Posted by: nativeiowan | February 19, 2011

and when will the powers that be…

ever learn…

Revolts threaten to shake the world
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor From: The Australian February 19, 2011 12:00AM

THERE is one key respect in which tiny Bahrain is more important than Egypt. The island kingdom just off Saudi Arabia’s east coast hosts the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the naval elements of US Central Command.

It is not exactly the Middle East’s Okinawa, but in the unlikely event the Bahrain monarchy is overthrown or becomes so oppressive Washington has to distance itself from the tiny kingdom, this could have profound consequences for the US military position in the whole Middle East.

Because the Fifth Fleet protects the Gulf states from Iran. If the US facilities were ever forced out of Bahrain, there would be pressure against important US military facilities in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

This demonstrates the difficulty of making any geo-strategic sense out of the roiling instability sweeping the Arab world. The violent crackdown on the demonstrators in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, has been followed by some quiet. In the wake of the Egyptian uprising, Western analysts ranked Bahrain, along with Yemen, Algeria and Libya, as highly vulnerable to instability.

Each case is different. Although an international wave is sweeping the region, accelerated by Facebook, Twitter and the internet generally, each country is unique. Bahrain was susceptible for several reasons. One is that it is ruled by a Sunni royal family, and Sunnis dominate all senior official positions, but it is the only Gulf state with a Shia majority.

And it is located just across a narrow strip of water from eastern Saudi Arabia, where the big, disaffected and closely watched Saudi Shia minority enjoys a local majority status.

Furthermore, Bahrain’s oil reserves are exhausted. It exists on Saudi largesse and US assistance.

Yemen’s case is different. It is dirt-poor, its rulers have been in power for decades, it has a history of internal instability and strife between its different regions, and it has been increasingly penetrated by Islamist extremists.

Libya is the most fascinating case. Its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, is the Kim Jong-il of the Arab world. He does not keep his people as destitute as the North Korean dictator does, but he is an absolute dictator. His cult of personality is bizarre and dominates all of Libyan life. His family are treated as being a combination of royalty and divinity.

Libyan politics occurs when two of Gaddafi’s sons disagree with each other and move up or down in their father’s favour.

Astonishingly, even in Libya there are serious anti-government demonstrations and people dying on the streets for liberty. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see the Gaddafi dictatorship being toppled in the current wave of unrest.

The gold medal with oak leaf cluster for hypocrisy in the face of the Egyptian revolt goes to Iran. Its leaders have praised the noble demonstrators in Cairo, and attempted to portray them as heirs to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But even while saying this, the regime has brutally suppressed relatively small attempts within Iran to recreate the protest movement of 2009. It is executing protesters and opposition activists at a rate unknown anywhere else on the planet – it has been executing roughly two people a day. Nearly 70 people were executed in Iran last month, most ostensibly on trumped-up charges, but in reality for opposing the regime.

I think it was Christopher Hitchens who coined the term Islamo-fascism. I have always thought this an inelegant and confusing term, which obscures more than it reveals. But surely the Iranian rulers are genuine Islamo-Stalinists.

There have been demonstrations in Algeria and Jordan. So far the most stable country in the region is Morocco, which has a reasonable standard of living, a respected monarchy, a relatively liberal press, and a more or less democratic parliament. But big demonstrations are planned for Morocco this weekend.

Saudi Arabia looks calm for the moment, and any demonstrations or protests there would be ruthlessly dealt with.

So the explosion that began in Tunisia has become a bushfire running all over Muslim North Africa and the Gulf Arab states, and even to Persian Iran.

What does all this mean, and what will its long-term consequences be?

Of course it’s too early to answer those questions. For a start, we still really have no idea where even one of these recent rebellions will end.

And there are several key distinctions between the countries. The monarchies seem generally a bit more stable than the republics. The republics, after all, must claim some kind of democracy or common good for their legitimacy. The monarchies can rely on tradition, the ancient mixture of religion and crown, and the often extensive co-opting process that shrewd royal families engage in to keep in touch with their populations and to keep large sections of their society on side.

Another key variable is the economy, and this often, although not always, boils down to whether a nation has oil. The Saudi royal family remains powerful partly because it can dispense so much oil largesse.

Several Gulf countries have oil. But Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen – they don’t have oil.

Then there is the twin question of whether the nations already have semi-functioning, semi-democratic parliaments, such as Morocco and Kuwait, or no real process of broad political public consultation and participation. Several years ago, the Australian scholar Harold Crouch wrote an important book about Malaysian politics. He classified Malaysia and Singapore as repressive responsive regimes. They had elements of authoritarianism but they had formal electoral contests that were clean, in the sense that ballots were not stuffed, and they had many other, often elaborate, effective means by which their populations could participate in discussion about government policies. And the governments were responsive to feedback from their populations. This model, Crouch argued, could be sustained more or less indefinitely.

None of the Arab states is a real democracy, but some have more sophisticated methods of consulting their populations.

The economy matters in another way, both as cause and effect. One of the precipitating factors of the Egyptian protests was simply the rise in food prices. The instability throughout the region has seen oil prices rise to a 2 1/2-year high, going well above $US100 ($98.70) a barrel. This helps the oil producers but it hurts everyone else.

The long-term consequences of the uprisings depend on the outcome of a duel between two models. Is the Egyptian revolt going to look like the 1979 fall of the shah in Iran, in which a liberal society with a broad-based opposition to an undemocratic ruler was hoodwinked by Muslim extremists and ended up under the totalitarian rule of the mullahs?

Or will it look like eastern Europe after 1989, with the fall of one dictatorship after another, replaced by democracies that have struggled to consolidate themselves since, but which have generally preserved democratic freedoms and led to better overall economic development?

Other analysts suggest a different parallel. What about 1848, a year when democratic revolutions swept across Europe? But they were short-lived. They were replaced in a few years by nationalist and militarist regimes, and decades of internal conflict and war.

Authoritarian regimes still have a lot of arrows in their quiver – most commonly some combination of limited reform, removal of unpopular leaders, renewed military clampdowns and the co-opting of key social groups. It is far too early to conclude that these regimes are all dead or doomed.

From Australia’s point of view, the worst outcome would be the radicalisation of the Middle East and the decline of US influence. This would hurt us in many ways. It would certainly lead to an intensified terrorist threat. It would also lead to the continued outflow of embittered populations from the Middle East, some of whom would find their way to Australia.

A seriously destabilised Middle East would lead to much higher energy prices and greater instability in the global economy. It would probably feed into a new dynamic of nuclear proliferation. Once Iran gets nuclear weapons, or the ability to produce them at short notice, Middle East regimes, even possibly democratic ones, will feel increasingly unstable. If they can rely less on the reassurance of the US military presence, they will be much more likely to seek the security guarantee of nuclear weapons.

Then there is this. Because Arab political culture has been totally undemocratic, it has exaggerated the Islamic tendency to paranoia and conspiracy theory. For some time at least, this may well mean that more democratic societies in the Middle East are prone to more radical and confrontational foreign policies.

US diplomacy in the Middle East has traditionally had five main aims: promoting stability, promoting democracy, providing military security (initially against Iraq, and more recently against Iran) to Arab allies in the Gulf, ensuring the flow of oil critical to the global economy, and providing for the security of its closest regional ally, Israel.

Rather obviously, there is often tension among these aims. Stability can be the enemy of democracy. And democracy requires a gradual cultural build-up of autonomous institutions, a disinterested judiciary, a culture of compromise, a security establishment that does not interfere in electoral processes but robustly maintains the state monopoly of force. Without at least the evolving presence of these factors, elections alone may not constitute, or even lead to, genuine democracy, or a democracy that can be sustained.

Similarly, democracy in Egypt could lead to the breaking of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the single greatest force for stability and moderation in the region.

The US can still offer its friends economic aid and trade, human resources, military reassurance. These are huge assets. But given the paranoid style of Arab politics, it is more difficult for the US to offer democratic legitimacy, meaningful international approval or domestic political advantage.

All the equations are changing. Everything is in play. In a year’s time, the Middle East could be utterly transformed. On the other hand, having withstood these storms, it could look much the same as it did a few months ago, but with a few names changed at the top. Seldom has so much been at stake in such utterly uncertain processes.

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