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West Asia protests: India must have contingency plans ready

The central message of the people’s non-violent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen is that the Arab world, from the Mahreb to the Arabian Peninsula, is embarking on a new course of democracy and liberal political values sweeping aside authoritarian rulers. The protests are not likely to remain confined to the four countries mentioned above: tremors of the convulsion in Egypt will be felt in all parts of the Arab world and beyond.

It is not surprising that Tunisia led the people’s revolt against homegrown dictators. In my dual appointment as India’s Ambassador to Morocco and (concurrently) Tunisia in 1967-1969 I had the opportunity to observe two different Arab societies of North Africa.

Though Egypt and Tunisia shared the same religion ? Islam ? the textures, aspirations and orientation of their two societies differed widely.

The Tunisians, inheritors of the values and civilization of ancient Carthage, Rome’s challenger, were modern and liberal in outlook and republican in spirit. There was already a small but growing and vibrant middle class with rising aspirations which, I thought, would make for stability and keep the country on its chosen path of democratic governance. Tunisia’s leader, President Habib Bourguiba, was a man with a philosophic bent of mind, moderate and conciliatory in his views with a penchant for peaceful approaches to political issues of the time. In my first meeting with him to present my credentials, he received me in his large but simply appointed office without the usual protocol and fanfare and with endearing grace and simplicity. During our half-hour meeting he spoke warmly of his profound respect and admiration for Gandhiji and Nehru. His own main concerns, he said, were for the strengthening of democracy and the well- being of his people.

Tunisians generally were a happy and talented lot. It was sheer delight to talk with young Tunisians: their eagerness of spirit, enthusiasm, ambitions and hopes for their small country were infectious. Bourguiba, with his liberator’s halo, was not entirely free from the vanity and foibles of the great, but he had a pleasing personality and was a benign and popular leader. But, unlike Nehru, he did not create stable institutions of democracy, and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, turned out to be a tyrant wanting to reduce a republic into a hereditary dictatorship. Under his long rule, a dynamic country and its economy became stagnant, opposition leaders went into exile, and a frustrated middle class was driven to revolt. It should be said to his credit though that, when the crunch came he fled the country, facilitating, unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a quick and peaceful transition.

Morocco, in contrast, was an absolute monarchy with the young and personable Mohammad V as the ruling monarch. The country, a tourist’s paradise, is rich in resources and there were no signs of oppressive deprivation. Moroccans are a traditional society, generally respectful of authority in a distant sort of way. Though the institution of monarchy seemed well accepted in the country, Mohammad V, nevertheless, faced a revolt led by General Oufkir, his home minister. There were other attempts to highjack or assassinate the King which he miraculously escaped. His successor has gradually softened the Palace’s grip on power. Therefore, the wave of protests sweeping the region may well pass Morocco by.

On the whole, though, the Kings, Sheikhs (and other autocrats) of the Arab world are a creation, mostly, of retreating British imperialism. They have flourished because of the insulation provided by oil and great power protection. Rather sooner than later they will have to face the rising tide of people’s power. Arabs no longer consider themselves doomed to autocracy.

Trouble had been simmering in the ancient land of Egypt for at least a decade because of a combination of factors ?- a rapidly growing population and a rising youth bulge, increasing unemployment and deepening poverty; an explosive mix which under a corrupt and oppressive autocratic regime, with no safety valve of freedom or reform to accommodate people’s aspirations in a globalised world, became a deadly cocktail of catalytic eruption.

A wiser Mubarak would have seen the writing on the wall and chosen either to reform the system or hand over the task to some one else and quit. He chose instead to unleash his brutal police, in plain clothes, mounted on camels, to assault the un-armed protesters in Cairo’s Liberation Square. His army has gently threatened the protesters to vacate the square and the streets. All this is not like to douse the fire of a popular revolt: it can only delay and make more difficult and, possibly, bloody the inevitable transition to democracy. Egypt and Time have moved beyond Mubarak and his Generals.

A new, interim government, whenever it comes, is bound to be a blend of opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no reason to fear the Brotherhood; it knows that extremism of any kind will not serve Egypt’s national interest and has been wary of Al-Quaida. It disavowed violence a decade ago. The tasks of organising a free and fair election, establishing the supremacy of Parliament and overseeing the framing of a new constitution will require an internationally recognizable figure to head the interim government. Nobel Laureate El-Baradei seems to be emerging a generally acceptable transition manager.

A well-known Egyptian statesman, Amre Mousa, the Arab League’s Secretary-General and a highly distinguished former Foreign Minister, who joined the protests on February 3, would be another effective leader in these troubled times: Mousa was a popular Egyptian Ambassador to India in the 1980s.

There are bound to be changes in the region’s international relations, but Egypt is unlikely to take to an extremist path. It will remain wary, as hitherto, of Al-Quaida and Shia Iran, despite the latter’s vociferous support for the protests in Egypt. Iran’s rising influence in Iraq has already deepened the Shia-Sunni fissures in the Arab world. Not surprisingly, Beijing’s rather odd response to the events in Egypt was typical of an autocracy: it admonished the protesters and urged the restoration of law and order! In contrast, the US has forthrightly supported the protester’s demand for Mubarak’s ouster. Washington will have to look at the Middle-East picture and new Egypt’s role in the region afresh and suitably reshape its policies.

India is a natural supporter of democracy and Egyptians know this. It is neither necessary nor good policy for India to try to appear as a crusader for democracy in the Arab world. Nevertheless, our government’s anodyne statement falls way short of the prevailing public sentiment in support of the protests. The main political formations of the country, especially the Congress, should redress this shortcoming in public declarations in the coming days. The upheaval in Egypt is bound to have far-reaching repercussions in the Arab region. A strong impact on Israel and its relations with Palestine and Jordan is un-avoidable. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan will come under stress, especially if it takes recourse to fresh aggression in Gaza or Lebanon. Washington’s role in the region will remain important because of the unavoidable dependence on America of both Egypt and Israel.

Prolonged turmoil in the region could result in rising oil prices and interruption in India’s trade with the region valued at $120 billion a year. Remittances from some three million Indian workers in the region could also fall and affect our economy. The Government of India should have contingency plans in place to deal with unforeseeable consequences of a spreading conflagration.

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