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A second Arab revolution - for a new social order

Monday February 21, 2011 05:39:55 PM, Harold A. Gould, IANS

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The uprising in Egypt, and in Tunisia before it, and the current ferment in the Middle East, is much more than just a random eruption or two of public discontent with stray military dictators and corrupt politicians today. It is the commencement of the second wave of the Arab liberation movement. In the first wave, the Arabs liberated themselves from colonial powers and foreign domination.

Now what we witness throughout the region is the commencement of a new phase in historical evolution that portends a sea change to the face of southern Asia and indeed even beyond.

It is driven by an emerging new genre of grassroots political mobilisation, whose core social composition is a younger generation of better educated, twitter-savvy youth whom the established political regimes have largely disdained or taken for granted, and whose quest is for a new social order shorn of the time-worn ideological cliches of conventional politics and based upon a genuine desire to achieve democracy and human rights.

If true, to paraphrase William Shakespeare: "This is a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Since the end of World War II, the United States has found itself on the wrong side of almost every grassroots popular political movement in the Middle East and the Third World generally. Mindsets spawned by the Cold War were responsible for this.

It is because almost every popular political movement in the Third World, wherever it occurred, especially in the southern tier of Asia, was viewed in conventional power politics terms as a purported threat to vital American security and material interests whose resolution required a militarised grand strategy instead of a more nuanced policy that factored management of popular unrest into the political equation.

It just seemed easier to forge alliances with whichever faction or group in any given country that controlled the military class and could therefore assure the suppression of the kind of grassroots political turmoil that could threaten "order" and "stability" - the stuff which nice, neat authoritarian political regimes beholden to US largesse were especially qualified to deliver in the short run.

The starting point of this political predilection was the US-engineered overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh's democratic government in Iran in 1953. Setting up the autocratic Shah was thought by America's cold warriors of the day to be a safer bet than nurturing relations with a "messy" regime whose populism would require more deft and subtle handling lest it get "out of hand" down the road and prove to be vulnerable to Communist bloc manipulation or some other form of post-colonial radicalism.

In a sense this preference for "stable" dictatorships over open, unabashedly democratic polities achieved an early climax in Pakistan where the US, during the Dulles era, opted for enabling that country's emerging military-dominated feudal political class to build a military machine out of all proportion to its intra-regional security requirements, rather than encouraging the crystallisation of a viably democratic, secular, civil society - all this in the name of deterring a dubious "Communist threat" to the region, and creating a political counterfoil to Nehruvian India's non-alignment policy, which actually posed no significant threat whatsoever to the American regional or global security interests.

This legacy of militarised grand strategy is the main reason why the Obama administration has found itself groping for the right message to deliver, in the face of the Egyptian, and before it the Tunisian, popular uprising.

For more than half a century American leaders regardless of party affiliation had contradisposed grand strategy to the policy requirements needed to nurture the evolution of secularism and viable civil society in the countries which were singled out as vital to the nation's security.

It was invariably a regrettable choice that never needed to be made, indeed should not have been made, because it consistently led to policy disasters culminating in Iran-contra, Vietnam, Iraq, and currently Afghanistan-Pakistan, that have come home to roost with monotonous and disastrous regularity.

The next instance may be Egypt and what follows if the US does not at long last get things right.

A post-anti-colonialist revolution is brewing in the southern Asian tier and the US needs to prepare for the political and doctrinal form it is destined to take. President Hosni Mubarak's departure provides the US with a golden opportunity to get things moving in a new political direction.

First and foremost, the dawning new political order is a stunning refutation of the assumptions which drove the Bush-era neo-con delusion that the "American way of politics and consumerism" must be imposed from the top through a combination of military muscle and unholy alliances with squalid political dictatators.

The modern and modernising masses in the grassroots of contemporary Arab/Muslim societies are demonstrating in Egypt and elsewhere that they are now ready to seize destiny in their hands on their own and run with it; and the direction they want to go is toward open, democratic polities where social justice, equal opportunity and material well-being prevail.

If Egypt is any criterion, then the political formations that will facilitate these changes will occur in legislative bodies which to varying degrees replicate the Indian rather than the American constitutional model. That is, representative government, devoid of military dictators, will consist of coalitions formed by a federality of sub-national, ethno-religious, mercantile, feudal, and ultra-urban classes, all vying for a place in the political sun.

The United States will be compelled to recognise, accept and shape its foreign policy to accommodate this emergent political reality.

So let Phase Two of the post-colonial revolution begin!

(Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be contacted at





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