Crossing the Nile
Notwithstanding ancient wisdom that tells us not to rush where angels fear to tread, it is impossible not to reflect upon the hurricane of change sweeping across West Asia. The massive popular protests in Egypt defying curfew with over 150 dead and thousands injured continue to swell demanding the ouster of the three-decade-long regime of Hosni Mubarak with the hope of a better livelihood for the people. On January 14, popular upsurge ousted the Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years in power. Similar upsurges have erupted in Yemen and Jordan. Irrespective of how these developments will finally unfold, it is clear that a very major transformation process is underway.
These developments, spellbindingly broadcast by Al-Jazeera that has been battling many obstacles, reminds us of the immortal words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (incidentally, whose birth centenary India must commemorate more expressively this year):
'Ai khaak nasheeno uth baitho woh waqt qareeb aa punhcha hai
Jab takht girae-e jaaen ge, jab taj uchchaale jaaen ge
Ab toot girain gi zanjeerain ab zindano ki khair naheen
Jo darya jhoom ke uthay hain, tinko se nah taaley jaain ge'
(Arise the downtrodden, that time has arrived
When thrones will be toppled, crowns will be tossed,
All chains will now shatter, jails can no longer confine,
Rivers in spate cannot be controlled by blades of grass)
Apart from being subjected to authoritarian rule for decades, the people of these countries have suffered severely during the last two years of the global economic crisis. Egypt and Jordan have been touted as darlings of economic reforms by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and are deeply integrated with the global economy. The global financial crisis had a devastating impact as three million in Egypt and half a million in Jordan are directly employed in this sector. Egypt's revenues from the Suez canal, tourism and exports took a deep hit leading to a sharp decline in the GDP growth. Youth unemployment, which was already at 34 % in 2005, sharply increased.
Jordan's economic growth fell from 7.9 to 2.8% between 2008 and 2009. The impact of these hardships is the immediate backdrop that was triggered by WikiLeaks revelations that showed the enormous difference in the way the rulers lived and the people suffered leading to the self-immolation of a youth that triggered the Tunisian uprising.
Clearly, the 'New World Order' that the United States sought to create post-Cold War is crumbling. More importantly, the US's capacity to determine world events appears to have weakened considerably. The US, in the past, had intervened unscrupulously in many countries, particularly in West Asia, to safeguard its strategic global interests. The overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, by a CIA-led coup in 1953 after the country nationalised its oil, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and the installation of pro-US regimes permitted imperialism to safeguard its three basic concerns in the region: holding the reins of control over the oil resources, maintaining control over the Suez canal so crucial for the movement of western cargo and US military movements, and cementing Israel's pre-eminent military superiority in the region.
Egypt was to serve as the lynchpin for this strategy to succeed. In return, since the 1978 Camp David accord, Egypt received over $ 35 billion of military aid from Washington, the largest after Israel. It receives on an average $ 2 billion a year as 'other' aid.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the US, that self-declared protector of human rights, democracy and human values, is very cautious in its reactions to the turmoil in West Asia. Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan - they all have pro-US regimes. But they are a different kettle of fish from Egypt. On January 30, the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama, "at least for now" is talking short of calling for Mubarak's resignation. However, as is by now familiar to the world, he has spoken of the "universal rights" of the people of Egypt and West Asia etc etc.
While not openly articulating a regime change in Egypt, the US is preparing to retain its strategic control through various alternatives. Clearly, the Islamist scarecrow of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover has not worked. Mubarak's appointment of his long-serving intelligence head, Omar Suleiman as vice-president, ostensibly to neutralise the army has not cut much ice as any meaningful reform with the people. Now all eyes are turned on the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt after a long stint abroad, heading what he calls the National Association for Change.
The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly has also supported him to lead the negotiations with the regime for economic and social reforms and the lifting of the three-decade emergency rule. Conscious of the fact that no Nobel Peace Prize is awarded without the explicit support of the US, addressing the 60th session of the UN General Assembly in October 2005 while felicitating the IAEA under ElBaradei's leadership on behalf of India, for receiving this recognition, I had said, "We are confident that, as a distinguished son of a developing country, Dr ElBaradei will continue to understand the South's problems as well as its aspirations." This needs to be underlined in the event he eventually becomes the interlocutor.
For generations, the peoples of the Arab countries, despite their longstanding sacrifices and struggles, have been repeatedly thwarted from achieving a radical shift in their countries. This cannot be allowed to happen once again. It is clear that this popular upsurge in West Asia has been sparked by the acute impoverishment that has sharply escalated during the current global recession. Such obscenely widening inequalities are also finding reflection in our country in the growing gap between 'IPL India' and 'BPL India'. Are we being forewarned?
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal