It started with Tunisia and the improbable actions of one computer science graduate forced to sell fruits in order to support his family. Mohammed Bouazizi had been humiliated time and again by a system that forced him onto the streets of a small town called Sidi Bouzid, in the heart of Tunisia, a town now captured forever in horrific imagery. He made his living plying an unlikely trade as a fruit seller. His sufferings due to injustice culminated in one macabre act of self-immolation on December 17, 2010. Remember where you were and what you were doing on that day, for future history books will now add that day to the roster of events that changed the world.
Unimaginable that one person’s self-inflicted act of violence could topple an entire government! Several pundits have weighed in on Bouazizi’s irrational act as originating from a delusional and disordered personality. If so, it is a disorder that lives benign and hidden in most of us, for we have not yet been tested.
Tunisia’s message was heard most audibly in Egypt where the youth and yeomen rebelled against three decades of authoritarianism. Bouazizi’s torturous expiration was heralded as inspirational and the streets of Cairo, and Alexandria began to fill and then spill with zealotry and fervency.
The rumbles and rumors of unrest spread to Jordan and then to Yemen. Arab leaders began looking back in an attempt to rear-guard, re-calibrate, review and re-message past performance rather than anticipate future promotion.
As with any tense situation, there’s always the official statement that is released to us, the people of the world. Here’s an analysis of a few official words.
The United States
First it was Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s appeal for orderly transition. With masses of people taking to the streets of Cairo in protest could there ever be orderliness? Then President Obama’s statement on Feb 1st, which took into account the roiling masses of Egyptians demanding reform, and his speech acknowledged his delivered message to Hosni Mubarak that, “the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place.” The message came only after it became clearly apparent which side had the upper moral hand. Too little, too late. “Change,” was one of two words (the other being hope) that were on people’s lips when he swept into office defying all odds and limning the greatness of this democratic nation. Then hope disappeared lost in the inflammatory rhetoric of a gun-toting, Russia-sighting, blood-libel spewing Alaskan mother and her followers. Change is going the way of hope.
Belatedly, and with a wait-and-watch stance that ill-became one of the largest democracies of the world, India declared an official position on the Egypt crisis on Feb 1, the day of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, with an anesthetized confirmation of the “articulation of the aspirations of the Egyptian people for reform.” The words of the External Affairs Ministry were judiciously and cautiously couched with the deluded expectation that nothing would or could churn the Mubarak regime, much less turn it over. Events are yet to prove decisive, yet the riveting images and news reports, if nothing else, merited something more involved than a passive-voiced declaration.
The United Kingdom
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister stated it with dissemblance, “If it turns out that the regime in any way has sponsored or tolerated this violence, that is completely unacceptable.” The conditional if-clause safely giving him an out, no matter the TV images and the classified reports that he was probably privy to. Julian Assange, where are you?
Ever vigilant, the Chinese government dutifully erased and continues to erase all references to any kind of popular revolt whether Egypt, Tunisia, or Tiananmen, that could spark the courage and imagination of another Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese Communist Party had this scoffing comment to make of the Middle East agitation, “Democracy is still far away for Tunisia and Egypt. The success of a democracy takes concrete foundations in economy, education and social issues.”
The President of the French Republic released a statement on Wednesday, Feb 2, 2011—after he’d had enough time to analyze Hosni Mubarak’s address the previous day, and the public response to the address. Admittedly, Sarkozy’s message was more definitive. “The President of the [French] Republic reiterates his desire for a concrete transition process to begin without delay that will respond to the desire for change and renewal expressed with forces by the population.” However, timing was his problem. A leader’s words set the tone of urgency and immediacy to any crisis. There was no immediacy to the statement.
In Dmitry Medvedev’s opinion the crisis in Egypt is for Egyptians to worry about. Why does the world have to weigh in on an internal matter? The official statement from Kremlin was just an “outside our jurisdiction,” pitch: “…that the current difficult period in the life of friendly Egypt would soon be overcome through a peaceful and legal settlement of the current problems.” Such an insular view reveals that the Kremlin dislikes interference in its own internal affairs, as do most nations. On the surface, the euphemistic words could merely imply that Russia doesn’t really care what happens in Egypt. But, deeper analysis discloses that Russia is possibly worried about Mubarak’s ouster, for Egypt’s status as a ‘friendly’ nation was because of Mubarak’s policies and its hope that Mubarak quickly find a way to shut the populace up and maintain the tenuous hold on peace in the Middle East.
The one country that has enormous vested interests in the region is tongue-tied and fearful. With an uncertain outcome in Egypt, relations between the two countries, as defined by the Peace Treaty of 1979, could potentially be at risk. Physically surrounded by Arab nations, uncertainty from Egypt would just add to the bleakness of the political landscape in Israel. Mubarak had been looked upon as a “maintainer of peace,” in the region. With his ouster, an Islamist organization could take control. If, on the other hand, Mubarak defies and denies the voice of the street and continues on, it would be a considerably chastened, weakened and, hence, more volatile Mubarak that Israel would have to deal with. Silence might just be the best policy for Israel.
In Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen’s view, “the dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.” We are all watching with eyes wide shut as this nightmare unfolds and morning is still too far away in the horizon. The biggest fear for the Middle East peace process is if Egypt falls into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel would then put pressure on the United States. The United States would impose sanctions on Egypt; Egypt would withdraw from the Peace Treaty, and join other incensed Arab nations. The only problem with formulating a cohesive Arab strategy is that there is no single unifying voice among Arab nations. Let’s hope and pray that that voice is not a radical voice.
But in the meantime, we wait for someone, some great leader, who has the courage to step up and articulate a strong message to the world—a message that is real and honest, and takes into account the volatile variables of politics, religion, history, geography, economy and military might.
Photo Credit: Frame Maker via Creative Commons