Kick-starting reform

2011-02-08 00:00

MANY Egyptians have yearned for change for years, especially the expansion of political freedoms and economic opportunities. But it is only now that this is translating into active demands and civil disobedience. Why has it not happened in the past? Why is it happening now? And what is the impact of this on the region and world politics?

The youth bulge has given impetus to this movement against governments led by strong men like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Muammar Gaddaffi in Libya, the late Saddam Hussein in Iraq and kings in countries like Jordan and Morocco.

For a long time now, these dictators projected themselves as saviours who helped their countries avoid inevitable meltdown in the period of instability in the region during the sixties and seventies.

While in Tunisia Ali saw the writing on the wall and jumped earlier than expected, Mubarak has remained resolute in the belief that the country cannot be stable when he is not at the helm.

Last week, he issued a statement promising gradual reforms and undertook not to run for the next elections. But this is hardly a compromise for he knows that he is unlikely to be voted back anyway. Rightly, protesters are having none of this: they want him out now.

It must be amazing audacity and self-belief that drove him to want to dictate the terms of a revolution against him, especially as even his allies in Washington called for an "immediate" transition, thus opposing his gradual reform idea.

Sensing the shift in the balance of power within Egypt and wary of a rise in extremism, President Barack Obama has changed his tune. As he watched Egyptians demonstrate their sense of agency, Obama must have remembered his "Yes, we can" slogan. Yes, the people can bring about change and drive a process of democratic reform.

Of course, the United States's Middle East policy has for the past four decades hinged on alliances with strong, but undemocratic regimes like Mubarak's. It feared that a true democratic process could actually put Islamists in power and undermine Israel's security.

This fear is the reason big powers propped up unpopular dictatorships for decades. In spite of U.S. commitment to democracy as a central tenet of its foreign policy, when it comes to the Middle East the policy favours U.S. interests over values or norms.

This ambiguity has now come out for all to see. Both Democrats and Republicans have promised to change this. This may have emboldened Egyptian youths to be drivers of that change, knowing that in the U.S they will get the support of the most powerful actor in the region.

But it now turns out that the U.S. is equivocal. It started with an expression of hope that Mubarak's response to the problem would succeed, but shifted to concern and then a call for transition.

Effectively, the agency of poor Egyptians is not just causing political change in the country, but heralding reforms in the U.S. policy on the Middle East. For this reason, this revolution may have as significant an impact on this policy as the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours four decades ago.

We should all be worried that the turn of events in that region remain dominated by Western powers, notwithstanding the idea that global power is shifting from the West to the East.

The African Union is conspicuous by its silence. It could not seriously discuss the matter at its last summit because the AU did not get a report from the region as is customary in its processes.

It has neither issued a standard statement on the situation nor initiated an intervention of sorts, especially one that assures North Africans that they belong to the community of African nations.

I do not know of a visit by AU officials to kick-start AU diplomacy with the new forces. The AU Commission and the Peace and Security Council seem not to have accorded this crisis the attention it deserves.

Mubarak has received calls from Washington, London, Brussels, Paris and other Western capitals, but none from an African head of state, as far we can tell.

African people in various parts of the continent have acted more wisely, coming out into the street in solidarity with change makers. They show a deeper understanding of the wave of reforms than African governments that are wary of taking positions before Mubarak falls.

South Africa is also yet to announce publicly its position on the crisis, especially whether it encourages mass uprising against dictatorships or favours negotiated processes.

It is unwise to argue as some do that the ructions taking place in North Africa are particular to that region and are unlikely to spread south.

All complacent and dictatorial states should be worried that aggrieved citizens can take matters into their own hands.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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