Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 February - 2 March 2011
Issue No. 1036
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Winds of change

By Salama A Salama

The spark of the 25 January Egyptian Revolution has turned into wildfire spreading over the region, undermining fragile regimes that have kept the Arab people down for so long. Angry protests broke out simultaneously in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, all wanting to emulate the Tunisian and Egyptian models.

No one saw this coming. None of the rulers of these countries expected such challenges to their authority. After a few decades in power, one gets complacent, delusional even.

When the Tunisian people brought down the Bin Ali family, which ruled with an iron fist for over two decades, Muammar Gaddafi couldn't hide his resentment. He praised Bin Ali's regime and blamed the Tunisians for ousting him. He felt sorry for the deposed regime, simply because it wasn't that much different from his.

During his 42 years in power, Gaddafi managed to force one of the richest oil- producing nations in the world into a life of abject poverty, using a bizarre form of tribalism to keep his people powerless. The jamahiria he invented, roughly meaning "government by the masses", was meant to keep the masses confused and backward.

When the Libyans finally rose against him, challenging the repression and protesting against the continuing squandering of their wealth, Gaddafi was incensed. Bragging that he was the king of Africa and the ultimate ruler of this and other nations, Gaddafi sent his well-armed troops to crush the revolution in Benghazi. He rallied his supporters in a counter- revolution, mobilising his clans to stage brutal attacks that may lead to civil war. Hundreds have been killed, and he practically promised more would.

Bahrain, a country that had turned from a tiny emirate to an equally tiny kingdom, is in the throes of massive protests by its Shia majority. The Shia, forming 70 per cent of the population, are calling for democracy, better jobs, and equality with the ruling Sunni minority that ran the show for decades. The Shia has revolted in the past, and King Hamad promised them reform but failed to keep his word. When they took to the streets recently, the police acted, shot at protesters, and then shot at the funerals of slain protesters. When a king orders his police to fire at demonstrators he is no longer worthy of his throne.

Bahrain's ruling family hires only foreigners in the police force, mostly Asians. And they host a military base for the US Fifth Fleet, one that is used to spy on Iran and keep the Gulf clear of so-called Iranian ambitions. When the recent troubles took place in Bahrain, the Obama administration gasped in horror, then it kept quiet for the most part, hoping to see the whole thing blow over.

America's entire Middle East policy is in shambles. A domino effect is tipping over all the pieces America and Israel have carefully erected around the region. Yemen, a centrepiece in the US presumed fight against terror, is also falling apart, its president of 32 years finally able to keep his people pacified. Feeling the pressure, Ali Abdallah Saleh promised not to hand over the presidency to his son, but -- as usual -- it is too late.

The common denominator among all the regimes that have fallen or remain under threat is that they were all friends with the Americans. Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Libya stayed -- to varying degrees -- on the good side of the Americans. Consequently, they were rewarded with foreign aid and political support. Their leaders lived the good life, whereas the people they ruled suffered beyond belief.

No wonder the Arabs had no say in international politics. No wonder no one took them seriously or listened to their views. It was a bizarre situation, and now it is coming to an end -- and not a day too soon.

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