Winds of Change

Updated: Jan 25, 2011, 16:17 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old young man who poured a liter of petrol on his body to immolate himself, has potentially fanned a fire across the Arab world. His death instigated by his depressing circumstance of joblessness, deprivation at home, and a rough shave with repressive authorities has lent voice to a million mute.

While Bouazizi became a symbol of Tunisia’s boiling point, WikiLeaks blew the cover off what the people long suspected – a tale of exceedingly venal leadership and plunder of national wealth by dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his second wife Leila Trabelsi and her relatives.

Those long oppressed in Tunisia took to the streets to launch a relentless campaign to dislodge the corrupt and callous leader whose timid pleas of not standing for elections in 2014 only fell on deaf ears. Ouster is what the people wanted, and ouster is what they got. Ben Ali will now cool his heels for the rest of his life in Saudi Arabia as an exile after France, Tunisia’s former colonial power, slammed the door on his face.

If there is one place where autocratic regimes reign supreme for decades without an utterance of dissent, and where every whisper of revolt is stifled with a ruthless iron clench, it is the Arab world - a region bound by Islam and lack of democracy.

Look at Saudi Arabia, the self appointed custodian of the Muslim world. Al Saud family has been in power since 1932, when King Abd-al-Aziz took over and united the country. His successors have ruled the oil rich kingdom with stringent rules and ruthless punishments spawning several resistance bodies, including some which have extremist ideologies like Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Bahrain has been making pretences in democracy since 2001 with an elected Parliament and independent judiciary, but is still ruled by the Sunni King from the Khalifah family, which has been in power since 1783. He is the supreme authority which is often resented and protested by the Shi’ite populace.

Yemen, which is seeing a rise of extremism is one of the hubs of al Qaeda, has been restive for long. But Ali Abdullah Saleh managed to get re-elected to another seven-year term in September 2006 despite being in power for a quarter of a century.

The Baath party has been in control in Syria since 1963, which is not just authoritarian but is also known to shield terrorist groups like the Hezbollah.

Algeria which has seen violent struggle of independence from France followed by brutal internal conflict has Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the helm, who won the presidency in 1999 polls, with the backing of the Army. He has since been able to get re-elected in every poll using any and every mean at hand.

The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, seems as outlandish as ever with his fetish for a `voluptuous` Ukrainian nurse and a new Islam as propagated to the people through his Green Book. His son and possible successor is equally maverick and has had several run-ins with foreign governments like that of Switzerland.

Be it Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Morocco, Jordon, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Syria or Tunisia, either royal families or dictators run unmatched writ. Iraq too had a very similar story till Uncle Sam decided it had other plans.

The Tunisian leader Ben Ali was known for his authoritarian ways and censorship. Most countries in the region follow similar patterns of governance and are now at unease over the ripple effect one revolution may have. When the Tunisians spilled on to the streets to rid the encumbrance of historic legacy of unchallenged leaders and unquestioned acquiescence, it obviously sent a small tremor under the palaces built on the sands of oil rich fields.

There was an immediate repercussion in Egypt, with protests breaking out against Hosni Mubarak who is currently serving his fifth term in office. To Libya’s Gaddafi, the happenings in Tunisia seemed too uncomfortably prescient, as he reprimanded Tunisians for their “impatience”. Latest reports of rioting are also coming in from Algeria.

The long standing centers of power now fear that people may increasingly demand democracy, freedom of press, greater voice to opposition, and better respect for human rights. In the technology era, the threat may seem more ominous and real as tools like Facebook and Twitter are being used to organise demonstrations, which cannot be controlled.

With the Tunisian President bowing out after a determined drive launched by the people, which has come to be known as the Jasmine revolution, the Arab leaders have truly got a sense of the first wafts of change over mighty Al Arabica. They would only be hoping that these are not unsparing cyclonic gusts that may just sweep them off their cushy thrones.

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