W Asian instability is radiating outwards

Last Updated : 11 February 2018, 18:02 IST
Last Updated : 11 February 2018, 18:02 IST

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Egypt has reverted to full-scale military rule in the seven years since millions of Egyptians staged the most dramatic popular uprising on the face of the globe. Egyptians stormed Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square on January 25, 2011,
and over the next 17 days demanded the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been president for 30 years. Although Tunisia became the first Arab state to depose its dictator, Egypt became the trendsetter.

Egyptians captured the imagination of the world when satellite television broadcast images of them protesting peacefully or facing the onslaught of black-clad, heavily armed riot police. After the entire country rose up, he capitulated and handed over to the military. Protesters remained in the streets demanding "Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice."

None of these demands were met but Egyptians did get a brief taste of democracy when they voted for parliament in late 2011 and for president in 2012. Unfortunately, Egypt's only organised political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won most seats in parliament and the presidency, ushering in a period of instability and violence exploited by the military to return to power in the person of ex-armed forces commander-in-chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

In mid-2014, he won the presidency by a landslide, promising to bring security to Egypt after more than three years of turmoil caused by the uprising, the Brotherhood's power grab, and deadly terrorist attacks by radical fundamentalists allied to IS. Sisi has jailed Brotherhood leaders and members and cracked down on progressive young men and women who made the uprising which, ultimately, brought him to power.

As he opened his campaign for re-election at the end of March, he made it clear that "the people" will not have another chance to bring down the country's leadership. He stated, "What happened seven or eight years ago will never happen again in Egypt." He has obviously never heard the saying, "Never say never." Certainly not in West Asian politics.

He is determined to outflank critics, opponents and dissidents. Half a dozen potential electoral rivals - two of them serious challengers - have been either jailed, intimidated or otherwise prevented from entering the presidential race. Sisi is set to stand against Mousa Mustafa Mousa who heads the small Ghad party and had, until deciding to enter the race, backed Sisi, who has castigated eight political parties and dozens of non-governmental organisations calling for a boycott of the election.

It is ironic that Mousa has joined the campaign. In the last presidential race under Mubarak, in 2005, the only serious contender was the founder of Ghad, Ayman Nour, who was jailed for his presumption.

The other eight candidates in the 2005 contest, Egypt's first multi-party poll, secured fractions of the vote. Turn-out was low, said to be between 17-30%, with Mubarak taking 80% of that vote. During his long reign, participation in parliamentary elections was 10%. Egypt has come full circle from the reign of an air force chief to rule by an army intelligence officer.

Like Egypt, other countries of West Asia caught up in the Arab Spring have either been subjected to deepening authoritarianism or torn apart by warfare. During 2011, Arabs cherished the hope that democracy might prevail in a region where autocracy has been the norm for more than 60 years. There is no "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice."

Tunisia remains the only country to have adopted a democratic model but today its government remains under threat from protests over unemployment and the rising cost of living. Islamic State is feeding off the discontents of jobless young men on the margins of society.

Yemen suffered more than three years of instability before and after the 2012 ouster of veteran ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh. This was followed by a rebellion by northern tribesmen against his Saudi-sponsored successor and a war on the rebels prosecuted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Divided and devastated Yemen has become the world's most horrendous humanitarian disaster.

In Syria, unrest morphed into full-scale civil war in 2011 after the government cracked down on protesters. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Western powers intervened with the aim of toppling the government which survived due to support from Iran and Russia. Warfare continues, although IS - which infiltrated from conflicted Iraq and took root in Syria in 2014 - has largely been defeated.

Protests by Bahrain's Shia majority against repressive rule by a Sunni monarch were put down by the kingdom's security forces bolstered by Pakistani officers and men and by Saudi and Emirati army units.

Regional destabilisation has shaken Gulf states, where the number of Indians in employment is falling. Saudi Arabia has come under the one-man-rule of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan, the king's favourite son and heir, who intends to replace skilled foreign workers with Saudis.

The strategic land bridge between Europe and the Indian Sub-Continent, West Asia, has been transformed from a political partner and trading hub into the source of discord and destruction threatening India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Indonesia to the east as well as Europe to the west.

Published 11 February 2018, 18:00 IST

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