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1989 and the Arab World

3 February 2011

1989 and the Arab World

 By Gwynne Dyer

It was the Egyptian army’s statement that brought it all back: “To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people.” In other words, go ahead and overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. It’s all right with us.

It reminded me of the day of the first big anti-Communist demonstration in Moscow in mid-1989. There had already been non-violent demos in other Communist-ruled countries like Poland and Hungary, but this was Russia. The enormous crowd filling the broad Garden Ring Road was visibly nervous, and I was staying near the edge of the crowd so I could dodge into a doorway if the shooting started.

Then I noticed that there were Soviet army officers, in full uniform, among the protesters. It was going to be all right: the military wanted change just as much as everybody else. Tahrir Square in Cairo today is the same: the army is with the people.

The army statement in Cairo rang the death knell for Mubarak’s regime, even if he still insists that he will stay in the presidential palace until the election scheduled for September. That won’t happen. A transitional government led by other people will organise the election. But the echoes of an earlier revolution set me to wondering: is this the Arab world’s 1989?

In 1989 the collapse of the old order started in the “satellite”countries, not in the Russian heart of the empire, just as the current revolt against the Arab status quo began in Tunisia, a relatively small and marginal Arab country. The Eastern European landslide only started to sweep everything before it in November, 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. So is Hosni Mubarak the Berlin Wall of the Arab world?

He certainly could be, for Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and the tactics and goals of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples closely resemble those of the peaceful revolutionaries of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Arabs, too, are successfully using non-violent tactics to bring irresistible moral pressure on tyrannical and corrupt regimes, and they are demanding just the same things: democracy, justice and prosperity.

The non-violent formula worked in two to three weeks in Tunisia, and it looks like it will take about the same time in Egypt. At first the president is defiant and sends police thugs out into the streets to attack the protesters, but he cannot use massive violence because he knows that the army would not obey a shoot-to-kill order. Much like in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Then begins the retreat. First the president promises reforms. Then, when that doesn’t work, he fires the entire government and creates a new cabinet (but it’s still full of hated regime cronies). Then he promises to leave power at the next election, but argues that he must stay for the transition period to guarantee “stability.” And finally, he gets on the plane and leaves.

Tunisia has travelled that entire route since mid-December, and Egypt is passing through the next-to-last stage. Other Arab countries may be on the same road: the demos began in Algeria and Yemen in December. They’re only three weeks old in Jordan, but the king has just fired the entire government and appointed a new cabinet with orders to carry out “true political reforms.”

There are hold-outs like Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, boasted last week that his regime is secure because it has a “cause”: confrontation with Israel. More to the point, the Syrian army probably would open fire on protesters, for it is dominated by the ethnic minority to which Assad himself belongs.

Iraq is so paralysed by ethnic divisions after the American occupation that no popular mass movement is possible. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states almost certainly face no risk of popular revolution, for their people enjoy great prosperity because of their oil. Nevertheless, the pressure for change is palpable in most Arab countries.

Fully half the population of the Arab world might be living under different, more democratic regimes a year or two from now. The European 1989 delivered precisely that in just two years; why can’t the Arabs do the same?

They can, of course, but the period after 1989 in Eastern Europe was not entirely happy. The immediate result, in most countries, was a fall in living standards, not a rise. One major country, former Yugoslavia, was torn apart by war. There were various smaller wars along the ethnically fractured southern borders of the former Soviet Union, and Russia ended up back under a gentler sort of authoritarian rule.

The risks for the Arab world are comparable: short-term economic decline, civil war, and the rise of new authoritarian regimes, probably fuelled by Islamist ideas. Nothing’s perfect. But what we are now witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, and may also see elsewhere, is a great liberation not just from dictatorship, but from decades of corruption and despair. That’s worth a lot.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There are…countries”)

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

What’s Wrong with the Arab World

19 July 2004

What’s Wrong with the Arab World

By Gwynne Dyer

It was just a random statistic, but a telling one: only 300 books were translated into Arabic last year. That is about one foreign title per million Arabs. For comparison’s sake, Greece translated 1,500 foreign-language books, or about one hundred and fifty titles per million Greeks. Why is the Arab world so far behind, not only in this but in practically all the arts and sciences?

The first-order answer is poverty and lack of education: almost half of Arabic-speaking women are illiterate. But the Arab world used to be the most literate part of the planet; what went wrong? Tyranny and economic failure, obviously. But why is tyranny such a problem in the Arab world? That brings us to the nub of the matter.

 In a speech in November, 2003, US President George W. Bush revisited his familiar refrain about how the West has to remake the Arab world in its own image in order to stop the terrorism: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe….because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” — as if the Arab world had wilfully chosen to be ruled by these corrupt and incompetent tyrannies.

But the West didn’t just ‘excuse and accommodate’ these regimes. It created them, in order to protect its own interests — and it spent the latter half of the twentieth century keeping them in power for the same reason.

It was Britain that carved the kingdom of Jordan out of the old Ottoman province of Syria after the First World War and put the Hashemite ruling family on the throne that it still occupies. France similarly carved Lebanon out of Syria in order to create a loyal Christian-majority state that controlled most of the Syrian coastline — and when time and a higher Muslim birth-rate eventually led to a revolt against the Maronite Christian stranglehold on power in Lebanon in 1958, US troops were sent in to restore it. The Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, tangled though it was, was basically a continuation of that struggle.

Britain also imposed a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq after 1918, and deliberately perpetuated the political monopoly of the Sunni minority that it had inherited from Turkish rule. As Gertrude Bell, an archaeologist and political adviser in the British administration in Baghdad, put it: “I don’t for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority, otherwise you’ll have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil.” When the Iraqi monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 and the Baath Party won the struggle that followed, the CIA gave the Iraqi Baathists the names of all the senior members of the Iraqi Communist Party (then the main political vehicle of the Shias) so they could be liquidated.

It was Britain that turned the traditional sheikhdoms in the Gulf into separate little sovereign states and absolute monarchies, carving Kuwait out of Iraq in the process. (Saudi Arabia, however, was a joint Anglo-US project.) The British Foreign Office welcomed the Egyptian generals’ overthrow of King Farouk and the destruction of the country’s old nationalist political parties, failing to foresee that Gamal Abdul Nasser would eventually take over the Suez Canal. When he did, it conspired with France and Israel to attack Egypt in a failed attempt to overthrow him.

Once Nasser died and was succeeded by generals more willing to play along with the West — Anwar Sadat, and now Hosni Mubarak — Egypt became Washington’s favourite Arab state: to help these thinly disguised dictators to hang on to power, Egypt has ranked among the top three recipients of US foreign aid almost every year for the past quarter-century. And so it goes.

Britain welcomed the coup by Colonel Gadafy in Libya in 1969, mistakenly seeing him as a malleable young man who could serve the West’s purposes. The United States and France both supported the old dictator Bourbuiga in Tunisia, and still back his successor Ben Ali today. They always backed the Moroccan monarchy no matter how repressive it became, and they both gave unquestioning support to the Algerian generals who cancelled the elections of 1991 — nor did they ever waver in their support through the savage insurgency unleashed by the suppression of the elections that killed an estimated 120,000 Algerians over the next ten years.

‘Excuse and accommodate’? The West created the modern Middle East, from its rotten regimes down to its ridiculous borders, and it did so with contemptuous disregard for the wishes of the local people. It is indeed a problem that most Arab governments are corrupt autocracies that breed hatred and despair in their own people, which then fuels terrorism against the West, but it was the West that created the problem — and invading Iraq won’t solve it.

If the US really wants to foster Arab democracy, it might try making all that aid to Egypt conditional on prompt democratic reforms. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Britain…years”)