By HUGO Odiogor
It was the late United States President John Fitzgerald Kennedy who said that “those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The gale of pro-democracy riots that ended the 23-year-old dictatorship of former Tunisian President Zine Ben-Ali is spreading like wild harmattan fire as Egypt, Yemen and Algeria have witnessed the outpouring of people’s anger on their streets.
Countries as Libya, Mauritania, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are watching the images and commentaries on cable television channels with apprehension, especially as the issues that provoked the crisis are endemic in their countries.
The trigger to the Tunisian revolution is linked to worsening economic fortunes of the citizenry and the insensitivity of the government to the problems of the people. Rising unemployment and cost of food were the trigger points for the crisis.
Mohammed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old university graduate who set himself on fire last December 17 in the regional city of Sidi Bouzid. Without steady job to support his widowed mother who had three girls and four boys, Bouazizi took to selling vegetables and fruits. But officials of the Municipal council and the local police would not let him be as they harassed him and took their turns to extort money from him.
The last straw came when his wooden cart was seized and destroyed, together with his wares, because he could not pay the bribe demanded by the corrupt municipal officials. His patience snapped and he set himself on fire to protest the insensitivity of the authorities. He died on January 4, 2011 from the injuries he sustained from the first degree burns.
Things fell apart and the centre could not endure. The people rose in his support and the evil order was toppled.
Cairo, the Egyptian capital erupted, on Thursday as angry protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and reform of the political system. Riot policemen battled Egyptians who are fed up with Mubarak’s sit-tight and lame dock leadership which they believe has lost touch with reality.
Led by Mohammed El-Baradei, the former Nuclear Inspector, the protesters came out in their thousands in prominent cities like Alexanria and Mahala where angry Egyptians confronted policemen with rubber bullets, teargas and batons.
In an apparent copycat replay of the self-immolation of a Tunisian graduate, Mohammed Buazizi, an Egyptian as restaurant owner Abdo Abdelmoneim, stood in front of the People’s Assembly, where he covered himself in fuel and set himself on fire. But a policeman standing near the victim was able to extinguish the fire and the man was taken to hospital. Abdelmoneim was protesting because he had not received bread coupons for his restaurant.
Egyptians have demonstrated against the three decade rule of Mubarak. No fewer tahn 30,000 protesters shouted “Down, Down with Mubarak.” They said, “Mubarak, it is your turn after Ben-Ali,” a direct reference to former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali who was topped on January 14, in Tunis.
The 85 million population is a third of the Arab world. They are complaining about the economic hardship and demanding increases in minimum wage, unemployment benefits, release of political prisoners and constitutional reforms that would bar the president from handing over power to his son, Gamal.
On Friday, thousands of Egyptians trooped into the streets after their Jumat prayers to protest against 82-year- old Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, with the support of the military and Western powers. Ironically, the country’s foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, has been warning the West to stay away from the affairs of Arabs. He said those who want to link the events in Egypt with what happened in Tunisia will not succeed.
The industrial city of Al-Mahala saw the biggest protest and the police have been stretched trying to contain the protesters. Major streets have been blocked with armoured tanks and vehicles are stopped at check-points for search. Mubarak is far more formidable than Ben-Ali and has the support of the Military, which the country’s strongest institution having been one of them.
He has tried to tackle the strike immediately unlike Ben-Ali who ignored the strike when it broke out on December, 17,2010. He has survived three assassination attempts and hundreds of protests on food prices and other issues like the Coptic Christian strikes that broke out early January. Diplomatic sources believe that Mubarak has a firmer grip on power unlike Ben-Ali who was seen as frail and weak.
The labour unions in Tunisia are more independent while their counterparts in Egypt are part of the government as civil servants. There have been attempts to introduce religion into the social change process, especially by the Islamic Brotherhood which has been pursuing fundamentalist Islamic agenda.
Egypt is the region trend-setter and holds the balance of power in the Arab world. The Egyptian government has been ruthless in suppressing Islamic extremists with active sharing intelligence on terrorism with American, Israeli and other Muslim governments. Its intelligence apparatus has been one of the mainstays of global efforts to limit terrorism as well as keep Egypt’s domestic opposition in check.
Egypt is the largest Arab country, with a population of about 82 million and its capital, Cairo, is the historic centre of Arab civilisation and culture. It is the intellectual power house that shapes the Arabs’ response to global events since the collapse of the British and French empires.
Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser, was a radical, militarised centre of Pan-Arab world view. This was when Egypt allied with the Soviet Union and re-defined the geopolitics of the Mediterranean region.This is different from the Pan-Islamic world view that emerged in the 1980s.
In the 1970s, it experienced a diplomatic switch by signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 that demilitarised the Sinai Peninsula and removed the strategic threat to Israel’s south. This in turn freed Israel to focus its primary interests to the north and to develop its economy, leaving Syria isolated and dependent on Iran.
The assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the emergence of Mubarak as the president led to Egypt’s core relationship with the West. The death of Sadat resulted in a period of intense activity by Egyptian security forces to destroy radical Islamic organisations that opposed the regime and the treaty with Israel. A combination of ruthless intelligence and security services, disorganisation among the Islamists and deep divisions in Egyptian society reduced the Islamists threat to the regime to a weak political force and terrorism to a fairly rare occurrence.
Egypt matters in the politics of the Arab world and the international arena. When Egypt is visible and assertive, it moves the Arab world and when it becomes reticent, the Arab world relapses. Mubarak is old and, by some accounts, suffering from cancer. He has been grooming his son, Gamal, to replace him but this has ran into stormy water with the protests. But, the internal dynamic in Egypt is certainly changing as the succession approaches.
The most vulnerable time in Egypt is the time when Mubarak is expected to leave office. If the radical Islamists assert themselves now, they could well draw down the wrath of the security services. Egypt enters a period of internal strife and instability and the regime fails to suppress the Islamists.
Tunisian opposition parties that have been in the limbo for 23 years are pushing for a complete overhauling of the system while the elements of the past government want to see only the exit of Ben-Ali and are putting compromise position of bringing in members of the opposition to form a government of national unity, a contraption that has become a vogue in Africa often championed by status quo maintainers.
Dokubo told Sunday Vanguard: “Ben-Ali was a typical sit-tight African leader who would want to be disgraced out of power as we are seeing in Cote d’Ivoire, where Gbagbo is waiting for Ivorieans to revolt against him or be forced out of office through a coalition of multinational military force.”
Dokubo said the fear of a domino effect of the Jasmine revolution sweeping across Egypt, Mauritania, Libya, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the haven of deposed despots, is real because these are countries where the concept of leadership is built on strong individuals rather that strong institutions that could outlive the leadership and support the orderly progression of the state and bring about growth and development.
Mr Azuka Oshodi, another expert on international relations, said Nigerian leaders must not close their eyes to what is happening in Tunisia, which is a revolt that is not based on religious ideology but revelations of corruption of the deposed leadership by WikiLeaks which exposed a series of business deals associated with the ruling Ben- Ali family members.
Oshodi also warned the political class that has become completely insensitive to the high incidence of poverty in Nigeria, where unemployment has hit an unimaginable proportion. The profligacy of the ruling class and the squandering of the nation’s resources in white elephant projects are some of the flashpoints that could trigger the rise of people’s power in any country.