IN THE space of a week, Egypt has gone from tourist mecca to a place that people avoid. It has gone from a police state to one where the dictator who has ruled for nearly 30 years is shaking in his shoes. There is talk of an uprising in Yemen too – the West is less interested in what goes on there than in Cairo so we won’t be seeing too many headlines about Sana’a.
But Egypt’s case is interesting, to say the least. The last time there was anything like this it was in the years following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood. Their expectations were belied – they hoped that the people would support them in the chaos that followed the slaying of Sadat in revenge for his having signed the Camp David peace deal with Menachem Begin.
But the people preferred the iron arm of the dictator as long as stability was restored in the country and the Muslim Brotherhood was given a working over; 302 of them were tried and though some were acquitted, many met their fate by firing squad. Their leaders were tortured and Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the key men, fled the country in 1985 when Mubarak began to hunt out those who were part of the Brotherhood.
Zawahiri fled to Afghanistan and we know whom he tied up with; he became the spiritual mentor of one Osama bin Laden, the man who is better known worldwide than even Julian Assange. (Adam Curtis has some brilliant footage of a young Zawahiri in court as part of his documentary, The Power of Nightmares).
In Algeria, similarly, the Islamic Salvation Front indulged in a grisly campaign of murder and intimidation in the early 90s after they had made a decent showing in the elections and then been frozen out by the ruling party, hoping that the people would rise up and join them. Once again, the desire for stability – no matter the kind of political system that would bring it about – won and the Islamists have never been a force there since then. There is a school of Islamic thought that holds that in times of anarchy, the rule of a dictator is to be preferred to no rule; that’s one of the reasons why there are so many dictatorships in the Muslim world.
Given this background, it is important that the Islamists do not try to capitalise on the situation in Egypt, even though the sight of Mubarak quaking in his shoes must be a source of much amusement and delight to them. It appears that they are now supporting an army takeover as long as Mubarak is exiled. There are plenty of Islamists in the armed forces as can be gauged from the killing of Sadat, hence this preference.
But the most interesting fallout could be in the Gulf states, those tiny empires of sand which have financed people like Mubarak for years and years. Propped up by the Americans, the Gulf sheikhs – in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain – have been living it up in style and mollifying their citizenry with handouts to keep them in a comatose state. As long as the oil price is kept at levels that the Americans can manage to buy, the sheikhs have known that they are safe.
Saudi Arabia has a sizeable number who subscribe to the Islamic model of a state; as long back as 1979, the Islamists tried to take power by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Bin Laden enjoys considerable popularity in the country and he must be overjoyed to see those who exiled him and stripped him of his citizenship in this situation. Saudi ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is much more popular than the former ruler, Fahd, but the armed forces cannot control the country if something erupts. American assistance will be needed as it was in 1979 though the whole thing became farce when the US helicopter flying to the aid of the then king, Khalid, crashed in the desert. It will be more bloody and violent if trouble breaks out – the Saudi method of keeping something quiet is by extermination.
Of the six Gulf states, only Qatar has reason to feel somewhat confident that there will be no trouble. The head of the country, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has brought in some reforms, given women more right and also helped the birth of Al Jazeera which surely must take some credit for all the protests. The other Gulf states will be very nervous, especially Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has ruled for nearly 40 years without a change in sight.
But leave all this aside – the most nervous of all countries will be the US of A which has troops in many of the states and gets most of its oil from the region. If trouble does break out, the rulers will call on the US for help to stay in power and given that oil is part of the equation, the Americans will have no choice but to agree.