Middle East’s political geography remains shrouded in mystery

People hold Egypt's flag outside Sharm el-Sheikh hospital where former president Hosni Mubarak was admitted after he reportedly suffered a heart attack during questioning by prosecutors, on April 13. (File photo)

People hold Egypt's flag outside Sharm el-Sheikh hospital where former president Hosni Mubarak was admitted after he reportedly suffered a heart attack during questioning by prosecutors, on April 13. (File photo)
Five months of mass anti-government demonstrations are rewriting the geopolitical map of the Middle East and North Africa, but the contours of the region’s new political geography remain unpredictable. So far the redrafting of the map promises primarily prolonged volatility, uncertainty and strife in the battle for hard fought change.

To be sure, protesters’ have already had success. They forced the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Messrs. Zine Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, to resign relatively quickly and with comparatively little bloodshed. But their seemingly easy success is proving to be the exception that confirms the rule. Hopes that authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the region would follow the example of Mr. Ben Ali and Mr. Mubarak have been dashed by fighting in Libya that has virtually divided the country in two as well and brought renewed foreign intervention to the region as well as the determination of leaders in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria to hold on to power.

Moreover, the months since Mr. Ben Ali’s departure in January and Mr. Mubarak’s resignation in February show that the transition from authoritarian rule to greater freedom is a convoluted process of two steps forward, one step backwards in which the leaders of the revolt are not necessarily those that gain power. New leaders may well be waiting in the wings but whether they alongside leaders of the protests have the wherewithal to build party organizations and effective election campaign machines within a short period of time remains to be seen.

Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Ben Ali’s parties may have been banned but much of their machinery remains intact as does that of traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP)—already shuttered by Egypt’s current rulers—appears to be restyling itself in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for August. The party last week elected Talaat Sadat, the nephew of the party’s founder and a critic of the NDP, as its new leader. Mr. Sadat said the NDP would henceforth be known as the New National Party and that corrupt officials were being purged from its ranks.

Protesters can also chalk up as a success the fact that Egypt and Tunisia enjoy today a far greater degree of freedom than was prevalent under their former rulers.

Yet, if recent crackdowns in Egypt on protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and restrictions on freedom of the press are any indication, both countries have a long road ahead before they achieve democracy in which freedoms are solidly enshrined in law rather than simply greater margins of freedom. The ruling Egyptian military’s banning of anything being published about it without its authorization and last week’s sentencing of a blogger to three years in prison for criticizing the crackdown on Tahrir Square hardly bodes well for freedom of the press.

Similarly, protesters can claim credit for ensuring that governments will, going forward, be forced to try and rebuild confidence by being more attentive to public opinion and people’s needs. That is true even in nations where the protests were brutally crushed or have yet to force an authoritarian leader to step down.

Public lack of confidence in leaders has already led to vague promises of reforms that are not backed up by immediate tangible actions fuelling rather than quelling protests. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has found no takers for his offer to hand over power in an orderly fashion at some date in the future; and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s promise to lift the state of emergency and introduce reforms was greeted last weekend with mass protests designed to keep the heat on. The recent appointment of prominent regime officials to a committee tasked by King Mohammed VI of Morocco with guiding reform have convinced a growing number of Moroccans that the country’s leadership has no real interest in increased transparency or democracy.

The detention for investigation of Mr. Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, as well as the issuance in Tunisia of an arrest warrant for Mr. Ben Ali who lives in Saudi Arabia in exile appeals to the emotions of a significant segment of the population demanding to see tangible results of the successful toppling of their former leaders.

So do the corruption trials in Cairo against former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and former Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali. The arrests and the trials, like the resumption of soccer league matches after a three-month suspension because of the protests, are likely to divert public attention for, at best, a brief instance before people’s focus returns to the messy business of determining the future of their country and insisting that democratic structures replace surviving authoritarian ones.

Egypt’s mounting economic problems as a result of months of political turmoil is likely to widen cracks within the opposition as well as in the military’s public support. Egypt needs international support to finance its budget gap and has discussed $2.2 billion in soft loans with the World Bank, the state-run Middle East News Agency quotes Finance Minister Samir Radwan as saying. Egypt is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about obtaining $3 billion to $4 billion in soft loans, he said. Nonetheless, it will take time before the support trickles down.

Youth leaders who welcomed the military takeover from Mr. Mubarak for the period leading up to elections say their faith in the armed forces is waning. The military has broken off contacts with the youth movement over the past month. Youth leaders say they have been told they will have at best eight of the 508 seats in the newly elected parliament.

“As an Egyptian I am really concerned that a counter-revolution could happen if people are not able to fulfill their basic needs,” Wael Ghonim, a 30-year old Google executive who emerged as a figurehead for the protests, told Reuters news agency.

Mr. Ghonim argued that, beyond cash, Egypt needed know-how, job creation projects and support for small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Why is it so easy to secure budgets to bomb nations while it is extremely hard to raise budgets to build a nation, when the end result supposedly is the same, which is freedom and democracy?” he asked.


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