Tag Archives: Tunisia

Better a king than a president in the Middle East

Can a king be a king without a crown? Yes say kings Al-Khalifa of Bahrain and Abdulla II of Jordan. (Pic: LIFE)

In the end, titles are important, especially if you are a despotic Middle Eastern ruler. A quick survey shall illustrate:

Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya: all run by Presidents-for-life. The protests which have rocked/are rocking these countries, while very different in origin and nature, have a common theme – they all demand the exit of the president himself.

Bahrain, Jordan*: both run by monarchs. I’m not too sure about Bahrain, but certainly in Jordan the King is the centre of power. Yet in both these countries the protesters have been very careful to emphasise that they are not protesting the monarch, but rather the government (which was appointed by the monarch). One protestor (a Bahraini blogger) tweeted today: “Just to clear things up, nobody wants AlKhalifa [the king] out. Hell, I would rather they rule Bahrain than anyone else. We just want our rights.”

It’s a curious position. While presidents-for-life have their legitimacy conferred by rigged elections, monarchs have theirs conferred by the pomp and ceremony of royalty, but their powers and influence on the state amount to much the same thing. But, right now at least, I’d rather be a king than a president – if, of course, I was an authoritarian Middle Eastern ruler trying to maintain a firm grip on power. Which I’m not.

* It will be interesting to see what the protestors in Morocco are going to say, another monarchy with big protests planned for Feb 20th.

** An underestimated side-benefit of monarchy is the ability to pass on power to your son without question (it’s always the son). Mubarak had such problems trying to prepare Egypt to accept his son Gamal as president; if he’d merely been handing the crown over, would there have been any fuss at all?

***This whole theory failed miserably for the Shah of Iran, the last Czar, and Louis XVI. Or perhaps they were just so bad that even their royal aura couldn’t help them.

VERDICT: Titles go forth, says Dr. Third World Goes Forth.

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Why Mubarak isn’t warming Idi Amin’s spare bed – yet

It’s tempting to see what’s happening in Egypt as a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. In both countries, a simple and powerful narrative has emerged  – the oppressed masses, living in the shadow of a venal, cruel and autocratic regime, finally throw off their shackles through waves of popular protest which are broadcast live on Al-Jazeera. The revolution will be televised. Egypt, being bigger, and Mubarak being more cynical, is taking a little longer and provoking more violence; but in essense, Egypt is mirroring Tunisia’s experience.

In the subtleties, the situations are a little more complicated. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why, in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure, has Hosni Mubarak clung onto power so vociferously, whereas Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took flight at the first sign of trouble and now apparently finds himself living in the very same Saudi villa where Idi Amin passed the years of his exile. Perhaps one day it will be a museum.

Mubarak has shown no signs of flight.Here’s why. Tunisia, for all the hyperbole, is a significantly richer and significantly less oppressed society than Egypt. There is scope for the country to adopt some kind of unity government – which it has done already – and muddle through the reforms it desperately needs. Crucially, while proximity to Ben Ali has tainted his key ministers and advisors, it has not proved fatal to their lives or their livelihoods; the government remains largely intact and many of the anicien regime appear to be part of the foundation of the new one. So when the demonstrations got out of hand, and they saw the writing on the wall, they knew they still had a future – or at least a possibility of one –as long as Ben Ali was out of the way. So he got out of the way. Did he jump or was he pushed? I suspect the latter. He left power suspiciously quickly, with a suspicious lack of fight; I’d expect autocratic dictators in his mold to try a bit harder.

Egypt is different. Mubarak personalised his rule to such an extent that an entire class of society came to depend almost entirely on his grace and favour. He came to define patriarchy. And in a much larger and poorer society, the difference between the people who benefitted from having Mubarak in power, and those who didn’t, was much greater than in Tunisia.

The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.So, I have no idea if Mubarak would like to join Ben Ali in exile – perhaps Ben Ali could let him have the guest bedroom? – but even if he did want to go, I’m not sure he would be allowed to. This is, I think, why Mubarak has no choice but to cling to power with everything he has.

VERDICT: Hosni Mubarak goes fourth; Idi Amin’s villa goes forth.

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