arab phenomenon, apart from some faint echoes in Iran, but the example of successful non-violent revolution can cross national and even cultural frontiers. It won’t matter that it’s a very long way from the Arab world to China if large numbers of young Chinese conclude that the same techniques could also work against their own local autocracy.

It is very unlikely that that sort of thing is brewing in China now. There were online calls for a “jasmine revolution” last week, but few people actually went out onto the streets of Chinese cities to protest, and those who did were swiftly overwhelmed by swarms of police. Even the word “jasmine” is now blocked in internet searches in China, and tranquillity has been restored.

The reality is that few Chinese under the age of 30 know much about the savage repression of 1989. Moreover, despite a thousand petty grievances against the arbitrariness and sheer lawlessness of state power in China, they are just not in a revolutionary mood – and they will not be so long as the goose keeps laying the golden eggs.

But what if the Chinese economic miracle stalled? Then the situation could change very fast, for the regime is not loved; it is merely tolerated so long as living standards go on rising quickly. And what could cause it to stall? Well, the economic side-effects of the current wave of revolutions in the Middle East might do the trick.

Sometimes, it really is all about oil. The last two times the world economy really took a nosedive, way beyond the normal, cyclical recessions, were both oil-related. In 1973, after the Arab-Israeli war of that year and the subsequent embargo on Arab oil exports, the oil price quadrupled. In 1979, when the Iranian revolution cut that country’s oil exports, the impact was almost as severe. So could it happen again?

Non-violent revolutions should not affect oil exports at all. Heavy fighting of the sort we are now seeing in Libya can damage oil-producing facilities and drive out foreign workers who are needed to run those facilities, but Libya is not a big enough producer to affect the global supply situation much by itself.

What drove the oil price up to $120 a barrel at one point last week (it later fell back to $110) was not the loss of Libyan production, but the fear that, as the contagion of revolution spreads, one or more of the major Middle Eastern oil exporters may fall into the same chaos. Then, the oil pundits predict, the price could hit $180 or even $220.

Never mind the direct impact of such an astronomical price on the Chinese economy (although China imports a lot of oil). Far worse for China would be the fact that the whole global economy would go into a period of hyper-inflation and steeply falling consumption, for China is now integrated into that economy.

So the Chinese goose stops laying its golden eggs, and young Chinese start looking around for someone to blame. They would, of course, blame the regime – and at that point, the Middle Eastern example of successful non-violent revolution becomes highly relevant.

Which is not to say that non-violent revolution is really possible in China. The Party has always been willing to kill its opponents, and there is no proof that it has changed, even though another generation has passed since 1989 and none of the original killers is still in office.

But the current generation of Chinese young people barely remember 1989. They would not be deterred by the memory of what happened to their predecessors.

_________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 13 and 14. (“The reality…eggs”; and “Which…predecessors”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Why Now? Arab Revolutions

18 February 2011

Why Now?

By Gwynne Dyer

Why now? Why revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt this year, rather than last year, or ten years ago, or never? The protestors now taking to the street daily in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Algeria are obviously inspired by the success of those revolutions, but what got the process started? What changed in the Middle East?

Yes, of course the Arab world is largely ruled by autocratic regimes that suppress all opposition and dissent, sometimes with great cruelty. Yes, of course many of those regimes are corrupt, and some of them are effectively in the service of foreigners. Of course most Arabs are poor and getting poorer. But that has all been true for decades. It never led to revolutions before.

Maybe the frustration and resentment that have been building up for so long just needed a spark. Maybe the self-immolation of a single young man set Tunisia alight, and from there the flames spread quickly to half a dozen other Arab countries. But you can’t find anybody who really believes that this could just as easily have happened five years ago, or ten, or twenty.

Yet there is no reason to suppose that the level of popular anger has gone up substantially in the past two or five or ten years. It’s high all the time, but in normal times most people are very cautious about expressing it openly. You can get hurt that way.

Now they are expressing their anger very loudly indeed, and long-established Arab regimes are starting to panic. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, by far the largest Arab country, makes it possible that many other autocratic regimes in the Arab world could fall like dominoes. The rapid collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe in 1989 is a frightening precedent for them. But, once again, why is this happening now?

“Social media” is one widely touted explanation, and the al-Jazeera network’s wall-to-wall coverage of the events in Tunisia and Egypt is another. Both are plausible parts of the explanation, for the availability of means of communication that are beyond the reach of state censorship clearly makes mass mobilisation much easier.

If people are ready to come out on the street and protest, these media make it easier for them to organize and easier for the example of the protestors to spread. But this really does not explain why they are ready to come out at last.

The one thing that is really different in the Middle East, just in the last year or two, is the self-evident fact that the United States is starting to withdraw from the region. From Lebanon in 1958 to Iraq in 2003, the US was willing to intervene militarily to defend Arab regimes it liked and overthrow those that it did not like. That’s over now.

This great change is partly driven by the thinly disguised American defeat in Iraq. The last US troops are leaving that country this year, and after that grim experience US public opinion will not countenance another major American military intervention in the region. The safety net for Arab regimes allied to the United States is being removed, and their people know it.

There is also a major strategic reassessment going on in Washington, and it will almost certainly end by downgrading the importance of the Middle East in US policy. The Arab masses do not know that, but the regimes certainly do, and it undermines their confidence.

The traditional motives for American strategic involvement in the Middle East were oil and Israel. American oil supplies had to be protected, and the Cold War was a zero-sum game in which any regime that the US did not control was seen to be at risk of falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. And quite apart from sentimental considerations, Israel had to be protected because it was an important military asset.

But the Cold War is long over, and so is the zero-sum game in the Middle East. The Arab oil exporters choose their customers on a purely commercial basis, and they have to sell their oil to support their growing populations. You don’t need to control them or threaten them to get oil from them; just send them a cheque. Besides, less than a fifth of America’s oil imports now come from the Arab world.

As for Israel, its military value to the United States has gone into a steep decline since the end of the Cold War. Nor does it need American protection: it is a dwarf superpower that towers over its Arab neighbours militarily. So remind me again: why, exactly, should the United States see “stability” in the Middle East as a vital national interest?

The revolutions of 1989 became possible when people in the Eastern European countries realised that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene militarily to preserve the Communist regimes that ruled them. Is another 1989 possible in the Arab world? Well, the Arabs now know that the United States will not intervene militarily to protect the regimes that rule them.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7 (“Social…last)