28 January 2011

Egypt and Yemen on Fire

Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, masses of protesters are filling the streets to try to unsettle the regimes of Egypt and Yemen.

Egypt has an authoritarian dominant party system in which President Hosni Mubarak has been President for thirty years and has hinted at installing his son as a successor, although Egypt has remained engaged with the world and had some semblance of a normal economy, rather than withdrawing from the world as Albania and North Korea did.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, is "a strongman who has ruled this fractured country for more than 30 years . . . His current term expires in two years, but proposed constitutional changes could allow him to hold onto power for longer." Despite Saleh's authoritarian policies, however, a substantial part of Yemen is beyond the government's control.

Police responses have been violent in Egypt, but the response has not yet escalated to that level in Yemen.

It is hard to tell if we are replaying something like Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or for those with a longer run view, Europe's revolutions of 1848, or instead are seeing something like 1989 when the Soviet system fell apart.

Indeed, assuming that Tunsia's revolution is now irreversible, the fear may be that Egypt or Yemen may be to Tunsia what Tiananmen Square was to the fall of the Soviet Union, a disasterous crackdown spawned by success elsewhere.

On the other hand, if revolutionaries succeed in Egypt and Yemen as they appear to have prevailed in Tunisia, this could mark the end of an epoch of strongmen in a wide spawth of the world. Iraq, of course, already lost its long time strongman by very different means, and Sudan, while not actually shedding its twenty year old strongman's authoritarian regime is in the process of ceding much of its territory in South Sudan. Serbia hardline regime, likewise, lost Kosovo.

It isn't clear if there is any likelihood that this wave of revolutions will spread to similar regimes in Libya (whose strongman has been in place for four decades), Syrai (where dictatorship is in a second generation), Sudan, other African regimes, or to the monarchies of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or Oman.

Algeria's regime, with doubtful democratic credentials between years of violent insurgencies by popular Islamists against a secular military linked regime, truces to resolve the struggle, and popular uprisings has probably doesn't have the same level of pent up frustration that its neighbors share.

Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while all having flawed, troubled, intermittent or untested democracies, have also established the precedent that political systems in which civilian officials chosen in genuinely contested elections are possible in predominantly Muslim countries. None of these nations have really achieved "mature democracy" status, but Islamist factions have as often been a force for democratization as they have been barrier to democracy in these nations. This undermines the long standing argument in foreign policy circles that Islam, or at least Islamists movements were incompatible with democratic government.

It is a time to hope for the best and fear for the worst. In the meantime, understandably, oil prices are surging, which means that these events half the world away, will have a direct effect on ordinary Americans.


Dave Barnes said...

Did you just refer to Syria as a democracy?
That is stretching a bit don't you think?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

@Dave - Fair point and changed. A took a second look and it was worse than I had recalled.

update here