Over 300 years ago, the English poet
John Dryden had warned us against the fury of a patient man. Looks
like the anger of the patient Arab is finally beginning to scorch
the deserts. From Maghreb in the west to the Levant in the east,
raging masses are sweeping the Arabian streets, torching the
fortresses of their tinpot dictators. Their demand: freedom and
bread, in that order.
Already the iron men of Tunisia and Egypt have passed into
history. The others are awaiting their Ides.
It all started last December when an impoverished street vendor in
the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid immolated himself to
protest against his hopeless life. Within weeks, his daring modus
was picked up by scores of people across the Arab world including
North Africa, thus triggering visions of a trans-continental 'intifada'.
Compared to the earlier uprisings, though, the latest one has a
few redeeming differences.
First and foremost, this one, unlike the Palestinian uprisings, is
not intended to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Nor is it
seeking to resurrect a long mummified Caliphate. This is an
uprising designed to dethrone the local effendis and pashas, who
perpetuated themselves into eternity, the potentates who turned
their illegitimacy into a divine right to rule, like they have
been doing as brazenly as in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Syria and
Libya, and through duct-tape reforms as in Egypt and Jordan.
After Tunisia and Egypt, the flames are now leaping up to the rest
of the Arabian skies. Algeria and Yemen are bracing for the
inevitable, while in Morocco and Mauritania, Sudan and Syria and
even in Jordan, a restless population is busy plotting their new
destiny. Middle East experts claim that these stirrings could be
the baby steps of what they predict to become the giant strides of
a revolution that would change the Arabian fatelines.
They say the Arab world's Berlin Wall moment has finally come.
While only the politically naïve would buy the argument that the
current movement would lead to the collapse of the Arab oligarchy
in a flash, like it happened in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, not
many are betting their pennies or pounds, either, that the
movement would get crushed like the student uprising in China.
There is a consensus only on one thing - that not since the bread
riots of 1977 has the Arab world seen such public wrath against
its military-propped regimes and hereditary monarchies as it's
Why is the present uprising seen as different and far-reaching?
For one, this has been a movement engineered by modern technology.
For a people who are only used to changing regimes mostly through
violent coups and assassinations, or, at best, through guided
parliamentary elections, uprooting entrenched regimes through
social networks like Facebook would sound futuristic. But that's
exactly what is happening in a world where the people's commitment
to their governance has so far been in inverse proportion to their
commitment to religion.
The Egyptian uprising began with the details of a youth's killing
in Alexandria circulating through a Facebook group. Set up in the
name of Khalid Said, the 28-year old victim of police brutality,
the group gave a call for protests across the country. Messages
sent through e-mail and sms asked Egyptians to gather at Cairo's
Tahrir Square, or the Liberation Square. What eventually won the
day for a people, armed with weapons no more lethal than their
laptops and mobile phones, was their grit and determination kept
alive through their virtual connectivity. Egypt has thus become
the first country in history to stage a political revolution
through fibre optics.
With Egypt showing the way, the rest of the Arab world is getting
wired up for a redux of the same text-message revolution.
Again, this uprising, unlike the previous ones, is not led by the
Green Flag of Faith, but by the colours of nationalism. While
Allah-u-Akbar is still the marching song for the thousands
storming the streets, they are not led by the mullahs and muthawas,
but by young middle-class men and women, most of them in their 20s
and 30s. The political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and
even the more radical ones like Al Qaeda and other sundry outfits
are only peripheral players, at least for now.
But the most striking feature of this Intifada is that it is not
Arab or even Islamic in spirit. The signature is, unmistakably,
far eastern, more precisely Buddhist or Hindu. Consider the
following: The Tunisian movement began with a vendor's suicide. It
was followed by several other instances of self-immolation
elsewhere. In Egypt, two men set themselves on fire in the first
days of the protests; one of them later succumbed to his injuries.
In Mauritania, a middle-aged businessman alerted journalists
before setting himself ablaze in a car parked outside the Senate.
In Algeria, Tunisia's next-door neighbour, there have been at
least seven immolation attempts since the uprising began.
Self-immolation as a political protest has been a popular weapon
in countries with Buddhist and Hindu influences, but not in the
Islamic world. Even when militant Islam turned suicide bombing
into one of its deadliest weapons against stronger enemies,
official Islam forbids taking one's own life or separating the
body from the soul as taboo.
For some strange reason, the Arab Muslims, this time, have made a
distinction between self-immolation and suicide bombing. This
revolution is being fought not by suicide bombers but by
self-immolators, by people who don't kill others but kill
themselves. Martyrdom is made sublime not by killing one's enemy,
but by shaming him.
(P.P. Balachandran was a senior editor with Qatar-based Al Jazeera
Channel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)