Arabs feel hopeless, having learned the hard way that trying to overthrow their corrupt or repressive regimes is a futile exercise.
The events that unfolded in Kyrgyzstan in the past few days have demonstrated how seemingly entrenched regimes can be in fact on the cusp of a coup d’état. Arabs have followed the events in Kyrgyzstan with wonder. But why isn’t the same happening in their own countries?
The former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev shares much with leaders from the Arab world. He had “won” an election held in 2005 with a 90% margin after the ousting of the former dictator merely replaced one totalitarian leader with another. More than a dozen Arab countries share similar stories of those who launched coups against a former monarch or president only to install themselves as rulers until they die.
While it is no secret that most Arabs aren’t content with their regimes very few speak out in private and even fewer do so in public, for fear of retaliation. For a long time mosques served as the only venues where ideas could be exchanged without prying eyes, but that is no longer the case in a post-9/11 world.
The reason why Arabs are not more vocal about change in their countries varies from state to state. In the wealthy countries of the Gulf a sense of apathy can be felt that may be associated with materialism. Noam Chomsky associates excessive capitalism that followed the second world war in the US with apathy and fragmented societies.
I believe the same argument could be applied to the citizens of the Gulf states. After all, the Gulf states have been racing against time to develop and promote capitalism, from the $60bn planed economic mega-cities in Saudi Arabia to Kuwait’s $23bn cash bailout for its indebted citizens.
Already Gulf citizens enjoy some of the highest per capita GDP in the world with Qatar leading the way at an estimated $121,400 per citizen while other Gulf states are not far behind. It is also not uncommon to read every once in a while a proclamation from a Gulf leader that the state has a duty to create jobs for the youth. Perhaps a successful “jobs for apathy” policy?
On the other hand are states that have largely been affected by former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies from financing coups to encouraging dissent including Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and until recently Iraq. In all cases corrupt leaders were replaced by equally corrupt leaders, so Arabs were back at square one.
In these less-wealthy states the opposition movements have floundered and have proven that they are either unable or unwilling to first and foremost instil good governance in themselves before they attempt to govern a state. The opposition movements’ leaders have in most cases served in their positions for decades, appointed relatives to high ranks within the movement or demonstrated unrealistic expectations with regard to dealing with others – whether within the country or internationally – thereby leaving themselves largely without power or integrity.
On a ground level these states have perfected the notion of a police state. Rather unlike North Korea and China, they maintain the facade of democracy just enough to win praise or a blind eye from western leaders who are less inclined to host the opposition movements than they are the Dalai Lama, for instance. .
The common thread among so many of these states citizens is probably hopelessness. The closest Arabs reached to overthrowing a corrupt regime, at least in principle, was when the people of Lebanon rose up against a Syrian-backed regime in 2005’s “cedar revolution” – only to install a Saudi-backed regime in its place. Five years after the Lebanese uprising the “leaders” of that movement have learned the lesson of Middle East politics and can been seen today visiting Damascus to apologise and ask for forgiveness from the Syrian regime. It is not unreasonable for Arabs to feel hopeless when a change can only mean more of the same.
In several corrupt countries – such as Egypt – western backing for the government’s clampdown against opposition figures falls under the argument of “the devil you know”.
Who would risk a repeat of the Hamas scenario where the corrupt leaders of Fatah were voted out by the Palestinians and replaced by Hamas political novices? Arabs have now learned that by punishing their corrupt leaders and “doing the right thing” they can pay a heavy price.
Between bribing citizens with cash and jobs, and threatening them with draconian martial laws, it is unlikely that we will be seeing even a colourless revolution in the Arab world in the foreseeable future.
What Arabs have now is the ability to vent their anger online equally against their leaders and their opposition movements in the hope that one day that some article or tweet that they post will capture the imagination of a young Arab somewhere who will think to himself: “Enough is enough”.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on April 9, 2010.