What is going on in the Middle East?

Published in the Geelong Advertiser, 7 March 2011, p. 17 under the title ‘Varied, volatile and voracious.’

By Roy Hay

Even framing the question, ‘What is going on in the Middle East?’, is a misleading way to start to answer it. It tends to lump together countries and events in a way that implies that they are going through similar experiences and are a relatively homogenous group, whereas there are huge differences between the countries and their populations and the challenges they face. Certainly there are common elements and events in one area have certainly influenced what happened elsewhere. But our natural tendency to seek common patterns in strange goings on might be a handicap in this case.

The political arrangements in the various countries range from functioning democracies like Israel and Turkey to theocratically controlled states like Iran, familial dictatorships in Libya and dynastic monarchical ones, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. So when popular uprisings break through the existing systems of control it should not be expected that they would all take the same form or seek the same outcomes. Some groups would probably be content with reforms to weed out corruption and the feathering of nests by regimes, while others seek a complete overthrow of the existing rulers. In some of the Gulf States, for example, the relationships between the imported workers who provide the vast bulk of the labour force and the domestic population have become matters of serious contention.

Underlying many of the popular movements is an increasing awareness of the huge disparities in income between the mass of the people and their rulers. In others it is the new middle class who are seeking to turn their increasing economic strength into functioning political influence.

It is interesting and a trifle hypocritical of the American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to say the other day that democracy is the birthright of every man, woman and child on the planet. The USA, like many western countries, has a track record of supporting, and indeed putting in place, dictatorial regimes in the face of popular opposition. The Russian ambassador to Tehran has also announced that his country supports the popular movements, but Russia has been much less keen on demands for autonomy by Chechens and others within its own sprawling empire. It is not surprising that many in the Libyan movement have not welcomed threats or plans for foreign military intervention, even though Muammar Gaddafi is fighting hard and bloodily to retain power. In Egypt the overthrow of Mubarak has been achieved virtually without foreign involvement and with relatively little killing on either side, though the shape of the new political arrangements is still unclear.

The range of groups involved in the popular movements is also stunningly wide. They cover religious fundamentalists, sectarians, nationalists, tribalists, economic reformers, socialists and goodness knows how many other interests. Often the only common element is opposition to the existing regime. Rulers have profited from some of these divisions and indeed have exploited them to retain their power. Just because people have been kept in subservience for years does not mean in the modern world that they will continue to tolerate that.

Another key division is gender. Women in some countries, Egypt for example, had already achieved many of the rights we take for granted, whereas in others discrimination remains appalling. Women have been to the fore in many of the popular movements, often leaving the males in the rear as they marched and demonstrated.

The interesting elements today include the demonstration effects of revolts in neighbouring countries and the impact of modern technologies. The almost instant spread of information and the awareness of what is happening elsewhere makes for high levels of volatility as well as the potential for common action, though many optimists in the west are likely to be disappointed with the outcomes. There is likely to be as much variety in those as there is in the composition of the popular movements now taking part in the uprisings.

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