Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fount for the Arab Spring: Egypt's Second Revolution, and Saudi Oil Money

In the movie "The Right Stuff," there's a memorable line when astronaut Gus Grissom reminds NASA engineers, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."  It's a remark that I find especially apt when thinking ahead to what lies in store for the "Arab Spring," the explosions of anti-autocratic activism that since January have convulsed Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria and have inspired so much hope for the emergence of democracies there.  The protests have all featured demands for popular representation in these countries' till-now highly autocratic systems.  But, they have been rooted even more deeply in demands for "dignity," implicit in which are economic opportunity and improved standards of living in countries where access to wealth has been controlled by often corrupt political leadership.  To remedy that, these countries need much more than democracy.  Their leaders need to be able to offer the promise of better days, and a better life, ahead.

That will take hundreds of billions of dollars.  The US and other members of the G8 know that, so during their recent meetings, a major focus of discussion was funding to sustain the momentum of the Arab Spring.

Alas, as Juan Cole has noted, what they came up with is hardly a Marshall Plan for the region.  And as he also notes, compared to what was on offer from the US to Egypt and other Arab countries in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, what's being offered now is peanuts.
In 1990-1991, Egypt was $50 billion in debt, and then its government joined in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces occupying Kuwait. After the Gulf War, $25 billion of the debt was forgiven, i.e., half, which uplifted the Egyptian economy in the early to mid 1990s. Pakistan also got very heavy debt forgiveness after 2001 for turning on the Taliban and allying with the United States and NATO.

If joining a war is worth half a country’s debt, then moving from a military dictatorship to trying to become a democratic country should be worth just as much. That would mean Egypt alone should be getting $40 bn. in debt forgiveness. After all, the debt was incurred by a military dictatorship that did not consult the people, and which was in the hip pocket of the Western Powers. Why should poor Egyptians in Ismailiya and Asyut be held hostage for repayment?

And, the $25 bn. in debt forgiveness for Egypt of the early 1990s was a sure thing, not vague promises and ‘calls’ on other countries and institutions of the sort that just came out of the G8. . . .

Egypt’s transition to democracy is going to be rocky enough without the albatross of Hosni Mubarak’s debts hanging around its neck. The world community needs to be far more generous and pro-active if Egyptians are going to feel rewarded rather than punished for their remarkable achievement in moving toward popular sovereignty and a rule of law. The same holds true for Tunisia. But Egypt is a fourth of the Arab world and an opinion leader, and its success really would resonate widely in the Arab world and Africa.

The G8 gesture was good as a confidence-building measure, but it is piddling in relationship to the real needs and is short-sighted in its picayune dimensions.

Of course, what's apparent here is the economic weakness of the US and its European allies in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2008.  In the case of the US, of course, that economic decline was hastened by the policies of Mr. Obama's foolhardy predecessor, who launched a feckless adventure in Afghanistan, a disastrous adventure in Iraq, and then tried to pay for them by borrowing from China while cutting revenue sources in the US.  Bottom line: the US is in no position to offer Egypt or anyone else anything close to what's needed in economic assistance - at a time when such assistance might be a game-changer in terms of helping Arab peoples to fashion peacefully the "new Middle East" that Bush, Condi, and the neocons tried so hard to create from the barrels of US firepower.

Who holds the money cards now?  The US's oil-wealthy "allies" in the region, and especially, Saudi Arabia. As the NY Times reported, the Saudi monarchy is now pumping funds to various Arab countries in order to win influence and, in so doing, stem the tide of democratic inroads.  In Egypt especially, they have injected $4 billion in hopes of bolstering the military council now in charge.

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort to avert any drastic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the pace of political and social change at home. . .

Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told the editorial board of The New York Times last week, referring to the unrest, . . . “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

The range of the Saudi intervention is extraordinary as the unrest pushes Riyadh’s hand to forge what some commentators, in Egypt and elsewhere, brand a “counterrevolution.” Some Saudi and foreign analysts find the term too sweeping for the steps the Saudis have actually taken, though they appear unparalleled in the region and beyond as the kingdom reaches out to ally with non-Arab Muslim states as well.

“I am sure that the Saudis do not like this revolutionary wave — they were really scared,” said Khalid Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst and columnist. “But they are realistic here.”

In Egypt, where the revolution has already toppled a close Saudi ally in Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis are dispensing aid and mending ties in part to help head off a good showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming parliamentary elections. The Saudis worry that an empowered Muslim Brotherhood could damage Saudi legitimacy by presenting a model of Islamic law different from the Wahhabi tradition of an absolute monarch.

“If another model of Shariah says that you have to resist, this will create a deep difficulty,” said Abdulaziz Algasim, a Saudi lawyer.

Saudi officials are also concerned that Egypt’s foreign policy is shifting, with its outreach to the Islamist group Hamas and plans to restore ties with Iran. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, also retains a personal interest in protecting Mr. Mubarak, analysts believe.

What's emerging in Egypt then is a possible scenario for conflict between the US and Saudi Arabia over the nature of the new government.  Yesterday, thousands of Egyptians poured back into Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand (in what the LA Times termed a Second Revolution) that the government be re-formed to reduce the influence of the military, and that elections be delayed in order to give newly developing secular parties a fighting chance against the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood, which is predicted to do very well if the elections are held as scheduled. 

If Mr. Obama's rhetoric is to be believed, the US would want the voices of yesterday's protest to be respected, as both an expression of popular political will as well as in the hope that Egypt's future government will not be dominated by Islamists.  But the Saudis are already using their money to prop up the current government, which is dominated by the same military from which hailed ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors back to Gamal Abdul Nasser.  The Saudis would surely like nothing more than a kind of Mubarak-lite regime that would leave a military autocracy in charge.  And if such an autocracy could somehow disburse Saudi largesse to the Egyptian people in a manner that lifted hopes for a better life across the social spectrum, those thousands of Egyptians who risked (or lost) their lives to demand the dignity of democracy may find those dreams trumped by the lure of petro-dollars.

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