home Middle East, Politics Revolution or Reform? Fear and Protest in the Middle East

Revolution or Reform? Fear and Protest in the Middle East

“People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people” – V for Vendetta

It has only been two weeks since the Arab world, quite literally in some instances, caught on fire. Less than one month ago, former Tunisian despot Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with the uncontested iron fist of a twenty-three long dictatorship, perpetuating an administration of human rights violations, media censorship, and corrupt economic policy. As long as his people were silent, his reign remained absolute and unquestioned

Then Mohammad Bouazizi lit himself on fire, igniting a revolution that changed everything.

Riots erupted in Tunisia. Countless young men and women who were in Bouazizi’s position –young, highly educated adults who could not find work that fit their qualifications flooded the streets, violently condemning the government corruption that created these conditions. After weeks of relentless protests that seemed far more reminiscent of revolutionary bread riots that resembled the beginnings of a peoples’ revolution far more than the strictly regimented displays of “freedom of speech” that the twenty-first century “protest” has become, Ben Ali finally stepped down and promptly fled to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia’s success infected the entire Arab world. It was not long before all eyes turned to Egypt as Egyptians, inspired by the Tunisians, organized a “day of rage,” the first of a string of relentless protests demanding to end President Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year dictatorship of corrupt policies, and allow a functional democratic process in Egypt.

Though Egypt’s first day of mass demonstrations was immortalized by the Twitter hashtag #Jan25, the protests have continued and grown, most recently culminating in a “march of millions” throughout Cairo. Despite the Egyptian peoples’ extreme persistence, President Mubarak still refuses to immediately resign his position, and instead unsuccessfully tried to appease the protestors by selecting a new government. This obvious manipulation infuriated the protestors even more, inspiring an explosion of more demonstrations throughout Egypt and solidarity protests organized by activists from around the world holding signs reading slogans such as, “Same dictator, new government = same prostitute, new underwear.”

Political media has begun to envision this “Arab Intifada” as a string of dominoes, one successful peoples’ revolt against their oppressive regime successively toppling the next. Who is next?

Some might say Jordan.

For the past three weeks, Jordanians have also been taking to the streets. Though their protests are in the thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands (due to a variety of factors, including population size, less concentrated urban populations, and a much smaller Internet culture minimizing the prevalence of social media organization), many of their demands are reminiscent of those of the Egyptians and Tunisians. For one, as victims of “modernized” neoliberal economic policies, they suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates. Their national deficit is at a record high of 1.2 billion dollars, and inflation has increased from 1.5 to six percent in the past month alone.

Many Jordanians blamed Prime Minister Samir Rifai for being profit-driven and employing economic policies that unfairly taxed the working class and exacerbated their economic misery. Following the example of the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Jordanians rallied to the streets demanding his resignation.

Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordanian King Abdullah II quickly listened to his people, firing and replacing Prime Minster Samir Rifai and his entire cabinet.  In his place, he appointed former Prime Minister Maarouf Bakhit, a former Jordanian Prime Minister and ambassador to Israel.

It is not exactly what his people wanted. Ideally, they want the Prime Minister to become an elected, rather than royally appointed position. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that King Abdullah II is the first of the Arab leaders to respond preemptively to the will of his people, acknowledging that the Jordanian government is far from immune to the power of its citizens.

Perhaps he is genuinely trying to effectively govern Jordan by selecting someone who he thinks would fit the needs of the people. Perhaps he is carefully trying to avoid becoming the next Mubarak, giving inevitable concessions while he is still in a relative position of power and dignity. Either way, these events in Jordan demonstrate that of all the “democracies” in the world, it is Tunisia and Egypt that are teaching the Arab world that governments should be afraid of their people.

Jordan’s relatively peaceful protests also add a new dimension to this string of protests, suggesting that after the crushing tidal waves of political dissent and radical change throughout the Middle East, protesting may be becoming a component of a political dialogue, rather than a symbol of instability that must be quenched by riot police and arrests.

Unless the new Prime Minister quickly proves himself to be radically different from the old one, Jordan’s protests will most likely continue. Whether they will expand and become more violent or whether they will only be sustained by a persistent and mobilized minority remains yet to be seen.

What we do know is that Jordan is not over. Egypt is far from over. Tunisia, though it has come so far during past two weeks, is perhaps the furthest from over of all.

However, most of the stories from the Middle East have yet to even begin.

photo by M. Soi, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license