Friday, January 28, 2011

What Fuels the Protests is an Arab Class War

The protests sweeping Egypt today may have more in common with the French Revolution than with the democratic revolts that swept eastern Europe.  Class warfare appears to have erupted on the Arab Street.

An op-ed piece published a couple of weeks ago in al Jazeera contends that Arab countries face their own insurgencies but not from religious fanatics but from,"  the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region's population."

The policing, equipment, funding, expertise and anti-terror philosophy being fed to the likes of Algeria, Libya and Morocco are geared towards fighting the 'bearded, radical salafis' whose prophet is Osama bin Laden. But, the tangible bin Ladens bracing suicide in its entirety have emerged from the ranks of the educated middle classes whose prophet is Adam Smith.

...From Tunisia and Algeria in the Maghreb to Jordan and Egypt in the Arab east, the real terror that eats at self-worth, sabotages community and communal rites of passage, including marriage, is the terror of socio-economic marginalisation.

The armies of 'khobzistes' (the unemployed of the Maghreb) - now marching for bread in the streets and slums of Algiers and Kasserine and who tomorrow may be in Amman, Rabat, San'aa, Ramallah, Cairo and southern Beirut - are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Unemployment is their ideology. The periphery is their geography. And for now, spontaneous peaceful protest and self-harm is their weaponry. They are 'les misérables' of the modern world.

...For Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt, the impoverished Arab states, in need of the liquidity of Euro-American and International Misery Fund aid, infitah (open-door policy) was the only blueprint of forward economic management. Within its bosom are bred greed, land grab, corruption, monopoly and the new entrepreneurial classes who exchange loyalty and patronage with the political masters as well as the banknotes and concessions with which both fund flash lifestyles.

...The absence of a critical mass that produces a tipping-point dynamic means that regimes know how to buy time, co-opt and fund themselves out of trouble when pushed. Genuine democratic bargains do not ensue. The states have not invested in social and political capital.

Oppositions and dissidents have not yet learned how to infiltrate governments and build strong political identities and power bases. This is one reason why the protests that produced 'Velvet revolutions' elsewhere seem to be absent in the Arab world.

The momentum created by the bread rioters is never translated into self-sustaining critical mass by opposition forces. Regimes wait until the last minute after use of force fails to kill off the momentum through the offer of concessionary and momentary welfare.

The Guardian interviewed a Mid-East expert who described the uprising as fragile in that it lacks anything resembling political organization.  The Muslim Brotherhood appears not to have gained the  backing of the protesters.  Mohamad ElBaradei, perhaps opportunistically, seems to be trying to become a figurehead around which the protesters can coalesce but it's far from clear that he will be acceptable to them.  Mubarak may be banking on being able to prevent that from happening by finding means to divide the protesters and dilute their ranks.

Asia Times Online reports that al Qaeda is waiting in the wings, hoping that the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states will descend into anarchy at which point they will be able to exploit the chaos to establish the organization in those countries.  If nothing else, the threat of radical Islamist expansion into formerly pro-Western Arab countries may motivate the West to wring genuine democratic reform out of the despots they have, to now, been supporting.

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