Thursday, January 13, 2011

Something brewing (EN)

UPDATE 2 (14/01): Developments have indeed accelerated in Tunisia - we see the collapse of the regime as we speak. This more and more resembles the fall of the communist system in Eastern Europe in 1989. To watch in the coming period the other countries mentioned in this post.

UPDATE (14/01):  A breakthrough in Tunisia! Things may accelerate in the coming period.

Something is brewing in the Islamic world.

From Iran, 18 months after the rigged presidential elections in June 2009, the main news is not that the regime is still in place, but that the green movement is still alive, managing to propagate a continued message of reason, democracy and moderation (like this one by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the real victor of the 2009 elections) that gains popular support. In fact, in spite of the brutal repression by the regime (a de facto military dictatorship that has been forced to implicitly abandon any pretense of democratic or even religious legitimacy) for a year and a half, the resistance has strengthened its grassroot base and consistently maintained the high moral ground. The standoff continues and it is very difficult to predict when the regime will collapse. For one thing, all the guns are in the regime's hands and it has repeatedly proven that it has no hesitation to use them against the people. However, following a pattern previously seen in the demise of other dictatorships like Romania's Ceausescu regime in 1989, there are small but increasingly visible cracks within the establishment.

True, Iran is shi'a, and in many ways is a standalone case.

But what is happening lately across Northern Africa - in particular Tunisia and Algeria, to some extent Egypt - also signals a broader tendency in the "Western-friendly" South Mediterranean rim: the survival instincts and vital energy of a new generation clash with the status quo of rigid dictatorships led by aging strongmen (Ben Ali, Bouteflika and Moubarak respectively). The lid that has been kept on any dissent for many years has only helped build up pressure; sooner or later, in one form or another, it has to erupt.

This is potentially a turning point. 
In a few years from now, we could have more open and inclusive societies in a traditionally volatile area that has Western Europe within missile (or suicide bombing) range. But the eventual transformation is not risk-free, and increased radicalization is one of the possible outcomes.

The West, though it cannot control these developments, has a key role to play - particularly in building trust with moderates and islamo-democrats. Unfortunately, the tradition is not a good omen: quite systematically in the past the West lacked the courage to live up to its democratic principles in relation to the Muslim countries, and instead allied itself with the dictators, against the people. The "war on terror" with its security fixation further aggravated the problem. 

Obama's "New Beginning" speech in Cairo in June 2009 was a brilliant first step in changing this situation:
This cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

This appeal undoubtedly created a stir in the Muslim world. But a year and a half later, America has not delivered its part of the deal - in particular when it comes to the intractable Israelo-Palestinian conflict.

Those who give Obama the benefit of the doubt (and I am in that category) hope that he has a plan.
It would be such a pity if he didn't.


  1. I think Obama should have more then the benefit of the doubt.

    The whole mess he inherited was due to the republican administration that did nothing but to strenghten fundamentalists and dictators in the muslim world. I remember that in the 90s Iran had a reformist, pro-western president. Bush's politics was all a winning ticket for the current one...

    With the Israelian-Palestinian conflict it is the same story: Democrats under Clinton brought a cease-fire, and were very close to strike a peace treaty. Unfotunatly Rabin was assasinated by a men supported by New York based othodox Jews.

    Now it is very hard to make some progress after the last 10 years left israeli and palestinian leaders entrenched. I think it will need more time, and something can be accomplished if Obama wins a second term.

  2. @ transildania
    Thanks for the comment!
    Khatami was largely a disappointment for the Iranians who hoped at that time for real change. He didn't lack good intentions, but was by and large ineffective and didn't have the will or courage to really take on the establishment that neutralized his reform efforts. He remains however a respected personality and is a key supporter of the green movement. But Iran is a particular case, and the West's original sin goes back at least to the CIA's coup d'état against Mossadegh in 1953.

    On the Palestinian issue, I hope Obama will not wait to win a new term before he takes action.

    On Tunisia: see the update at the top of the post.