Political Fire in the Arab World: A real lesson for African politicians – An Analysis by Dr Michael J.K. Bokor

President Hosni Mubarak addresses his people over the week-end

As the African Union meets in Ethiopia, two of its long-serving members will not be there. Tunisia’s former President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has been forced out of office by a determined mass of those he had ruled for 23 years. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled his country for 30 years now, is in the throes of losing power and cannot afford the luxury of leaving Cairo to attend the AU summit.

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Will these two familiar faces be sorely missed by their colleagues at the AU summit? Or will their fate teach these “colleagues” the lesson that they have refused to learn all these years as they rule their countries without listening to the voice of the people? Are the events in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Egypt forcing their hearts to do overtime? Or will they refuse to read deeper meanings into what a disgruntled but determined people can do if pushed too far to the wall? Counting on the domino effect of such uprisings, any African leader who shrugs off the current happenings in the Arab world will end up laughing at the wrong side of his mouth. Falling suddenly from grace to grass is not a good feat.

Perhaps, the Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hossain Mousavi (who was defeated by President Ahmadinejad in the June 2009 elections, sparking off devastating public protests), says it better: “If governments do not listen to legitimate demands of their people, the people would have no option but to call for their downfall,” the BBC Persian Service reported (January 28, 2011).

This statement is worth repeating: “If governments do not listen to legitimate demands of their people, the people would have no option but to call for their downfall.”

Nothing can be closer to the truth than these words. Indeed, the events

Oposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei

precipitating the turmoil in these Arab countries were engendered by legitimate demands for decent standards of living and respect for democracy, all of which fell on deaf ears. Charged with complaints against the unsatisfactory performance of their governments and going ahead to remove the rug from under those leaders’ feet, these citizens of the Arab world seem to be giving the world a new definition of politics—rulers who tempt those they rule will be hounded out of office. Truly, the voice of the people rings loud and clear. Only those hard-of-hearing can’t hear it.

Is what we are witnessing in the Arab world a strange phenomenon? Or a sustainable revolution? One may be alarmed by the unprecedented, spontaneous, and purposeful acts of positive defiance with the main objective of forcing the autocratic leaders out of office. But the truth is that the embittered citizens have endured hardships for far too long under those leaders and now want more than mere cosmetic reforms. They want to give a new meaning to leadership and governance. And a determined people can force a river to flow upstream!

The writing on the wall was visible for all but Ben Ali to see. What began in Tunisia as a usual and taken-for-granted public protest against the unsatisfactory living conditions, especially the rising cost of food, quickly spiraled into a mass movement to oust Ben Ali and to send positive signals to people in other countries facing similar circumstances that they can oust their leaders by determined and purposeful public protests. The flame immediately spread, igniting a similar uprising in Algeria, which seemed to have been brought under control but may still be simmering.

In Yemen, the Tunisian example was emulated against the President, who has been in office for three decades now. The outcome is yet to be known. The fire spread to Egypt, where the situation seems to be outstripping that of Tunisia and Yemen. Scared stiff, the embattled Hosni Mubarak was forced to take desperate actions—dismissing his government and creating overnight a new position of Vice President (for the first time in his 30-year rule), which he has filled with the country’s intelligence chief. He has also appointed a new Prime Minister in a vain effort to appease the angry protesters.

Mubarak with his newly-appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman

More intriguingly, Mubarak has imposed a curfew that the protesters have defied and which the military are not interested in enforcing. In a clear manifestation of collapse of law and order, the police have deserted their post, looting is going on unchecked, and unfortunate lives have already been lost. The situation is deteriorating further as the mass protests continue to shake Egypt to its very foundation.

Indeed, Mubarak is facing a desperate situation and is adopting desperate measures to retain himself in power. But indications are clear that he will not survive. There are strong signals that the measures he has taken are not only too little too late, but they are also spurned by the people. They are insisting that he is the problem and must leave the scene. Such a determined and resolute people cannot be easily cajoled.

Egypt’s situation is particularly intriguing because of its complicated peculiarities. For many years since independence, the country’s leaders (Abdel Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak) have emerged from the military and ruled with unlimited powers; no established mechanism for succession has been put in place, leaving the destiny of the country in the hands of one leader; religious intolerance and extremity have torn the population apart; Mubarak has knuckled under to the West and served its interests as far as the Arab-Israeli crisis is concerned; and many more, which have now pushed Egypt to the precipice of chaos.

One fact, which has emerged in the wake of this mass protest to oust Mubarak from office, is clear. The diverse and seemingly irreconcilable political and religious sentiments of the citizens seem to have taken the back seat. All of a sudden, these forces have come together for a common objective: to rid themselves of the leader they consider as a pest. The Muslims or those of the Brotherhood (who haven’t been at peace with others, especially elements of the Coptic Church) and youth of all political shades have come together in this mass movement to oust Mubarak from office. When the dust settles, will these disparate elements (nursing diverse political and religious interests) sink their differences and come together to provide a reliable democratic system for their country?

The implications of these mass protests to the internal politics of the affected countries are clear—either new leaders emerge soon to right the wrongs for which the long-serving leaders were ousted or these countries would slide into further turmoil. The aftermath of these mass protests will also give us something new to think about. That these mass protests are happening in Africa is crucial. African politics is not growing well enough to provide the much-needed comfort to its citizens. Our political leaders are still far away from doing us good.

A military tank takes position on Tahrir square in Cairo

The current happenings raise very serious questions that must jolt other long-serving leaders. No matter how rigidly they may think that they can control the affairs of their countries, what is happening now should tell them that their hold on power will definitely weaken one day, especially as they continue to create opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of those they rule. They will pay for their long hold on power, even when their rule creates conditions to worsen living standards while they live in obnoxious affluence. For as long as the people don’t enjoy the benefits of their citizenship, and for as long as they see no immediate indication that the deplorable situation in which they live will soon change for the better, they will have no other option but to come together to do what Tunisia has blazed the trail on.

Current events should be a timely harbinger for African leaders to see their fate in advance. As we’ve begun witnessing already, they will surely face the ugly consequences of their greed and insensitivity. Tunisia has laid bare the lesson that they must learn. It is not too late to make amends and serve the interests of the people they rule.

African leaders, especially those among them in the Sub-Saharan region who are toying with the people’s lives and manipulating the situation to advantage, must be forewarned. The pitiable living conditions of the people do not justify their hold on power any more. They are known for presiding over corruption and fleecing of the system while failing to enunciate or implement policies to reverse the trend of under-development and excruciating poverty. The last straw to break the camel’s back is not far off.

Those who manipulate the political system to entrench themselves in power must lose sleep over happenings in Tunisia and the other countries. Such leaders as Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Chad’s Idriss Deby, La Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, among the lot, need to take stock immediately and put in place plans to exit the scene before their people resort to what is currently unfolding before their eyes. The domino effect of the Tunisian-way is inescapable.

It is a simple issue of common sense. What do these long-serving leaders think they can do to reverse the trend after many years of inaction and unproductive rule that have left their countries under-developed while they still remain on the throne? What else do they think they have to solve their countries’  problems after all these umpteenth years of lethargy on the throne? If after (mis)ruling all these years they haven’t been able to solve their countries’ problems, what again do they think they have to justify their hold on power? Rather annoying, the more they remain on the throne, the worse the situation becomes.

As complete failures, they have no justification for being in office all that long. It is a simple case of being in power and loving the power that they have worn on their sleeves and exploited to enhance their lives while condemning their own people into wretched lives of perpetual poverty and painful death!

Those of them relying on Western hypocrisy—talking about democracy, yet propping up undemocratic systems headed by their allies in Africa—should know that their days are numbered. When a determined people embark on an act of self-liberation, no amount of witchery, prayers, or force of arms can prevent them from crossing the Rubicon. Tunisia’s Ali has already crossed the Rubicon; Egypt’s Mubarak is at the banks of the Rubicon; and many other political dinosaurs in power in other African countries are tottering toward the precincts of the Rubicon. Once there, there will be no turning back for them.

As we see seemingly untouchable and powerful (African) leaders crumble or pushed to the brink of recognizing the limits of their senseless autocratic rule, we must continue to seek ways to reform our democracy. Those who find themselves in power today must not deceive themselves that they can remain there forever to rule by might. When the day of reckoning dawns, they will be forced out and made to lick the dust of their infamy. That’s the lesson that Tunisia teaches; and our politicians had better learn it.

By Dr Michael J. K. Bokor

E-mail: mjbokor@yahoo.com

This article was written by Dr Michael J.K. Bokor. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are those of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the official views or have the endorsement of the Editorial Board of www.africanewsanalysis and www.africa-forum.net