By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal
The proverbial Arab street is back in action. After Tunisia, it is now Egypt’s turn: the old and experienced Hosni Mubarak is facing the strongest challenge to his thirty-year-old tyranny. But one must pause here before the hyperbole gets out of hand: Is it real? Is there anything more to it than the excitement caused by the cyber world of newspapers, twitter and facebook?
Had it not been for the so-called Jasmine revolution of Tunisia, one could have easily dismissed all the hype about the Arab street in revolt, but what happened in Tunisia makes it slightly difficult to do so. To be sure, there has been a change in Tunisia, leading to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who stepped down from the presidency and fled Tunisia on 14 January 2011 after 23 years in power. But is this revolt in the Arab street going to spread to the other countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which have two-thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves? As analysts from around the world watch events unfolding in Egypt to see if this new Arab street revolt is a bubble that will burst in Cairo, we have it from none other than the Secretary of State that all is well. So, what does this mean?
In non-diplomatic language, it means: do not worry old chap; we are firmly behind you. Your expiry date has not come yet. In not so simple a language, it means that the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia was a calculated move; poor Ben Ali had reached his expiry date and a change was orchestrated under controlled conditions. No, this is not another conspiracy theory; all one needs to do is look at the remaking of the power clique in Tunisia to understand how this Jasmine Revolution perfectly fits the strategy outlined by Richard Nixon in his 1992 book, Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower World.
Nixon had candidly admitted that in the Muslim world, “demographic, economic, and political trends make conflict increasingly inevitable” and he had advocated a control strategy that revolved around building special relationships with the most modern and moderate Islamic countries, so that they may become “poles of attraction” in the Muslim world. The four countries he selected were Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan. He believed that over a generation their success would have a profound effect on political evolution elsewhere. “Now that Communism is dead,” he wrote, “we must redefine the American global mission.”
The Nixon Doctrine, establishing proxies of American power around the world, had a further policy imperative: build working relations with “moderate Muslims” around the world. Ben Ali was a perfect model. Behind the fine-tuned, over-simplified gloss lay yet another detail: attach to every “moderate” Muslim an expiry date and take action before that expiry date and replace the soon-to-expire dictator with another setup which will bring new faces to power but ensure continuity of the underline grid. That is exactly what has happened in Tunisia. Old Ben Ali is gone, not because a Jasmine revolution, but simply because he had reached his expiry date. It was imperative to remove him to save the system and the system he had constructed is firmly in place, even though he has escaped with his millions amassed over two decades of plunder.
Hosni Mubarak’s expiry date is not in sight, if we are to believe the Secretary of State’s strong words. Another problem is the lack of a substitute; no one trusts his hated son and although there is the old and tried hand of Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was once considered a substitute for Mubarak, but he is too old for the job and he has already done enough for America by overseeing its Iraq invasion.
Thus the Arab street may be in revolt, but it is a revolt without a leadership and a revolt without a leadership is like a body without a head. No matter what happens on the Arab street, ultimately Uncle Sam is fully in control and challenge to power without a visionary leadership will lead to chaos. But even that chaos has a function: it dissipates built up anger—some Nixon had advised in his book. He had argued that from time to time, the United States must let provide escape routes to the built up anger, so that things remain within proportions. That is exactly what we are seeing: an escape valve that is allowing the Arab frustration to dissipate on the streets, leading to no real change.
There is only one real unreal in this equation: The very large percentage of young people in MENA region, desperate for jobs, food, and housing. This factor may change the old scenario and upset the equation. The youth bulge and concomitant demands on the labor force, educational, housing, health, and other social systems are putting enormous pressure on the old system. As the youth bulge reaches prime family-formation age in each country, the number of births is likely to increase, fueling considerable future growth. The population on the Arabian Peninsula is projected to double to 124 million by 2050. Iraq and the Palestinian Territory will more than double in size. Iran and Turkey are slated to have about 100 million people each. In North Africa, Egypt will continue to dominate demographically, with a population exceeding 120 million.
This population explosion—and complexity built into this process—may one day give birth to a genuine Arab street revolt with a direction and aim; that day has not come yet. All we have for now is either senseless and leaderless street revolts leading to dissipation of energy, or a controlled process to change of those faces whose expiry date has come.
Muzaffar Iqbal is the founder-president of Center for Islam and Science (www.cis-ca.org), Canada, and editor of Islam & Science, a semi-annual journal of Islamic perspectives on science and civilization. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry (University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1983), and then left the field of experimental science to fully devote himself to study Islam, its spiritual, intellectual and scientific traditions.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he has lived in Canada since 1979. He has held academic and research positions at University of Saskatchewan (1979-1984), University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-85), and McGill University (1986). During 1990-1999, he pursued his research and study on various aspects of Islam in Pakistan, where he also worked as Director, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) between 1991-96 and as Director, Pakistan Academy of Sciences (1998-99).
During 1999-2001, Dr. Iqbal was Program Director (Muslim World) for the Science-Religion Course Program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), Berkeley, USA.
Dr. Iqbal has published books and papers on the relationship between Islam and science, Islam and the West, the contemporary situation of Muslims, and the history of Islamic science.
His publications include Islam and Science, God, Life and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives , Science and Islam, Dawn in Madinah: A Pilgrim’s Passage , The Making of Islamic Science (IBT, 2009) and a few more titles.
He is the General Editor of the forthcoming seven-volume Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, the first English language reference work on the Qur’an based on fourteen centuries of Muslim reflection and scholarship. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.