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Neither with the West nor against it, and not ‘Arab street’

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Map of the social uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, for Le Monde Diplomatique by Philippe Rekacewicz

Map of the social uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, for Le Monde Diplomatique by Philippe Rekacewicz

In the ever thoughtful Le Monde Diplomatique, senior commentators Alain Gresh and Serge Halimi consider aspects of ‘The New Arab Awakening’, which is the theme for the 2011 March edition.

“The fantasy that the Arabs are passive and unsuited to democracy has evaporated in weeks. Arabs have overthrown hated authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt” – Gresh has written in his commentary, ‘Neither with the West, nor against it’.

In Libya, they have fought a sclerotic regime in power for 42 years that has refused to listen to their demands, facing extraordinary violence, hundreds of deaths, untold injuries, mass exodus and generalised chaos. In Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, the West Bank and Oman, Arabs have taken to the streets in vast numbers. This defiance has spread even to non-Arab Iran.

And where promises of reform have been made but were then found wanting, people have simply returned to the streets. In Egypt, protesters have demanded faster and further-reaching reform. In Tunisia, renewed demonstrations on 25-27 February led to five deaths but won a change of prime minister (Mohamed Ghannouchi stepped down in favour of Beji Caid-Essebsi). In Iraq, renewed protests led to a promise to sack unsatisfactory ministers. In Algeria, the 19-year emergency law was repealed amid continuing protests. The demands are growing throughout the region, and will not be silenced.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Libya, and all the other popular movements that have shaken the region are not just about how people want to live and develop, but about regional politics. For the first time since the 1970s, geopolitics cannot be analysed without taking into account, at least in part, the aspirations of people who have retaken control of their destinies.

“Governments of very different shades find common ground in the same disinformation. Iran has claimed that the Arabs’ democratic revolt heralded an Islamic revival, inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution” – Halimi has written, in ‘Could Iran be next?’

Israel repeated this claim, and pretended to be alarmed. But when the Iranian opposition gathered to celebrate the demonstrations in Cairo, the ruling theocracy opened fire on the crowd. The Israeli army does not massacre unarmed civilians – unless they are Palestinian (1,400 dead in Gaza two years ago) – but Binyamin Netanyahu does not welcome young Arabs’ demands for freedom any more than Iran does. Israel fears it might lose excellent partners in power, autocratic but pro-American. Its only recourse then would be to cry wolf against Iran.

But tensions with Israel and international sanctions enable the Iranian regime, emboldened by the weakening of regional rivals Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to play the nationalist card. It sees this as useful, since the 2009 Green Movement has not succumbed to ceaseless repression. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hoped the vaccine of hanging and torture had eradicated the virus of opposition. Sadly for him, the Arab revolt and the humiliating contrast between a highly educated population and an archaic political system undermine the dubious legitimacy of his regime.

Rather than follow the Libyan example and order the air force to machinegun the crowd, the ruling elite has unleashed the murderous demands of its followers. When the opposition mustered its forces, 222 of the 290 members of the Iranian parliament called for Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, former government dignitaries under house arrest for opposing the Supreme Leader, to be brought to trial.

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