From Tunis to Egypt: Democracy in Subtitles

A simple fruit vendor sets himself ablaze in the sleepy hinterlands of Tunis as he finally snaps under the weight of the injustice of his life — and overnight nothing is as it was before. Martyr turned national hero, his scorched body triggers a deep pool of imbedded resentments from Algeria to Jordan and Yemen; and finally hundreds of thousands explode on the streets of Alexandria and Cairo, demanding change, screaming for justice and telling their unelected leaders to go home. Enough!

Captions across the international press are calling it the Tunisian “virus” – like a disease that is slowly taking contagion, putting long corrupt regimes on notice.

Algeria promptly took measures to step up grain imports on the theory that revolutionaries are less inclined to revolutionize on a full stomach; and Libya’s Ghaddafi, himself a 42 year veteran of a corrupt rule has denounced foreign plots and Wikileaks for being behind the intrigues.

Within days the 23-year patronage rule of President Ben Ali of Tunis came to an end as he and his entourage packed their Vuitton bags and boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia. What is it about this desert kingdom that makes it such a popular destination for dictators on the run?

After unprecedented curfew defying demonstrations across Egypt, Mr. Mubarak came out to face his people, promising a new cabinet. The old one he says was defective — a fantastic position in view of the fact that he is the one making all the decisions.

The winds of democracy have started to blow across a region whose demographic profile is textbook for such movements – young, unemployed, repressed and reviling their leaders. No wonder Allah is so popular in that part of the world — which brings us to the delicate balance of all things Middle East: The U.S. – Democracy – Islam and the Peace Process.

The Obama administration is admittedly in an awkward position, negotiating the balance between support for their anchor leader in the region and … well — the people of the region. The choices are to either abandon an ally and risk being thrown to the Islamic wolves; or walk the talk of Democracy, even if for no other reason than to prove to whoever is still listening that Iraq and Afghanistan were selfless adventures in nation building. They would be lucky if El Baradei is allowed political space before things get too out of hand. More likely, in a region where El Baradei and the U.N. is interpreted as U.S. influence, that prospect may be a delusion entertained by the same people clueless enough to think leaders like Mubarak could be viable allies in fostering peace.

Mubarak like others before him is making all the predictable arguments about the proverbial “fine line” between chaos and freedom – clichés used by every strong man from the Shah of Iran and Pinochet to the present day Saleh of Yemen and the Saudi family to justify repression. More important, he is the appointed regional crusader on the war on terror. Leaders of his generation are cartoon cutouts from the cold war era, simply having replaced the word “Communist Threat” by “Islamic Fundamentalist Threat” and pocketing military and development aid to suppress domestic dissent under its guise.

Meanwhile – two very large elephants look on from the wings. Iran’s position is no doubt as awkward as that of the United States. On one hand the Iranians rejoice at the thought of toppling one of the “moderate” Arabs who supports Israel, who has a strong alliance with the U.S. and who despises their “Islamic” brand. Framing the uprising as such, they hope that the crumbling of the Egyptian regime could open up a floodgate for the Muslim Brotherhood allowing Iran to forge stronger ties across such movements in the region.

On the other hand however, the Iranians shudder at the angry street images that are reminiscent of their own Green uprising in the summer of 2009 and fear the inspiration and renewed momentum that it could bring to a dormant but very real movement.

Time is running out as the protestors get increasingly angry, some asking the U.S. to take a more defined position against Mubarak whose only wining card is to stress his special role as the great stabilizer and “fixer” in the Israel-Palestine conflict. But upon taking a closer look at the power dynamics which have emerged, and as amply clear by the release of the Palestinian Papers, the peace process has long been defunct – duly reduced to a perpetual episodic reality show whose only aim is to sustain the livelihoods of the actors involved through billions in U.S. aid, and to sell a few items during the commercial breaks.

The sole reason for existence of players like the Palestinian Authority and Mubarak is precisely to perpetuate the illusion of a “process” in an orchestrated melodrama where the final act leaves the audience hanging for the next installment. To understand this point is to realize that once the play is resolved, the function of the likes of Mubarak and the PA will be over and the actors will have to go home.

The most interesting and revealing comment yet comes from Israel who is forever boasting of the strength of its own democracy, asserting that it is the only such state in the region. Remarkably, the Israeli Minister interviewed on condition of anonymity expressed his confidence that the Egyptian leader would prevail and said that “the Jewish state has faith in the security apparatus of its most formidable Arab neighbor to suppress the street demonstrations.” He further added, “I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through democratic process”.

Reading the subtitles on the concerns of all those involved, it makes one wonder — who is really not yet ready for democracy in the region.