The Middle East is a fascinating part of the world. To those outside, it looks like a land that is constantly in turmoil. For those that have had the pleasure of living or visiting, the truth couldn't be further.
Despite the geopolitical issues around Israel/Iraq that mar the region, peace prevails by and large within the borders of these nation-states. Most rulers are self-appointed, and maintain a tight grip over dissent. They've done well in the last 4 decades. With most of the economies booming, abundance of resources, favours of the West and a large supply of expatriate labour and for some tourism, there's always been enough distraction for the common Arab to stay preoccupied. They sell the oil, or their sponsorship over businesses run by foreigners; they make the money; they buy fast cars and gadgets; they take trips to Europe and have personal shoppers. Enough of them do anyway.
I call these lands politically dead. Besides small pockets of dissent that are quickly and easily eliminated, not very much goes on in the way of political expression.
It is a ginormous surprise, therefore, to see the uprisings at the scale that they are occurring. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen... Every ruler on the Arabian peninsula must be dumbfounded and furiously mobilising the state machinery in case of disorder, while transferring large amounts of assets (and wives?) abroad (just in case) - I'll say watch the price of the US dollar rise in the coming weeks.
Egypt's a fascinating example. Hosni Mubarak, in bed with the West, has essentially been the Chiefton for over 3 decades. My generation hasn't lived in a time he wasn't. Of those 31 years, he's been, one has to really admire the man for having successfully bottled and locked away any semblances of civil liberties, through a continuous period of state of emergency rules. [Hell, one winter of Emergency+ created a havoc in Pakistan read:this space]
While opposition forces, long silenced, are trying to piggyback on this tide, the belief that this can be done 1 country away (Tunisia) and an increasing awareness resulting from the proliferation of knowledge courtesy the internet, are the true leaders.
The advent of the world wide web was seen as a minor nuisance by most rulers (note: on a very academic level, I cannot refer to them as leaders), with blanket censorship being rolled out to tackle the evils of pornography and 'blasphemous' content. To their credit, the energy and interest of the masses was focused quite heavily on the former anyway - so good place to regulate. However, with time, that focus became irrelevant, as people got exposure to what was happening outside their borders in a regular and instant manner. An entire generation has grown up having juxtaposed their own reality with that of the world at large. Whoops!
It's also intriguing to see the use of social networking as the primary forum of organisation in this movement (be proud Zucky boy!). However, we're far from the achievement of liberty and pursuit of happiness in Arabia for the moment. Even if this isn't just a prolonged flash in the pan, while the masses have mobilised, it will take further academic and political leadership and organisation in order to replace the current system with a new order, and there's likely to be too large a vacuum to fill.
Perhaps it was an early morning class at university that we were discussing Samuel Huntington's take on how one must achieve order prior to democracy, and then further conversation occurred around the preconditions of democracy .. yada yada.. I am a vehement opposer. Democracy necessarily has to be a process of learning. And the region is taking its first significant step towards that - one that demands admiration and respect.
It won't be easy; it probably won't result in a radical immediate regime change; it will leave that region transformed and its current rulers weak and nervous. Perhaps some hope that the predominantly 'muslim world' can actually taste the values of freedom and right to self-determination and not be resigned as being 'incapable to govern themselves'.
[Full collection of images at tinycoolpix.com]