Explosions in the Arab (Possibly the Muslim) Streets

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Shahid Javed Burki*


(The spreading, street inspired revolutions in the Middle East in the first quarter of 2011, will profoundly affect the area’s political development, its economic progress and its relations with the West, in particular the United States. Most of the countries that were caught in these revolutions are not likely to return to autocratic rule. The people – mostly young – who were behind the movements in the streets have learned that they have the means to influence the direction of political change. It is also likely that the style of economic management that allowed small elites to capture the bulk of the economic wealth of the region will not be allowed to return. The deprived population will demand a share in their country’s wealth and the income it generates. It is likely to succeed in these efforts. And the ruling elites that are still forming will follow policies with respect to relations with the outside world that would not be defined in terms of Washington’s strategic interests in the region. Islamic terrorism can no longer be the main focus of how the United States looks at the countries in this part of the world. This will happen not only in the Middle East but also in the countries on its periphery that have large Muslim populations. Author)

In early 2011, unexpectedly and at unexpected speed, the Arab street exploded politically and caused the demise of two long-enduring regimes and possibly a third one as well. It has threatened several others. The movement – or revolution – started in Tunisia after a fruit vendor committed suicide, setting fire to himself. He was unable to sustain himself and his family as his real income eroded with the rise in the prices of items of every day consumption. While the trigger was economic, the result was political. It led to the resignation of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who left the country and sought asylum in Saudi Arabia. New communication platforms such as Facebook and Twitter played a role in organizing the rise of the street and spread the word to other long oppressed societies in the Middle East that it was possible, through proper organization, to bring about a regime change.

While Tunisia is a small country with a population of only 10 million and has always been at the margins of Arab politics and also in terms of the relationship of the Arabs with the West, Egypt is not only much larger – population is estimated at 83 million – but is also at the heart of the American strategic interests in this part of the world. Once again, it was not expected that the old order in Egypt would be brought down so quickly and that the country would be pulled into the orbit of street inspired revolutions.  In only 18 days, “people’s power” was able to send another long-serving autocrat into exile. President Hosni Mubarak had succeeded in deflecting many attempts to loosen his grip on power. He had also survived several attempts on his life. He was not considered to be an easy prey. He also had the backing of the West, in particular that of the United States, since he had allowed Egypt to become the main element in a strategy that included the support of Israel and keeping the oil-rich countries of the Middle East aligned with America and Europe. While the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell easily, those in several other Middle Eastern countries were able to use force – in the case of Libya a great deal of it – to retain a tenuous hold on power. They were able to survive for a while since some of the divisions in their societies allowed those in power to use them t sustain their hold. Some of them adopted desperate measures to prolong their shaky tenure.

These two successful revolutions – more may follow – have raised a number of questions that can only be answered tentatively at this point. But they are sufficiently important not only for the future of the Middle East and the neighboring Muslim countries of South and West Asia but also for the international community for a serious inquiry to begin relating to the various aspects of these historic developments. This is the purpose of this paper. It explores the causes of the on-going revolution inspired by the Arab Street, in particular that of what some political economists have called “relative deprivation”;  how various countries and regimes reacted to the rise of the street; the role of the military in this fast changing environment in various countries; the role of political Islam in the future of this part of the world; the reaction of the West to the changes that are occurring; the nature of the transition in the countries that have succeeded in overthrowing long-enduring regimes; the role of new communication mechanisms for both galvanizing public opinion as well as organizing dissent in public squares; and the likely impact on the non-Arab countries in the region, in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the way the Arab and Muslim worlds have been transformed within a matter of a few weeks. But some patterns have emerged that may define the future of this part of the world.

Economics of political despair

The revolutions that began on the streets of Tunis and Cairo sent into exile two long-serving presidents. It put into jeopardy the long tenure of the maverick ruler of Libya. Other leaders of the region were also threatened. These revolutions became the subject of great deal of analytical interest. Thousands of newspaper columns were written in hundreds of newspapers across the world. These will no doubt be followed by articles in journals and magazines. Books will also be written. Lessons will be learned by those who hold political power and by those in whose name that power is wielded. What are the factors led the Arab Street to challenge the rule of their authoritarian masters who had governed with such impunity for so long? Being an economist my emphasis will be on economics. Being a Pakistani I will examine how these developments in an important part of the Islamic world will affect Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim country. Being a long time student of Pakistan’s history I will analyze how the past may affect the country’s economic and political future. And being a resident in a Washington suburb, I will also look at how the West is coming to terms with what has happened in the Arab world and how its own position in that part of the world will be affected by these historical developments.

How does economics enter the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Libyan

– at a later date possibly the Algerian, the Bahraini, the Jordanian, the Omani, the Syrian, the Yemeni, scenarios?  The successes achieved by the streets in Tunis, Cairo and Alexandria have inspired and emboldened others to look to the street as a way out of their conundrum. What has caused so much disaffection among so many young people to risk so much, including their lives, to attempt to bring about change in the ossified societies in which they live?

These questions were ably answered decades ago by a Political Scientist and an Economist, both of Harvard University. Before Samuel P. Huntington gained fame for writing The Clash of Civilization1  – a book in which he predicted that Islam and the West were destined to clash since the values each espoused could not be reconciled – he had established his reputation in academic circles by putting what he called “relative deprivation” at the center of political conflict. This thesis was developed in a book that appeared under the title of Political Order in Changing Societies2. In explaining his hypothesis he studied the rapidly growing economies in what was then called the third world. The countries he studied in the 1960s included Pakistan which then had one of the highest rates of GDP growth in the developing world.

Rapid growth, Huntington maintained, produced a sense of deprivation among those who were left behind by the process of economic advancement. In weak political systems discontent on the part of the relatively deprived could not be accommodated. This often led to political violence. Huntington’s book which was built around that argument came out at the time when the regime headed by Field Marshal Ayub Khan in Pakistan had begun to crumble. The military regime came under pressure largely for economic reasons. Mahbubul Haq, the Planning Commission’s chief economist under Ayub Khan argued that a significant proportion of the wealth created during that time was captured by the very rich – by twenty two industrial, financial and commercial houses.   Haq’s assertion, not supported by several other estimates, nevertheless gave substance to the feeling of relative deprivation as the military regime celebrated what it called the “decade of development”3. This resulted in a mass agitation against Ayub Khan that was to lead to his political demise within a matter of a few months. The Harvard professor felt that Pakistan had vindicated him by providing real time substance to validate his thesis.

The other contribution for understanding the economics of political despair came from the economist Albert O. Hirschman who published his book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty 4a couple of years after Huntington’s treatise came out. In his book Hirschman suggested that those unhappy with their situation could exercise one of three choices. They were likely to remain loyal to the system if the system found a way of accommodating them and dealing with their distress. If that did not happen, they would perhaps give voice to their unhappiness. This is something that was done by the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days following a shorter period of agitation in Tunis. The exit they offered was not their own but demanded that of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for 30 years. If voice could not be raised because of repression, several of those who were unhappy with their situation were likely to exit from the system. They could become dissidents forming groups that went underground. As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker wrote for his journal, “decades of bottled up resentment came unstoppered. Egyptians, secular and religious, poor and middle class, flowed into the public square to express their outrage after years of voiceless suffering; they protested injustice, the endlessly documented incidents of torture and corruption, the general stagnation and disappointment of their lives. Irhal!, Irhal!, the crowds on Cairo’s Tahrir Square chanted: Leave! Leave!” 5

In the days leading up to the departure of President Mubarak the Egyptians found their voice. “In 40 years of writing about the Middle East, I have never seen  anything like what is happening here in Tahrir Square, wrote Thomas L. Friedman for The New York Times. “In a region where the truth and truth-tellers have so long been smothered under the crushing weight of oil, autocracy and religious obscurantism, suddenly the Arab world has a truly free space – a space that Egyptians themselves, not foreign army, have liberated – and the truth is now gushing out of here like a torrent from a broken hydrant.”6

These two arguments, though now decades old, serve us well in understanding the revolution in the streets of Tunis and Cairo. With the two presidents having left their offices, a period of transition has begun. The assumption is that before too long new systems will be in place based on participation by broad segments of the populations of the two countries and that these systems will spread more evenly the benefits of economic growth.

There is now debate in policy circles as to why the streets in Tunisia and Egypt suddenly erupted and what will happen to other mostly Muslim countries in the area. There was a combination of many factors that produced the “perfect storms” in the two countries. The most important of these was that a significant number of people in both countries felt that they had been left behind while a small number had gained enormously. It is interesting to note that the two revolutions occurred when Tunisia and Egypt were doing well economically. This was also the case when Pakistan’s Ayub Khan was forced out of office in 1967. Egypt, over a period of five years before the departure of Hosni Mubarak, had achieved a growth rate in its GDP that was unprecedented in its history. The same was true for Tunisia. In other words, the situation was ripe for a Huntingtonian type of upheaval. “Unwillingly, and with his tin ear almost petulantly on display, Hosni Mubarak has bowed to the courageous protestors who in 18 days have brought him down after nearly 30 years of ion rule”, wrote the Financial Times in an editorial published on 12 February, a day after the Egyptian president left Cairo and flew to his retreat in Sharm al Sheikh on the Red Sea7.

How are the surviving leaders of the Middle East dealing with the disaffected youth of their countries who did not wait long to replicate what occurred on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt? While Libya’s Qaddafi and his sons dug in their heels and brought their country to the verge of civil war, several other leaders rushed in with a raft of pledges. Some offered promise of political change, some sought to buy the disgruntled youth with cash transfers and promise of jobs. Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh conceded that neither he nor his son would run in the 2013 elections. Algeria lifted its 19-year old state of emergency, a demand of the opposition that had fallen on deaf years before the explosion on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt. King Abdallah of Jordan fired his cabinet and brought in a new one tasked with the job of producing political reform in which the all-powerful monarchy would be prepared to give up some of its power. Even in the United Arab Emirates where the small population was already pampered with all kinds of economic handouts, the rulers offered some timid political concession. The government only promised to widen the electoral college for choosing representatives to the consultative federal national council. Bahrain, having tried a bloody crackdown, pulled back the security forces, elected to use politics to appease the unhappy. The cabinet was reshuffled and political prisoners were released.

The governments that could afford to use resources to buy time for themselves chose that route to survival. When the wave of discontent washed up the shores of tiny Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said who by then had governed for 40 years promised 50,000 new jobs and $400 a month in economic benefits. The most dramatic of these economic incentives aimed at containing discontent was from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He announced a package of economic handouts that amounted to a staggering $36 billion for housing loans, unemployment benefits, and pay rises.  The measures included 15 per cent salary rise for the public employees to offset inflation, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed. The king also pledged to spend $400 billion by the end of 2014 to improve education, infrastructure and healthcare. But this package did not satisfy those who were asking for real reforms.  Hasan al Mustafa, one of the 40 Saudi rights activists and journalists who signed an open letter requesting an elected parliament, more rights for women and enhanced anti-corruption measures, stated, “we want real change. This will be the only guarantee of security of the kingdom”8.

Economic uncertainty that followed the revolutions on the streets began to take a heavy toll on many countries. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, there was a drop of 16 per cent in the valuation of the capital market since the beginning of the year. This represented an outflow of more than $50 billion from the market. The Saudi stock market is worth more than the combined values of the indexes in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar but was the worst performer in the region after Egypt and Dubai. According to one analyst, “the marked change in sentiment is especially significant given that Saudi Arabia’s is a local and retail- dominated index. The plunge probably is being driven by domestic wealth rather than jittery hot foreign money…The kingdom’s investors may well decide to stash cash under the mattress or send it abroad to safer havens like Abu Dhabi, Switzerland or Singapore.” 9 As we know from experience, local confidence is an important driver of economic growth. It takes hard work to build it but can be lost quickly.

There was a suggestion of panic in the responses made by the leaders who felt threatened by the wave of unrest that lashed their shores. But the rulers who were struggling to stay in power did not seem to have realized that demography was not in their side. The Middle East and the Muslim world have the world’s youngest populations. In Egypt 52.3 percent of the population estimated at 83 million is under the age of 25; the proportion for Libya is 47.4 per cent. In Tunisia, the ratio is 42 percent and for Saudi Arabia the ratio is 59 per cent. The highest proportion is in Yemen with 63.5 percent. The region’s youth did not necessarily want bribes or promise of political change but were looking for real programs to be put in place for political reform. They also wanted the adoption of strategies that would provide the population with a much larger share in the existing economic pie. And they wanted a larger share in what was likely to be added to the wealth of these troubled nations.

As Roula Khalaf wrote for the Financial Times, in responding this way, the leaders were “missing the point of the unrest. If there is a single message from the revolts it is that for the first time in Arab history are clamoring for political rights and accountable government – not only social benefits”10

Some analysts believe that it is not correct to paint all the autocrats who currently rule in the Middle East and the Muslim world with the same brush. For instance Robert Kaplan the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, wants the world to distinguish between good and bad autocrats. Sometimes the former can deliver better economic and social returns to their societies than of virtuous autocrats. He has “built roads and schools throughout the rural interior, advanced the status of women and protected the environment. He governs with the vision similar to that of many erstwhile Asian dictators such as China’s Deng Xiaoping, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s more problematic Mahathir Mohamad, who lifted their societies out of poverty and made them aspiring middle class dynamos… But the very success of a benevolent dictator – his abjuration of tyranny indicates his eventual downfall.”11

The military in a new situation

“There comes a moment in the life of almost every repressive regime when leaders – and military leaders that have long kept them in power must make a choice from which there is no turning back: Change or start shooting” wrote David E. Sanger who covers defense and strategic issues for The New York Times. “Egypt’s military, calculating that it was no longer worth defending an out-of-touch pharaoh with no palatable successor and no convincing plan for Egypt’s future, ultimately sided with the protestors on the street”12. The military in Tunisia had made the same decision while the one in Bahrain chose to side with the ruling monarchy. There was no military of any significance in Libya with the result that the crisis in that country morphed into a civil war involving various tribal militias some of which were under the command of Muammar Qaddafi’s sons.

In Egypt the military took time to distance itself from the Mubarak regime. It injected itself between the protesters and Mubarak’s supporters called in by the dying regime to intimidate the protesting crowds. The army’s presence provided comfort to the protesters.   “The army’s increasingly visible presence has made the area around the square much safer. The stone-throwing battles with protesters sympathetic to President Hosni Mubarak have stopped. Now stones gathered as ammunition have been set out on the square to spell messages. One said: ‘We are the people of Facebook.’ But the military escalation is also a sign that the army is much more in control.” 13

There are dozens of examples available in the post Second World War period where countries emerging from colonial rule, while attempting to establish new political orders, had to define the role of their militaries. In some of them successful transitions were made from military to representative rule; in several other nations military continued to be closely involved with the management of the affairs of the state. Even in those cases where transitions were made successfully the move was made as a consequence of some crisis. South Korea is perhaps the best example of a good transition. In the face of large street protests in the mid-1980s, the generals allowed free elections and the first freely elected president was an army general. The last four presidents were civilians; one of them, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, started in politics as a dissident.

Indonesia and Pakistan are two countries where transitions were also made, more successfully in the case of the former, still shaky in the case of the latter. In the former case President Suharto who had governed for 31 years and was a general in the army himself lost the support of his military as a result of the economic crisis associated with the Asian financial meltdown of 1996-97. The president quit after street riots paralyzed the country for two weeks. In an analysis done for the Council on Foreign Relations, Karen Brooks, a former White House expert on Indonesia saw a lot in common between Suharto and Mubarak. “Mubarak and Suharto both hailed from the military and assumed power with U.S. backing – at a time of national trauma. Both used secular nationalist political vehicles to monopolize the power of the state; both retained power through extensive political and financial patronage. Both demonized Islamist political forces and drove them underground; both kept a tight lid on the media, the opposition and all forms of dissent; both accumulated massive amounts of wealth while in power; and both enjoyed the support of the United States thanks to geo- strategic considerations.”14 But, she might have added, when a significant number of citizens turned against them, blaming the rulers for their poor economic situation, both lost the support of their armed forces. In the face of open revolts the militaries in both countries thought it prudent to switch sides.

From the military to civilian leadership. The transfer followed an election which was deemed to be fair and free even by foreign observers. The fact that it was held by a military man – General Pervez Musharraf – who had been in office for more than eight years was in recognition of the power of the street unleashed by his firing of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In March 2007, going against the provisions of the constitution, the general removed the chief justice. The legal community called the “black coats” by the media – came out on the streets and stayed there for months until the military ruler relented and agreed to hold elections. His party lost in part due to the general’s defiance of the constitution and in part because of regime’s poor management of the affairs of the state in the last year of its extended rule. The intensity of the lawyers’ campaign unnerved the president. He briefly put the country under a state of emergency while surrendering the leadership of the army to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Under the new command the army gradually distanced itself from the military leader and stood aside as the new civilian government, sworn in after the elections, forced the president to resign under the threat of impeachment.

The military that has governed for long or has been a partner in managing the state develops strong economic interests which it seeks to protect while there is pressure for regime change. The militaries in countries as diverse as China, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey have created vast business empires which they use to employ their own people and provide various kinds of monetary support to men and women once they leave active service. Giving up power in Egypt would mean giving up “its monopoly and that is not easy for any leader of a regime, especially one so deeply invested in its country’s economy – a trait Egypt’s army shares with the People’s Liberation Army in China”, wrote Sanger in the article cited above15. And that also was the case with the army in Pakistan. Pakistan army’s economic interests were chronicled by Ayesha Siddiqa in her 2007 book16.

In Egypt’s case the military was able to use the large amount of material assistance provided by the United States since the signing of the Camp David accord by President Anwar Sadaat in 1979. The accord resulted in peace between Egypt and Israel and has the strong support  of  the Americans. According  to  one  estimate  $40  billion worth of assistance was provided by the United States to the Egyptian military as a part of the peace deal 17. Robert Springborg, a professor at Naval Postgraduate School who studies Egypt’s military, believes that by paying for expensive weapons systems such as M1A1 battle field tanks, American aid “has enabled the Egyptian military then to use resources it has for other purposes”18.  The tanks are manufactured in two large factories that import some parts from General Dynamics. The factory compound also has an army-owned plant for the assembly and manufacture of construction vehicles for commercial sale. Two military owned and operated entities in Egypt financed by American money have drawn some attention in the United States as cases where aid received was possibly used by the military to advance its business interests. One is the International Medical Center on a desert road 45 minutes east of Cairo; the other is a jeep manufacturing plant built as a joint venture with Chrysler. Both serve the military and provide it with equipment; both are said to be engaged in for-profit activities as well. However, as the cases of the militaries withdrawing from active politics in Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey illustrate, this pull back need to hurt the military’s business interests.

In the situations that developed in North Africa and the Middle East the military could have been expected to intervene as it had done so many times before. After intervening, its leadership was inclined to keep political power in its hands and perpetuate its rule. What made the situation so different this time was that it faced disgruntled masses that had at their disposal new organizational instruments. The militaries could have prevailed in Tunisia and Egypt but only after shedding a great deal of blood. By the time Hosni Mubarak left the presidential palace for exile, his security forces had killed 360 people. Many more would have died had the military decided to establish another authoritarian administration.  The men in uniform chose to act as the catalysts of change.

The Bahraini and Libyan militaries displayed less resolve in dealing with the youth on the streets and yet did not abandon the regimes, whereas the Tunisian and Egyptian forces quickly decided to side with the protestors. Three days after Mubarak had given up power and fled the capital, the military high command put the country under martial law and vowed to hand over power to an elected civilian authority in six months and ordered legal experts to draft a revised constitution in 10 days.

Creating space for political Islam

The promised opening of the long closed political systems in many parts of the Arab world following the rise of the street in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya raised a number of questions about the region’s political future. Among them was the role political Islam was likely to play in the rapidly changing environment. There was some fear that radical Islamists will dominate the Arab societies if the autocrats that ruled them allowed some opening in the system that had provided them the rason d’etre for their long rules. It was the same fear that had kept the West on the side of the autocrats, allowing – sometimes even encouraging – them to keep a tight lid on domestic politics. Even in his waning days, Hosni Mubarak, the architect of the repressive political order in Egypt, once again used the threat of possible Islamic take over as a way of keeping the West on his side. However, for most of those who reported on the events in the 18 days that shook Egypt and the world at Tahrir Square little evidence of religious fervor in that public space was witnessed. “This is not a religious event here, and the Muslim Brotherhood is not in charge”, wrote veteran columnist Thomas Freidman after a visit to the square. “This is an Egyptian event. That is its strength and its weakness – no one is in charge and everyone is here.” 19

As the old order fell apart in several countries it became apparent that  institutions  to  fill  the  vacuum  that  was  created  were  largely absent from the political landscape. The development of institutions was deliberately suppressed by the governing elites and the countries experiencing political change could succumb to take over by Islamic extremists. This had happened in Somalia and could be repeated in Libya. “Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government,” wrote Neil

MacFarquhar for The New York Times. “It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no civil society, nongovernmental agencies… The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple [Qaddafi], and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia – a failed state where Al Qaeda could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.”20

Only time will tell in which direction the Arab society will move once the process of political reform begins in earnest. Several important players reappeared on the scene, among them Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the 84 year old Egyptian cleric, who had been imprisoned three times by the authorities and had spent most of his life in exile. He was an intellectual inspiration to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. According to one account the sheikh, “a popular television cleric whose program reaches an audience of tens of millions worldwide, addressed a rapt audience of more than a million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate the uprising and honor those who died.”21 The cleric spoke on Friday, 18 February after prayers and gave a message of moderation. Scholars who have studied his work say Sheikh Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy. However, he has been a vocal critic of Israel and the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

Nonetheless some of the regimes threatened by dissidents continued to scare the West by using the threat of radical Islam in case their hold was weakened. Yemen was one such regime. According to Sudarsan Raghavan who reported from Sanaa, Yemen for The Washington Post, “after Pakistan and Afghanistan, nowhere is the future of the al-Qaeda of more concern than in Yemen. Of all the embattled Arab leaders, Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 32 years, is one of Washington’s most vital partners in fighting terrorism. Last year the United States gave Yemen $300 million in military and development aid to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the network’s most ambitious affiliate” 22. But the opposite case could also be made. “There is something momentous unfolding in the region and al-Qaeda is not an actor in it. They feel left out,” said Marina Ottaway head of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Even the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic organizations, are calling for democracy…It’s a problem for al-Qaeda that these protest movements are predominantly secular.”23

A consensus developed among the analysts who watched the Middle East and the Muslim world that Al Qaeda was the big loser as a result of the change the Arab street was bringing about in the countries of the region. According to Scott Shane, “in fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers… Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?” 24

But there were still some well informed voices that argued from the other side. Michael Scheuer who wrote one of the earlier works on how America was dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism and followed it up with a biography of bin Laden25, thought such enthusiasm is more than wishful thinking. He believes that Western experts have widely misjudged the uprisings by focusing on the secular, English speaking, Westernized protesters who are a natural draw for television. “The talent of an organization is not just leadership, but taking advantage of opportunities,” said Scheuer in a conversation with a journalist. “In Al Qaeda and its allies we’re looking overall at more geographically widespread, probably numerically bigger and certainly more influential movement than in 2001.”26

If democratic orders do take hold in the Arab and Muslim worlds, there cannot be any doubt that Islamic parties will have a prominent role in them.  Mohamed ElBaradei noted in his Financial Times article that (quoted below at some length) including Muslim Brotherhood, in the new political order does not mean admitting into the system radical Islam of the al Qaeda variety. Islamic scholars have long argued that that in the second half of the 20th century Islamic parties in most Muslim Great Caliphate that stretched from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. Such a political Islam existed only in the writings and rhetoric of radical groups such as al Qaeda. For others – Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah, and various Islamic parties in Pakistan – what had emerged were nationalist Islamic parties with local ambitions. According to Olivier Roy, the French scholar of Islam, “if neofundamentalist movements, conservative or radical, have spread among a part of the Muslim population, it is partly because the Islamist parties of the 1980s have subsided as an international and revolutionary force. They largely abandoned transnational militant solidarity and are centered on national politics, with an agenda based on three main points: a call to replace corrupt ruling elites, a conservative socio-cultural agenda, and robust nationalism.” 27 There is, in other words, a great deal in common between the youth movements in various parts of the Middle East and some of the Islamic parties such as Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat-e- Islami in Pakistan.

The Muslim Brotherhood sought to provide some comfort to those who worried about the direction the organization would take if it were to come to power. In a newspaper article, Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, the author of A Witness to History of Egypt’s Islamic Movement and a member of Brotherhood’s guidance council for 25 years indicated that his organization was mindful that “as a nonviolent Islamic movement subjected to six decades of repression, that patent falsehoods, fear mongering and propaganda have been concocted against us in Mubarak’s palaces the past 30 years and some of his patrons in Washington”. He went on to “unequivocally deny any attempt to usurp the will of the people. Nor do we plan to surreptitiously dominate a post-Mubarak government”. 28

President Obama’s administration decided to take a careful look at the role political Islam was likely to play in the Middle East and the Muslim world. The White House’s internal assessment, dated Feb. 16, looked at the Muslim Brotherhood’s and al-Qaeda’s views on global jihad, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the United States, Islam in politics, democracy and nationalism. “The report draws sharp distinction between the ambitions of the two groups, suggesting that the Brotherhood’s mix of Islam and nationalism make it a far different organization than al-Qaeda, which sees  national boundaries as  obstacles to  restoring the Islamic caliphate…Looking forward, the Brotherhood is just one group among a diverse array of growing political factions and trends in Egypt…The people of Egypt will decide their representatives, their form of democratic government and the role of Islam in their lives. For now, as we verge on national liberation from tyranny, Egyptians in Tahrir ‘Freedom’ Square and all over the country are hoping Americans will stand by them in this crucial hour”.29

One important outcome of the unfolding revolution in the Middle East was the subtle change in the way the West looked at the involvement of Islamic parties in the area’s politics. It came to be accepted that the opening up of the closed political systems would give greater space to the parties with deep Islamic roots. However, it was not necessary that once in power—or once having become partners in wielding power – these parties would pursue non-democratic goals.

The West’s Reaction to the Arab and Muslim Street

Many of those who have already examined these remarkable events have come to the conclusion that the people of the oppressed Muslim countries of the world have found a voice and have learnt a way to express it. The ruling elites in these countries will no longer be able to ignore the masses over whom they govern. The fact that several authoritarian leaders were able to rule for so long and with such callousness was in part due to the way the West looked at the area. Strong men were easier to deal with than messy democracies. Democratic governments have to be responsive to the will of the people, and as the surveys done by Pew Research have shown over and over again, over time America has lost peoples’ trust and goodwill of the Muslim world. The United States’ favorable rating in Pakistan remains low compared to other Muslim countries. There are many reasons for this. Among them is the support the country’s military leaders received from Washington at different points in time.

First western leaders to comment on the Egyptian president’s downfall. “Egypt now has a really precious moment of opportunity to have a government that starts to put in place the building blocks of a truly open, free and democratic society.”30 Germany’s Angela Merkel was equally effusive over the departure of Hosni Mubarak from the Egyptian capital. “Today is a day of great joy. We are all witness to a historic change. I share the joy of the people of Egypt, with the millions of people on the streets of Egypt”, she said31. Her reaction was tinged in part by her own experience when the people of East Germany – her part of the country – forced the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

There is no doubt that the United States was caught on the back foot by the developments in Tunisia and Egypt. It did not give up easily on the Mubarak regime, initially calling for a process of orderly transition. About midway through the Tahrir Square agitation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that her government supported the transition process announced by Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by a beleaguered Mubarak. But as days passed and it became clear that the popular revolt in Cairo was not prepared to accept anything short of Mubarak’s departure – certainly not Sukeiman as his likely successor – the American tone changed and became harsher. “The Egyptian government must put forward a credible and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy and they have not yet seized that opportunity” said President Barack Obama, disappointed and surprised by Mubarak’s decision to cling to power. That was the day before Mubarak left Cairo and resigned from the presidency. Once the news came that the Egyptian leader had thrown in the towel, Vice President Joe Bien declared that to be a pivotal moment. He stated, “The transition that is taking place must be an irreversible change and negotiated path towards democracy.”32

The American strategic stance in the Middle East was complicated by the spread of street discontent to Bahrain and Yemen, two small nations that were an important part of Washington’s presence in the region. It was complicated even further by the events in Libya. The Bahrain defense forces receive strong financial support and training from the United States which bases its Navy’s 5th Fleet there. According to one estimate, “U.S. military sales to Bahrain have totaled $1.4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, and have included Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter aircraft.”33 Yemen had become an important place for America’s operations against Islamic extremists as al-Qaeda strengthened its presence in the country. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had allowed Washington to use drone aircrafts to attack suspected al-Qaeda camps in some of the remote areas. Libya as the world’s fouth largest exporter of oil had an important influence on the world energy markets. While the bulk of its exports went to Europe, the international oil market was highly integrated: shortfalls from one particular point of supply affected the overall price. On 21 February, the price of oil increased by 8 percent, one of the sharpest increases in recent years. Also Libya had accumulated large foreign exchange reserves. “Western financial institutions, reeling from the global crisis also discovered in Libya’s newly founded sovereign wealth fund a rich and willing client.”34

American senior officials and politicians seemed to have learned a lesson that showing restraint in criticizing a regime that used lethal force to suppress the expression of discontent could have adverse consequences for its relations with the new rulers as they emerged in the area. Immediately after the Bahraini government decided to use force against the demonstrators in the capital city of Manama, Secretary of State Clinton called on restraint from the government.”We urge a return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there”, she told reporters. Senator John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who also had publicly pressed President Mubarak to step down issued a stronger statement. “Using tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors is the worst kind of response to non-violent demonstration. I urge the government of Bahrain to put an end to the violence and allow the Bahrainis to voice their call for greater freedom.”35

The events in Libya posed an even larger challenge for American and Western diplomacy. The strong rulers in Tunisia and Egypt could not survive because of the role played by the military in both countries. Once the men in uniform decided that they could no longer support the people in power, the discredited leaders had no choice but to quit. In Libya the military did not have such a presence. The country was governed by an autocrat who relied on the support of the tribal leaders who in turn had their own militias. The military, conventionally defined, had only 45,000 people. The decision by Qaddafi to stay put and fight should not have surprised those who knew the country and the man who had governed it for 42 years.  According to one assessment, “Colonel Qaddafi has built a persona, in particular as a revolutionary still tilting at distant colonial powers, that in some ways resonates with Libyans who remember their bitter experiences under Italian rule. His personal mythology has helped him stay on top of a fractious, tribal and deeply divided society for longer than any other living leader in North Africa or the Middle east.”36

The Libyan situation posed a real problem for the West. The easier part of the response was to get the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution based on the “principle of protection”.  This imposed a series of sanctions on Qaddafi and his associates, froze some of their known assets, and referred them to the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. Even the humanitarian disaster created by fleeing migrant workers could be handled by building “air bridges” that ferried tens of thousands of people to the countries to which they belonged. It was the military aspect of the situation that posed the real problem. How much further to go and what kind of use should be made of the military became matters of debate in Washington as the Libyan conflict moved towards a full-fledged civil war. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took a position that was out of step with the rest of the administration. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton said that they wanted to leave all options on the table, including the operation of a “no-fly zone” over all or parts of Libya. Gates made it clear that any use of the military invited battle. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” he told Congress. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.” He was even more forthright concerning the issue of sending American troops to Libya or to any other country where the conflict between the opposition and the rulers turned into a nasty civil war. In a speech in late February at West Point he told the next generation of Army officers: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”37

America has been trying hard to find the right voice in dealing with the Middle East and the Muslim world. In diplomacy, the tension between moral and strategic considerations is always acute and often shaming. This is particularly the case in Washington’s dealing with the Muslim world and in the way the Americans have espoused the virtues of democracy for all people around the globe. In November 2003, eight months after he ordered his troops into Iraq, President George W. Bush broke with years of realist orthodoxy, by taking the high moral ground. “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?”, he asked. “Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live under despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never to have a choice in the matter?” 38 The line adopted by President Bush was followed by Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State in the second term. As she wrote in a newspaper article published a few days after the collapse of the Mubarak regime, “following in the vein of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, I said that the United States had in the Middle East more than any other region, sought stability at the expense of democracy, and had achieved neither. It was an affirmation of our belief that the desire for liberty is universal – not Western, but human – and that only fulfillment of that desire leads to true stability”.39 This speech was delivered in June 2005 at the American University of Cairo.

But these pious words did not survive the chain of events that occurred in the Middle East: Elections in Egypt in 2005 brought in a large contingent of Muslim Brothers into the parliament, and a year later Hamas displaced the Palestinian Authority in the governance of Gaza. Bush backed-off his Freedom Agenda after having articulated it with some passion in his second inaugural speech in January 2005.

President  Barack  Obama  went  back  to  the  moral  tone  in  his celebrated address at the Al Azhar University in Cairo in June of 2009. That was soon after his inauguration. The president began his speech by focusing on how history had shaped America’s relations with the Muslim world. “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historic forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” After discussing three issues that have been the source of tension between the Muslim world and America – the use of terrorism to advance political and religious interest, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the spread of nuclear weapons – the president turned to the question of promotion of democracy. “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”, he declared. This was a not-so-veiled criticism of the neo-Conservative political philosophy that had such an influence on the foreign policy of the administration of President George W. Bush. It was the neo-Conservative thinking that led America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003. However, while eschewing the use of force to impose American ideals on other societies, President Obama made it clear he believed in their universal application.  “That does not lessen my commitment …to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and to say how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere. Now there is no straight line to realize this promise.” When the president spoke these words, he didn’t know that a year and a half later Egypt and several countries in its neighborhood had to shed a great deal of blood to move their societies away from authoritarianism. “But this much is clear”, he continued. “Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.” The president wouldn’t have known how right were his words directed at the young. “But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to make this world.”40

It would appear that the people of the Muslim world had taken these words to heart but the revolutions they brought about were not in response to the sentiments expressed by Presidents Bush and Obama. They were the consequence of an internal dynamics and the development of some extraordinary instruments the people could use to communicate with one another once they had decided to come out in the streets and march in public squares.

The American right and the fervent supporters in that country of Israel were apprehensive about the change of regime in Egypt and its consequences for the US policy in the Middle East. For instance, John R. Bolton who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 and 2006 and joined the American Enterprise Institute as a senior fellow and became an important voice among the conservatives was highly skeptical that “immediate elections will bring the Age of Aquarius to Egypt”. He was of the view that it was “far better to proceed when true democrats, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, are ready. In international politics, as in everyday life, strongly held moral or philosophical principles can come into conflict, requiring painful choices. Pursuing one value or ideal unswervingly and hoping the rest will ultimately fall into place is wishful thinking.” 41 Newt Gingrich, Republican Speaker of the House in the US Congress and a possible candidate for the presidential election of 2012 was even more direct in expressing his fears. “A Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government would  be  a  catastrophe of  the first order. The brotherhood’s insignia is two crossed swords under the Koran. Its founding slogan is ‘Allah is our objective, Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’”42

Washington’s tone became harsher as the regime’s response to protests became more brutal. On 21 February Hillary Clinton said in a statement: “Now is the time to stop the unacceptable bloodshed”.

How will America react as the pace of change quickens in the Muslim world and as it loses the influence it was able to exercise through the ruling autocracies in many countries. Indications are that Washington is not likely to resist change as it had done in the past. It will seek stability by encouraging the development of viable political systems rather than by cultivating a few autocrats. Once again to quote from Condoleezza Rice, “this is not 1979 [when the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Islamic radicals], but it is not 1989 either. The fall of communism unleashed patriots who had long regarded the United States as the ‘beacon of freedom’. It is as true as it was when I said in 2005 that the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. We have only one choice: to trust that in the arc of history those shared beliefs will matter more than the immediate disruptions that lie ahead and that, ultimately, our interests will be well served.”43

Transiting to a new political order

If Tunisia and Egypt – possibly with other countries to follow – succeed in dispensing with autocracy and rule by the military and move towards some representative form of government, the pace of transition may not be as smooth and quick as desired by those who agitated in the streets and caused the demise of the old order. As Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars puts it, “institutions that have been frozen for decades will have to adjust to more accountability and transparency; a new contract will have to be negotiated between civilians and authorities, and the military will be reluctant to abandon its centrality” in the lives of these countries44. The impatience to see the rapid birth of the new order is not only felt by those who forced change. It is also desired by the United States and other western powers.

“’Transition’ has become one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the American political lexicon”, wrote Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “No one seems exactly sure what it means. What we do know though, is that the democratic transitions are notoriously messy affairs. Both sides make compromises. And it always seems like the good side – the pro-democracy – makes more.” 45

Change won’t come easily since the long and uninterrupted rule by one political establishment that represented the ruling order pervaded the entire society. Most of the societies under stress were dominated by one political party. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak’s political party reached deep into the society. By the time of Mubarak’s fall on 11 February it had three million members. “One of the greatest challenges of Egypt’s revolution is to replace that order which has ruled Egypt for 60 years, knit together by patronage, greased by bribes, enforced by a ubiquitous security force answering only to itself and guided by the principle that the ruling party knows best”, wrote Anthony Shadid for The New York Times after visiting Bagour, a town north of Cairo in the Nile delta46. Most of the development that occurred in the town was the work of one politician, Kamal al Shazli, who represented his town for 46 years in Parliament. In  the process he also enriched himself.

There are several reasons why transition in the Middle East to a more open political order will be a lengthy and difficult process and will be full of many pitfalls. The case of Bahrain is an interesting study of a society led by a reformist monarch – American educated Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa who succeeded his father in 1999. The new king “restored Parliament, banned since 1975; allowed exiles to return; and abolished the much feared state security courts”47. As revealed by the cables leaked by WikiLeaks these moves and several others were lauded by the American diplomats who described the king as “very Western in his approach” and “personable and engaging”48.  According to the cables it bothered the American officials stationed in the country when Freedom House downgraded Bahrain from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2010 survey of political rights and civil liberties49. The American non- government organization saw the developments in Bahrain as a part of the larger trend in which global freedom suffered a decline – “the longest period of setback from freedom in the 40-year history of the reports. The latest survey highlights the increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, which has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge”50. Bahrain was a case in point. But it was not fully recognized that modernizing impulses of the new monarch notwithstanding, the tiny kingdom was under the influence of the much larger Saudi Arabia with which it was linked by a causeway. Also the fact that the majority of the population of the country was Shiite had created fear that Iran could foment trouble in the kingdom. “The politics of the Shiite community – which already felt disenfranchised – are deeply and inextricably linked with a faith that reveres martyrdom and holds social justice as a principal value. With each outrage …more people turned to the streets, perpetuating the cycle Bahrain now seems caught in, with no obvious way out.” 51

Partly under the pressure of the United States, the king seemed to pull back from using his security forces in a much more aggressive way compared to what the governments in Tunisia and Egypt had done. A couple of deaths occurred on 14 February which drew strong criticism from Washington. The king went on television to offer regret for the killings of two young men. “The opposition saw its chance and marched into Pearl Square. Thousands of people set up tents, created a speakers’ podium and reveled in their first chance for a public display of dissent”. But then the government changed its mind and shot at the sleeping people creating more martyrs.

The two countries – Tunisia and Egypt – in which the agitated youth succeeded in terminating the old order and setting the stage for more open economic and political systems soon found that the process of transition was not going to be linear. There will be ups and downs as various elements in the society that did not have the institutional means for defining the contours of the new order vied for influence and attempted to create space for themselves. Even after the departure of President Ben Ali, more than a thousand young Tunisians continued to stage a sit-in at the entrance of the warren like casbah that was the center of Tunis’s commercial life. They were able to force out Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushir who had taken over the reins of power after Ben Ali’s departure. He was replaced by Beji Caid Essebesi, an 84-year old statesman, who commands broad respect at home. “But unlike Egypt, where the democratic transition is moving at a relatively brisk pace, Tunisians have yet to see anything resembling a time table for constitutional reform and elections.” 52  The Tunisian situation was complicated by the need to deal with the arrival of refugees from the troubled Libya south and east of the country.

A more orderly process of transition was begun in Egypt after the departure of Mubarak. It was under the control of the military but the men in uniform were opaque as to their intentions. In a newspaper article Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission who had thrown a challenge to Mubarak soon after leaving his position in Vienna, was critical of the way the military was proceeding. He criticized the military and also presented a four-point plan to create the “second republic” in Egypt. “So far the army has been leading the ‘transition’ in an opaque and exclusive manner”, he wrote. “It has not courted any faction of the Egyptian society, other than to meet selectively with few young people whose names have gained notice. It has not outlined a plan or timeline for how the transition will lead to a dramatic state”. ElBaradei then went on to detail his four point plan to modernize Egypt and bring its political system into the 21st  century. “First, there should a provisional constitution guaranteeing equal rights and basic freedoms, and outlining the purposes and limited authorities on the transitional government… At the very least the effort to patch up the old constitution must make it clear that this is a temporary move until a new democratic constitution is drafted and adopted through a constitutional assembly. Second a three- person presidential council should be formed to lead the transition. Two of its members should be civilian, neither of whom should have ties to the old regime. The third should be from the military…Third, there should be a caretaker government of highly qualified people of unquestionable integrity, to provide the continuation of basic services, replacing elements of the old regime that have lost credibility…This transitional authority should be for at least a year – not six months as themselves and engage with society…Fourth, all residual instruments of the outgoing dictatorship should be abolished. The emergency law that suffocated the country for 30 years, should be repealed immediately – as should edicts restricting the formation of political parties, forbidding the right to assembly, or constraining the freedom of the press. Political detainees should be released from prison.” 53  It is interesting that the ElBaradei plan did not include reclaiming the money the members of the old regime, including Mubarak and his family, were believed to have taken out of the country.

“Some democracy advocates, however, have questioned whether Egypt is moving too fast in implementing the demands of the protesters, noting that it needs first to set up credible political parties, voting laws and other campaign rules”54. Several analysts who have studied the democratization of the developing world have argued that elections alone are not enough to guarantee the flourishing of democracy. In an influential book, Fareed Zakaria had emphasized the need for institutional development to lay the basis for the successful functioning of democracy in societies that had long been in the grip of autocratic rulers. “Democracy means “liberal democracy”: a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. But this bundle of freedoms – what might be called ‘constitutional liberalism’ – has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy and the two have not always gone together, even in the West.” 55 Constitutional liberalism is what the protesting youth in the Middle East had in mind when they gathered in the various public squares in the region. It will not come overnight, an argument as noted in a later section, was advanced by people such as Egypt’s Mohamed elBaradei. Pakistan was one of the more successful cases of transition from autocratic-military to a representative form of government for a Muslim society. Even in its case there were several obstacles that had to be crossed to transit from one form of government to the other. The process is still not complete. That Pakistan was relatively successful in making this journey was helped by the presence of political parties that had been in existence for decades, the empowerment of the judiciary in the dying days of the military rule, the development of the civil society and an explosive growth in mass media.

The impact on South Asia

The Arab world and South Asia have been in contact with each other for several millennia. Islam came to South Asia from Arabia as well as from Central Asia. These two sources of the religion have created two distinct traditions in the sub-continent, one more conservative than the other. The Arabian Islam – in particular the more recent Wahabi variant was more conservative than the Sufi tradition that originated in Central Asia. In recent years strong economic links have developed between these two parts of the world. After the first oil-induced economic boom in the 1970s, Pakistan in particular moved into the orbit of the oil exporting countries of the region. Its close collaboration with Saudi Arabia is one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Islamic extremism in the country. India and Bangladesh also have close economic ties. As is the case for Pakistan, these countries have also created large diasporas in the oil rich countries of the Middle East. Pakistan also has close military ties with the region. For decades it provided a large military contingent to Saudi Arabia and helped develop the air forces of the UAE.

There were also informal association of Pakistanis with the security apparatus in some parts of the Middle East. For instance, it was reported that the state of emergency imposed in Bahrain on 17 February “followed a crackdown by a police force heavily composed of foreign nationals and controlled by a widely despised prime minister…The police involved in Thursday’s violence are answerable to the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Kahlifa, and the force’s reliance on Pakistanis and other foreign recruits has long been a source of tension in the country.”56

According to Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf expert in the political science department at University of Vermont, “there has certainly been an effort by the ruling family to make sure that the security forces are loyal to the family, and thus they import Sunnis from other parts of the world and give them citizenship. [This is changing] the demographic balance of the country”57.  Bahrain is 80 percent Shia while the ruling family is Sunni and Pakistan is a large source of Sunni immigrants.

Politics in other parts of the region? How will the West, ever ready to intervene for its own strategic reasons, accommodate itself to the new realty? Is Pakistan, highly troubled by its deteriorating economic situation and the still-evolving its political structure also feel the impact of Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli?

From the Muslim world’s perspective it is well to begin this inquiry with a reflection on how the West is responding to the happenings in the Middle East. Affairs in Pakistan are getting increasingly intertwined with the way the West – in particular the United States – is dealing with the countries in this part of the world. Washington has never covered- up its strong strategic interests in the Middle East. First it was the discovery of large oil resources in several countries in the area that got the United States so deeply engaged in the region. The strategic interests were heightened by the creation of the state of Israel in the late 1940s. Although the prime push for the establishment of the Jewish state came from Britain, the United States became the new country’s patron as the political and economic interests of the Jewish community increased in America. This happened in particular before, during and after the Second World War. Persecuted by the Nazis in Germany and other parts of Europe, a large number of highly skilled and financially well endowed members of European Jewry took refuge in the United States. The third element in the American interest in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, West and Central Asia came with the 9/11 terrorist attack engineered by Al Qaeda. It is this last element that has drawn Pakistan into the American orbit.

Pakistan’s poor management of its economy has made the country increasingly dependent on the flow of finance from the United States and the financial and development institutions over which Washington has considerable influence. The Raymond Davis affair involving the killing of two young men in a Lahore street by an American official has underscored Pakistan’s extreme vulnerability. Pakistan’s reluctance to hand over the alleged killer to the Americans has resulted in a threat issued by the US Congress that all aid to Islamabad could be blocked. The US threat has vividly demonstrated the country’s exposure to American interests and that country’s internal politics. There is, therefore, good reason why Pakistan – its policymakers as well as informed individuals should closely follow how the on-going revolution in the Arab world is viewed by Washington and other western capitals.

The slow recognition of the new political reality in the Arab world by the West has profound implications for the political development of the Muslim world including Pakistan. It has been fully appreciated that the genie released by economic forces and new communication technologies cannot be put back in the bottle again.  But what brings the disaffected people to the street may be anger resulting from their economic circumstances but an uncooked event such as the alleged killing of two young men by an American embassy official named Raymond Davis.


There cannot be any doubt that the events of January-March, 2011 in the Middle East have changed the political map of that part of the world. They also showed that they caught all the main actors by surprise the authoritarian regimes affected by the street inspired revolutions; the Western leaders who have a great deal at stake in the region; in fact, even the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in the various public squares. One way of concluding this analysis is to analyze how Washington has reacted to the change in the Middle East.

Some harsh critics of the Obama regime have unfairly blamed it for not anticipating some of what happened. According to Niall Ferguson, the conservative British historian, Obama missed two great opportunities to reshape not only the Middle East but with it the world as well. The first opportunity was presented by the 2009 reaction by the Iranian people to the disputed election that gave Mahmood Ahmadinejad another term as the country’s president. American support for the dissidents, Ferguson and other critics believe, may have changed the political equation in Iran. The second opportunity was the revolution in the Arab street. “The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the helm of His coat, that is all,” Ferguson quotes Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and half ago. “Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity and missed it completely… Tragically, no one knows where is Barack Obama’s map of the Middle East…At worst, he has no map at all.” 58

Some other analysts have taken the opposite view. According to them, the Obama presidency – in particular his June 2009 speech at Al Azhar University in Cairo – gave some important signals to the youth in the Muslim world. In the address Obama encouraged the young to define their own future and there was a hint that whatever they came up with would be acceptable to Washington. In August 2010, President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 11, asking agencies to prepare for change in the Arab world. This document cited “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes” and warned that “the region is entering a critical period of transition.” The president asked his advisers “to manage these risks by demonstrating to the people of the Middle East and North Africa the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance.” In quoting from this important document, columnist David Ignatius suggests that it is prudent the way the president has handled the crisis. “In supporting the wave of change sweeping the Arab world, despite the wariness of the traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, Obama is placing a big bet that democratic governments will be more stable and secure, and thereby enhance U.S. interests in the region. My own instinct, as someone who has been visiting the Arab world for 30 years, is that Obama is right.”59


1    Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

2              Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1968.

3              Among those who celebrated was Ayub Khan who published his autobiography a year before he completed his first decade in office. See Mohammad Ayub Khan, Friends Not Masters: A Political Autobiography, London, Oxford University Press, 1967.

4             Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Response to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1970.

5              David Remnick, Comment: Judgment Days”, The New Yorker, 14 & 21 February, 2100, p. 37.

6              Thomas L. Friedman, “Speakers’ corner on the Nile”, The New York Times, 8 February 211, p. A25.

7              Financial Times, “Egypt after the Nile Revolution”, February 12, 2011, p. 6.

8              Abeer Allam, Heba Saleh and Javier Blas, “$36bn Saudi bid to beat unrest”, Financial Times, 24 February, 2011, p. 1.

9              Agnes T. Crane, Rob Cox and Una Galani, “Saudi Arabian Angst”, The New York Times, 2 March, 2011, p. B2.

10  Roula Khalaf, “Leaders who try to buy off demonstrators miss the point”, Financial Times, 2 March, 2011, p. 2.

11  Robert Kaplan, “Why the world needs virtuous autocarts”, Financial Times, 3 March, 2011, p. 9.

12  David E. Sanger, “When armies decide”, The New York Times: Week in Review, 20 February, 2011, pp. 1 and 7.

13  Will Englund, “Egypt’s military feints, jabs with protesters”, The Washington Post, 7 February 2011, p. A8.

14  Karen Brooks, “Indonesia’s lesson for Egypt” Council on Foreign Relations, Expert Brief, 17 February 2011.

15  David E. Sanger, When armies decide”, The New York Times: Week in Review, Op. Cit.

16  Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, London, Pluto Press, 2007.

17  Aram Roston and David Rhode, “Business side of Egypt’s army blurs lines of aid from U.S.” The New York Times, 6 March, 2011, pp. A1 an/d

18  Ibid.

19  Thomas L. Friedman, “Speakers’ corner on the Nile”, Op. Cit.

20  Neil MacFarquhar, “New Analysis: The vacuum after Qaddafi”, The New York Times, 26 February, 2011, p. A1.

21  David Kirkpatrick, “After lengthy exile, Sunni cleric adds voice in shaping of Egypt”, The New York Times, 19 February 2011, pp. A1 and A6.

22  Sudarasn Raghavan, U.S fears unrest in Yemen could strengthen al-Qaeda” The Washington Post, 20 February, 2011, pp. A1 and A14.

23 Marina Ottaway, “The President’s left, the regimes are still there” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 2011. See also Marina Ottaway and Christopher Boucek (editors), Yemen on the Brink, Washington DC, Carnegie Endowment for International peace, 2010.

24  Scott Shane, “New Analysis: As regimes fall in the Arab world, Al Qaeda sees history fly by”, The New York Times, 27 February, 2011, p. A1.

25  Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris: why the West is Losing the War on Terror, New York, Potomac Books, 2007. and Osama bin Laden, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.

26  Quoted in Ibid.

27 Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004, p. 58.

28  Abdel  Moneim Abou-  el-Fotouh,  “Don’t  be  afraid  of  the  Islamists”,  The Washington Post, 10 February, 2011, p. A19.

29  Scott Wilson, “After the revolutions: U.S. prepares for possible rise of new Islamic regimes”, The Washington Post, 4 March, 2011, pp. A1 and A13.

30  James Blitz and Abigail Fielding Smith, “Anxiety tempers relief for western leaders”, Financial Times, February 12, 2011, p. 2.

31  Ibid.

32  Daniel Dombey, “Washington hails ‘pivotal’ moment”, Financial Times, February

12, 2011, p. 2.

33  Janine Zacharia, “Foreigners assist in Bahrain crackdown”, The Washington Post, 18 February 2011, A1 and A10.

34  Roula Khalaf, “Western policy left exposed as ‘mad dog’ regains his bit”, Financial Times, 22 February, 2011, p. 6.

35  Joby Warrick, “Clinton presses for restraint by Bahrain”, The Washington Post,

18 February, 2011, . A10.

36  David D. Kirkpatrick, “A Libyan leader at war with rebels and reality” The New York Times, 7 March, 2011, pp. A1 and A8. One of the more informed histories of Libya are by Dirk Vandewalle. See his Libya Since Independence: Oil and State Building, Cornell University Press, 1998 and  History of Modern Libya, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

37  The two Gates quotes are from Thom Shanker, “Gates ratchets up his campaign of candor”, The New York Times, 5 March, 2011, p. A4.

38  Quoted in David Remnick, “Comment: Judgment Days”, Op. Cit, p. 38.

39  Condoleezza Rice, “The future of a democratic Egypt”, The Washington Post, 16 February, 2011, p. A19.

40  www.whitehousegov/the press-office/6-04-09, accessed on 6 March 2011,

41  John R. Bolton, “What comes after Mubarak?”, The Washington Post, 6 February, 2011, p. A.19.

42  Newt Gingrich, “What comes after Mubarak?”, The Washington Post, 6 February, 2011, p. A.19

43  Condoleezza Rice, “The future of democratic Egypt”, Op. Cit. p. A19.

44  Aaron David Miller, “What comes after Mubarak?”, The Washington Post, 6 February, 2011, p. A.19.

45  Shadi Hamid, “What comes after Mubarak?”, The Washington Post, 6 February, 2011, p. A.19.

46  Anthony Shahdid, “In a town built upon patronage, a test of Egypt’s new order”, The New York Times, 20 February 2011, pp. A1 and A12.

47  Mark Landler, “U.S. officials offered rosy assessment of Bahrain before recent crackdown”, The New York Times, 19 February, 2011, p. A8.

48  Ibid.

49  Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011: The Authoritarian Challenge to Democracy, Washington DC, 2011.

50  Ibid, p. 1.

51  Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi, “Bahrain forces open fire, first on protesters, then on arriving ambulances”, The New York Times, 19 February 2100, p. A7.

52  Anthony Faiola, “Anxious Tunisians awaiting reforms after their revolution”, The Washington Post, 3 March, 2011, p. A8.

53  Mohamed ElBaradei, “My vision for the next phase of Egypt’s revolution”, Financial Times, 23 February, 2011, p. 11.

54  Craig Whitlock and Kathy Lally, “Egypt’s military vows  quick vote”, The Washington Post, 16 February, 2011, p. A1 and A9. ,

55  Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York, W.W. Norton, 2003, p. 17.

56  Janine Zacharia, “Foreigners assist in Bahrain crackdown”, Op. Cit,

57  Quoted in ibid.

58  Niall Ferguson, “How Obama blew it”, Time, 21 February 2011, pp. 2-3.

59  David Ignatius, “A low-key Mideast gamble” The Washington Post, 6 March 2011, p. A21.