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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)