Dictators in Turmoil

by Martin Peretz | February 17, 2011

Dictatorships fear nothing quite like they fear a mob in the streets. In Tunis and Cairo, however, it was not mobs that gathered but crowds. Non-violent crowds, thoughtful crowds. Alas, there were some 300 dead among the protestors. So this was not exactly a costless revolution in terms of human life. Still, the dynamics that unfolded in Tahrir Square were rooted in peaceful communications. In many ways this was a re-enactment of the Committees of Correspondence. These were initiated in 1773 by Dabney Carr, an intimate of Thos. Jefferson (as he used to sign his name), in the Virginia House of Burgesses. I do not know whether the Crown was cowed by the committees. But they did their work.

Modern communications has, to be sure, been revolutionized in ways, quite frankly, that I myself barely grasp. But the young all over the world grasp very well this fact and the attendant technology. Maybe unknowingly, Mark Zuckerberg could emerge as the contemporary equivalent of the Virginia legislator. If he is even a semblance of that, perhaps he should be honored by the Nobel Peace Prize which he certainly deserves more than Barack Obama deserves his.

There was an Amos Biderman cartoon in Tuesday’s Ha’aretz called “the facebook revolution.” Here it is:

The unidentified faces sitting around a table of officials include King Abdullah of Jordan and the monarch with the same name who, in his feeble dotage, reigns in Saudi Arabia, Col. Qaddafi of Libya, Dr. Ahmadinejad of Iran, and a few men I do not recognize. The chairman of the motley gathering seems to be Bashar Assad of Syria. He puts a pregnant query to his colleagues: “What are we going to do about that damn Zuckerberg?”

 

When crowds began to gather in Jordan some ten days ago, the king did what he always does under those circumstances: He dismissed his cabinet. Anyway, the crowds did not demand the abdication of the royal couple although, as I pointed out in a TNR article late last week, the populace no longer adores them—and it positively despises her majesty.

Anyway, Amman cabinets come and go, routine offerings by the monarch to appease the protestors. The new appointments were said to be more liberal-minded than the previous incumbents. Who knows?

But the idea that the new minister of justice, Hussein Mjali, is more progressive than his predecessor is ghoulishly mind-boggling. Among his first public demands was that the Jordanian army corporal who, in 1997, gunned down seven young Israeli girls on a class trip to a joint Israeli-Jordanian “island of peace” should be freed from his 25-year prison sentence. Liberal minded, indeed.

You may recall that the present king’s father, Hussein, paid contrition calls on all of the girls’ families. The government has in the meantime assured Israel that the killer will not be released. Inshallah!

 

It is not a good time for the Palestinians. As we now know from Wikileaks, the Israelis and the Palestinians were ever so squeakily edging toward some kind of consensus on many issues that divide them when President Obama sprung on both his obsession with settlements and with Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The president may be taken in by his own rhetoric. But his rhetoric actually paralyzed the shaky partnership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the latter of whom was actually making—with the Israelis—prudential, if unspectacular progress that pointed to a certain practical comity between the parties. The fact is that agreement on the quotidian terms of living side by side are already well-understood by (almost) all. On the other hand, the high generalities of a peace treaty are what actually divide the disputants.

It is true that people on both sides of the ideological divide are looking for symbolic victories. On the Israeli side, some of them are in seats of power from which they routinely sabotage Bibi Netanyahu’s quite practical intentions. On the Palestinian side, symbolism always seems to ace practicality—which is why Fayyad is the person in whom both Jerusalem and Washington put the most confidence. Yet this confidence may actually be a liability to Fayyad and, thus, for the prospects of agreement.

There is now a big hoopla about a new Palestinian declaration of independence. Has everyone forgotten that the Palestine National Council already proclaimed the State of Palestine as long ago as November 15, 1988, after which date embassies were opened, ambassadors exchanged, and flags flown? This fantasy may be re-enacted in the fall, fantasy in the sense that it will not alter the lives of the Arabs of Palestine one whit.

Now, to be sure, another specter confronts the Palestinian political stratum. And it is that the Palestinian people may also be caught up in the discontent currently sweeping the Arab world. No one can be sure which way this discontent will blow. Perhaps against Hamas in Gaza and against Fatah in the West Bank. First, Fayyad had his cabinet resign. Then Abbas asked Fayyad to form a new government. We will see what we will see.

Governments come and go among the Palestinians. It is so not because they do not have a state. It is so because they do not have a coherent community. As it happens, Europe is less and less enchanted with a second proclamation of independence. It’s still possible that the General Assembly will endorse it. But the votes of more than half the world’s countries with not so much as a smidgin of moral authority will make Palestine laughable instead of effective.

And a little postscript: The fact is that the state of Israel existed almost two decades before the Partition Plan and, six months later, when it proclaimed its independence. The aspect of sovereignty that it did not possess was the right to admit the Jews from their most perilous period of exile.

Two of my least favorite people are Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and the European Union’s de facto foreign minister Catherine Ashton (or Dame Ashton as this left Laborite member of the House of Lords prefers to be called). She was in Israel barely a month ago, and I commented about her dinner with Lieberman. She is now back. And with whom did she meet yesterday? Yup, you guessed it: Avigdor Lieberman. Maybe they really like each other. But this photograph of them together tells you another story.

I know I don’t really have to read it for you. But you can tell that, as they are shaking hands, they are trying to get away from each other. Certainly, Ashton is, what with her grimaced ponim, which in Hebrew means “face” but when said in a particular way carries an implication of disgust. Not for her looks. But for her character. And for the fact that she flies back and forth to the Middle East carrying the same tired message.

 

What started in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt has now touched Jordan, Yemen (where 2,000 police were just put into the streets of Sanaa), Bahrain (where two protestors have already been killed), and yesterday morning Libya. The demonstrations in many of these places can be confidently read about in The New York Times in dispatches, sequentially, by Ethan Bronner, Laura Kasinof, and Alan Cowell.

Bahrain is a curious case. It is per capita the wealthiest principality in the Middle East. Just about a million people live in it, a bit more than half of them being foreign workers. The latter are, as usual, poor and rightless. But the deep-seated resentments come from the Shi’a majority who are ruled by a Sunni elite, dominated by one of those blithe ruling families—in this case, the al-Khalifa—that govern the petroleum world. Bahrain is also one of the few mini-states in the region that encourage both drink and the libido. Slackman points out that the king’s uncle has been prime minister for 40 years. The country is an ally of the United States and host to our navy’s Fifth Fleet. An intellectual challenge to Obama, for sure.

Libya is the latest country to experience popular turmoil, and the turmoil came to it yesterday morning, Wednesday. Libya is in many ways a joke—what with its mad colonel-chief executive and his plans to install his son as his successor. It’s curious, isn’t it, how revolutionaries, so-called, easily adopt that royal primogeniture rule. Still, Qadaffi has run the country for 42 years. His exchequer is also full since the state is the owner of enormous petroleum deposits which it peddles to foreign oil companies. Ah, yes, Libya is also a police state—and a brutal one at that.

And, in the last few days, the insurrectionary spirit has spread to non-Arab Iran. President Obama seems to have lost his shyness or hesitancy about speaking up for the dissidents and for freedom. What he will do about this situation is a lesser question than what he can do. In the meantime, opposition leaders have been threatened with death from the floor of parliament.

 

Newsweek is trying to remake itself and, of course, the results are not yet in. But it has already made one sagacious move, and that is to have designated Niall Ferguson, a brilliant wit aside from his sharp analytic skills and deep knowledge of the past, one of its regular columnists. Niall writes with the authority that very few columnists possess. This is because he is a real historian whose standards for argument and evidence are really stiff. Moreover, he writes in what may seem like an effortless style. The truth is, however, that he was trained in the English classics, both fiction and rhetoric. Here is an instance of brilliance in which he takes on Barack Obama’s lame foreign policy.

 

Daniel Pipes knows so much more about the Middle East than the usual authorities on the op-ed pages or the awful television talk shows. But he has been pigeon-holed as a hawk so the know-nothing progressives do not (have to) pay attention to him. Hawk, shmawk. Danny has a short essay in today’s Jerusalem Post. It is about the events in Egypt and what they portend. He has few sympathies with how clumsily the Obama administration behaved during the troubles. But he also has an uncanny way of looking at the facts, and this is actually to look at them. He actually believes that Egypt may well evade the dogmatic embrace of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Surprise, surprise. Read his column, “Egypt’s Chance,” here.

 

Barry Rubin is less sanguine about the future of Egypt than is Pipes. He also has different assumptions than I do, particularly in his expectation that Mohamed ElBaradei will be Mubarak’s successor. My view is that he is too much of a schlemiel to engage the roused populace. In any case, he—like Danny—does not fear the Brothers. In an op-ed in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, he lays out his anxieties about Egypt as a radical state in which the people would be harnessed to ideology and fantasy.

 

Do you still secretly hope that Hilary Clinton will run against Obama in 2012? Here, in an article by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa in the latest New York Times, is the accumulated evidence of how Clinton and Obama were equal cowards in their slippery up and down attitudes to the Egyptian revolt.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/83659/egypt-libya-bahrain-dictators