28 February 2011

Is the Jasmine Revolution the Year of Revolutions Redux?

Since the start of 2011, there has been a string of revolutionary activity throughout the Arab world.  The so-called Jasmine Revolution started in early January during the Sidi Bouzid revolt in Tunisia.  February brought change to Egypt as myriad of people persistently protesting in Cairo’s Tahir (Liberation) Square chased Hosni Mubarak from his 28 years of strongman rule from office.  There have been messy demonstrations in the island Kingdom of Bahrain. Libyan strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi (a.k.a. known by other spellings such as  Qaddafi, Kadhafi, Gadaffi, or Gadhafi) is intent on being martyred from his dictatorship since 1969. There is rabble rousing for mid-March in Saudi Arabia.  Since it has spread from the Levant to the Mahgreb seems as if it is a pan-Arab epidemic.

The wave of uprisings may spread beyond the Arab world.  Tony Femino’s Voice to America radio program indicates Jasmine Revolution may have spread to the Sub-Saharan North African nation of Mauritania, where hundreds have taken to the streets in the capital of Nouakchott. The wave of unrest may also spread further east as crackdowns in Iran on dissidents may spark a massive Persian protest on March 1st in Tehran.

Instead of assuming that these revolutionary winds are unprecedented, thoughtful observers choose to think in time and analogize the revolutionary wave in 2011 with the Year of Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.  Historians attribute various triggers for the uprisings in the various European states in 1848.  But all of them share the legacy of an economic downturn coupled with a failed crop in 1846 fulminating famine. New technology revolutionized the lives of the working class.  The popular press expanded political awareness.  And there were efforts by reformers and radicals to reshape governance towards nationalism.

Some of these revolutions failed outright, as in Ireland and Poland. Other revolutions were eventually overturned, as the France’s February Revolution  overthrew the Orleans monarchy and instituted the Second French Republic with the help of peasants. But within three years, President Louis Napoleon declared the Second French Empire.   The March Revolution in the German Confederation did instill some liberal reforms and started the first German Navy (Reichsflotte) but failed to unite all German speaking states and eventually succumbed to Austrian power in 1849.

While some of the revolutionary reforms were rolled back, the Revolutions of 1848 are thought of as the Spring of Nations, as it solidified nationalism in the minds of the people.  It also further strengthened organized labor which was later doctrinally expressed by Karl Marx in Das Kapital in 1867.

How does the legacy of the Revolutions of 1848 compare with what is happening today? With events on the ground, things can change minute by minute.  But an overview indicates many striking similarities.  The world certainly has been roiled by a severe economic downturn since 2008.  The United States compounded the pain for the world by its Quantitative Easing (QE2), which will cause commodity inflation to compensate for the effective American monetary devaluation.  That tends to first hit with food prices.  While there have not been as devastating of droughts as the anthropogenic Global Warming activists would expect, the drought in southwestern China in 2010 was the worst in a century, which was followed by floods that wiped out crops.  The QE2 along with failed crops in the world’s most populace nation certainly will push up worldwide food prices, which has disproportionate impact on populations who already earn meager wages. Outside observers have labeled the unrest as the Jasmine Revolution but perhaps it would be better known as the Intifada of the Starved.

Between the spread of cellular phones and social media worldwide, there are revolutionary strides in lateral communications. The proliferation in media, particularly independent Arab language news outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which can quickly spread reports of political dissent as well as disseminate notions of salafist jihadism.

Another parallel element between both Years of Revolution are reformers and radicals working in the background to reshape the globe.  As for the wave of unrest that is happening today, alarmists have pointed out that labor leaders seem to have been preparing for the current protests for years and are acting in international coordination.  Many of the protests in Egypt, including the Day of Rage, are curiously coordinated to occur after Friday prayers at the mosque.  During the height of the unrest in Egypt when opposition figures were vying for power, the cleric chosen to lead Friday prayers was Youssef al-Qaradawi, the TV-imam who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who had been banned from speaking in the center of the Ummah for 30 years.  Coincidence? Hardly.

The theory is that a perfect storm which temporarily has the winds of revolutionary socialism and the Islamic jihad will temporarily join forces to fulminate unrest and overthrow the status quo.  Once the hyper-power is vanquished or neutralized, the revolutionaries can duke it out themselves to be top dog, so to speak.

But the forces of Islamic unrest are not just one source.  Sunni Islam is the largest branch of Muslims, comprising about 80% of the 1.5 Billion faithful.  Salafism is a school of Sunni Islam that seeks to re-establish a Caliphate that practices the pure Islam and force others who do not subscribe to their understanding (both Muslim and non-Muslim) into submission, subservience or the sword.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization which was banned from Egypt since the 1920s due to their violent past.  Supposedly, they have renounced violence and they just do community organizing in Egypt, despite being linked to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981.  Certainly, the Egyptian and Tunisian unrests were influenced by this Sunni school.

The other major Islamic sect is Shi’a Islam, which is centered in Iran. One sect of Shia is one which seeks the Madhi, or the Twelfth Imam, who mysteriously went into occultation and will return during a period of great upheaval to establish the Caliphate.  According to the film Iranium, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a “12er” and that Iranian foreign policy since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been premised on creating the chaos to facilitate the Mahdi’s return.  Hence, the “blessing” of the American Embassy in Tehran, the Beruit Bombing in 1983, the ferocious fighting during the mid ‘80s Iran/Iraq war, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S.S. Cole attack in 2000, as well as the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

This Iranian foreign policy intent on encouraging chaos in the world meshes well with an expansion of Iranian sphere’s of influence.  By funding Hezbollah’s (the Party of God) militant activity in Lebanon, Iran chased the United States from its base, giving Shi’a forces a base to attack the little Satan (a.k.a. Israel) and eventually overtake the Cedar Revolution.  Syria has benefitted from Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy in nuclear proliferation, as has Libya.

Aside from the state sponsored terrorism emanating from Iran, this Shia inspired revolution may have a hand in defending Gaddafi.  While it is unclear if there was coordination, Bahrain’s unrest stems from a Sunni Sultan ruling over a Shi’a population. Not all Shi’a are on board with the Mahdi movement and that may explain, along with brutal repression and a youthful, educated population that yearns not to live in a strict and brutal Islamic Republic, may explain any unrest in Tehran.

It is hard to know where these revolutionary winds of change will blow.  Egypt seemed like it had a popular uprising that threw out a dictator/President.  But his replacement was Mubarak's friend who was the head of the Secret Police who's first act was to suspend the Egyptian constitution. There are supposed to be elections in September but the only organized group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood and the military has a bone to pick with them (after the Sadat assassination).  The Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it will not honor the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt, Israel and the United States, which would cut off $4 Billion in military aid from the US, which threatens the Egpytian military's well-being.  It is dubious if the Muslim Brotherhood was poised for victory that the military would cut off their nose to spite their face.

While the Green revolution of 2009 in Iran was stillborn, in part due to the lack of international support against the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is possible that a popular uprising during this season of change might bring down the government.  It is unlikely a freed populace that has suffered in an Islamic theocracy would embrace a furtherance of the Caliphate, especially one that is not Shi'a in nature.

It is right to wonder if this revolutionary wave may extend outside the Ummah.  It already has spread beyond Arab areas.  There has been increased agitation in the United States by labor forces, as particularly seen in Wisconsin.  A severe oil shock combined by stagflation in an economic downturn might be kick up the winds of change.  Perhaps the two hundred year old democratic republican institutions and a conservative American psyche stifles any irrational exuberance of unrest. But those same circumstances could effect more unstable players earlier, like the Peoples Republic of China.

As America is having an agonizing self appraisal, it looks at its largest Asian economic competitor with rose colored glasses. But the Chinese have built their economy based on imports with an expectation of 10% per annum growth. For the current Chinese leadership, growth is so key that planners keep building ghost cities in far flung places in Western China to reap the rewards of continued growth.  Yet at least 55% of the Chinese population is agrarian and is not allowed to reap the rewards of the big city.  Chinese factory workers are paid subsistence if not slave wages.

There is a Chinese proverb (and perhaps a curse) “May you live in interesting times”. Combine famine with stagflation along with improved communications and no wonder why PRC party leaders are worried and ready to stifle any unrest lest the Jasmine Revolution be paired with Jasmine rice in a political pupu platter.

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