CHALLENGE OF PEOPLE POWER

As Egyptian crisis shakes the Arab World, countries are rethinking on the potential of peaceful protests – of people’s power. Those doubting the efficacy of unarmed protestors to overturn regimes, do it at their own peril, say analysts. Iftikhar Gilani reports.

Soon after the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak melted under the explosion of emotions, a top Indian strategic expert counted lessons from the crises as, “don’t ignore the power of non-violent protests and the internet.” Egyptians proved stones are still heavier than bullets. But now as the dust starts settling over Cairo, there are growing concerns in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as unrest continues to spread to Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Egypt, the military chose not to confront the demonstrators, not because the military itself was split, but because it agreed with the demonstrators’ core demand: getting rid of Mubarak. Many refuse to consider it a revolution, simply because the military regime remained intact and it is stronger than ever.
A US private intelligence network STRATFOR believes that main drama had unfolded months ago when it became apparent that Mubarak intended to make his 47-yeard old son, Gamal, president.

The Egyptian regime was founded in a coup led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and modelled after that of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, basing it on the military. It was intended to be a secular regime with democratic elements, but it would be guaranteed and ultimately controlled by the military. Nasser believed that the military was the most modern and progressive element of Egyptian society and that it had to be given the responsibility and power to modernise Egypt.

While Nasser took off his uniform, the military remained the bulwark of the regime. Each successive president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, while formally elected in elections of varying dubiousness, was an officer in the Egyptian military who had removed his uniform when he entered political life.

The new government has promised to honour all foreign commitments, which obviously include the most controversial one – the treaty with Israel.

This may result in another bout of confrontation as the crowds, who assembled in streets had other thoughts. Many, however, believe that Egyptian government was hardly in a position to confront Israel, even if it wanted to. The Egyptian army has mostly American equipment and cannot function if the Americans don’t provide spare parts or contractors to maintain that equipment. There is no Soviet Union vying to replace the United States. “Re-equipping and training a military the size of Egypt’s is measured in decades, not weeks. Egypt is not going to war any time soon. But then the new rulers have declared that all prior treaties – such as with Israel – will remain in effect,” believed George Friedman, head of STRATFOR.

Dr. Arvind Gupta, deputy director at India’s prestigious defence think-tank, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) and a serving officer at Indian Foreign Office maintains Egyptian events have proved sceptics wrong, who had doubted the efficacy of unarmed protestors to overturn autocratic regimes peacefully. “The power of the non-violent protests – the Satyagraha – is often underestimated or ignored even in democratic countries like India. It is forgotten that in more recent times peoples’ protests helped end the Cold War,” he added.

He, however, believes that the key lesson was that ideas remain powerful mobilizers. “The concepts of freedom, justice and liberation have powerful resonance in people everywhere irrespective of the regimes they live under. Further, people power can force out the tyrants no matter how magnanimous they are. The realist prescriptions which mostly emphasise powerful state institutions may not always be correct. How to take into account the power of the people’s inspiration while analysing a particular situation is always a challenge. Many people thought that Mubarak will carry on at least till September and the protestors are tiring out. That has not happened,” he said.

Crises can erupt suddenly without warning. No one had predicted the Tunisian unrest spreading to Egypt in quick time and bringing down an icon like Mubarak in less than three weeks. In the past too, the collapse of the Soviet Union was missed by most analysts. The analysts, schooled in structured thinking, are likely to get it wrong in future. The speed of the internet and the power of Facebook is a new factor that was not present in the 1980s or the 1940s when India became independent.

However, people power may not always succeed in forcing a regime change as the 2010 summer unrest in Kashmir, in Iran last year or in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But, as Gupta agrees, it cannot be entirely suppressed. The Internet has multiplied the power of protestors manifold. Authoritarian regimes are apprehensive. Look how China does not allow the googling of the word ‘Egypt’!

The Arab world is witnessing a critical moment. Experts predict major changes in the offing. The Algerian government is considering lifting the emergency, in force since 1992, ‘very soon’. The government is preparing to face demonstrations in the near future. In Yemen, the president has declared neither he nor his son will contest the next presidential elections. Jordan is also stirring.

Virender Gupta expects huge geo-political implications of the collapse of the Mubarak regime. “The fate of Egypt-Israel treaty is uncertain. The Palestinians have been enthused by Egyptian developments. Hezbollah has welcomed the fall of the Mubarak regime. Syria is for the moment quiet but needs to be watched. The rulers in the Gulf countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia will be restless.

What is the future of Jordan, another key US ally in the region? Gen Mike Mullen is preparing to go to Israel and Jordan even as 36 tribal leaders have publicly criticised Queen Raina of Jordan for corruption and demanded her removal from political life of the country. In the coming days, as people in the Arab world mull over the significance of the people’s revolution in Egypt, the picture as to where the Arab world is heading may become clearer,” he believes.

People on the Middle East streets are particularly angry at their rulers, as the US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks showed that the main concern of these Arab governments was not Israel and the Palestinians, but Iran. While the protests currently rocking the Arab world showed that problem bothering the masses was the quality of their own lives, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not far from their hearts. Last week, James Jones, US President Barack Obama’s recently retired national security adviser, said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remained the most important problem in the region, if not the world.

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