The Middle East’s New Brand: "Revolutions 'R' Us"

The Middle East’s New Brand: "Revolutions 'R' Us"

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Revolutions erupted in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters are in the streets of Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, and the governments of still more Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Oman, Sudan and Syria—are feeling justifiably jittery. It almost seems as if an efficient new retail chain, with headquarters in some obscure, snowy, midwestern U.S. town, is going around the Arab world setting up shop.

Call it Revolutions “R” Us, a new franchise that is taking the Arab world by storm, enticing customers with big discounts on political slogans and sweet deals on two-for-one overnight tent accommodations, coming to a main square near you.

The “miracle” of Egypt—street protests which had President Hosni Mubarak out of office in three jubilant weeks—may become the cookie-cutter model to be used in any number of Arab countries, with America calling the shots. These “controlled” revolutions, with tolerable levels of anti-Americanism and nationalist slants, are preferable by far to the very real threat of an extremist Islamic revolution sweeping throughout the same countries.

It should come as no surprise that as soon as the crowds began to gather in Cairo, President Barack Obama declared his support for “the will of the Egyptian people.” Later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in a bit more cautiously, saying the U.S. would back “the transition process announced by the Egyptian government.” Reading between their lines of graceful diplomacy, those statements might be interpreted as, “Hosni, get the [expletive deleted] out now, and we mean now.”

Similarly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised the “restraint” of the Egyptian military. What he was really saying? “Hands off, generals, and not a peep out of you. We already know, down to the penny, how much of our foreign aid dollars have ended up in your Swiss bank accounts.”

Ah, but Mubarak was such an ally of the U.S.! Why would they want him out now?

U.S. “client countries” and their leaders—mere dogs who promptly pocket billions in foreign aid while their American paymasters look on—appear to have shelf lives of about three decades or so. In the process, they grow ever more corrupt, old and unpopular. They become sick, and eventually watch helplessly as their liabilities exceed their assets—all of which are true in Mubarak’s case.

Perhaps Washington’s final decision to rid itself of Mubarak came when he chose to paper the walls of the worst Cairo slums with “campaign” posters of his heir-apparent son, replete with the familiar slogans of “hope” and “change.”

Other Arab “allies” may not be as old, sick or corrupt as Mubarak is, but the Obama administration, in a period of respite after the midterm elections, seems to be employing a wide broom to sweep out Arab despots of all descriptions, in hopes that democracy will break out across the region

President Obama should know better than anyone, however, that hope is hardly sufficient in the absence of a realistic plan.

To use Egypt as an example, after the revolution, it still remains the same crippled country, with a per-capita GDP of about $5,000 (below Angola and Namibia) and 44.4 percent of its population living in poverty while a thin upper crust revels in ostentatious wealth. As in all Arab countries (save for a few, tiny Persian Gulf emirates), the will for rapid industrialization and entrepreneurship—key factors in the creation of the tiger economies of Asia’s Pacific Rim—is all but absent.

Many Egyptians are careerists. Impressed with official titles, they hang on to the same desk in one dusty government bureaucracy or another for a lifetime. Bureaucrats who rise to the upper echelons pocket their share of graft, while those with entrepreneurial ambitions find themselves stifled at every turn in a maze of bribery, jealously and endemic pessimism. While the American media love to characterize Arab demonstrators as noble and freedom loving, their reporters are getting the first, bitter taste of the deep-seated rage among the have-nots in a dysfunctional world as one is raped and others beaten on the street.

The 1979 “earth-shaking” revolution in Iran, although a non-Arab country, is an excellent indication of the direction in which Revolutions “R” Us is heading in the Arab world. More than three decades after Tehran roared with cries of freedom and democracy, the country is a virtual military dictatorship under the thumb of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the people suffer from an abysmal economic inequity.

The Iranian revolution came at the tail-end of a decade that saw Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s last monarch, flex his oil muscle and quadruple the price of crude, causing lines to be formed at American gas stations and plunging the entire Western world into deep economic gloom.

The Shah had to go, a message that was delivered to him personally at his palace by President Jimmy Carter and Richard E. Huyser, a four-star general who was then the Military Airlift Commander at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, and who stayed in Tehran after the Shah’s departure to protect state-of-the art military equipment that America had sold to Iran.

During the ensuing years, Tehran has leveled every imaginable imprecation against America, yet it has never played the oil card, ensuring the consistent flow of Iranian oil into the world market. Iran’s leaders know that the day they stop doing so, they will go the way of the Shah and Mubarak.

Mubarak, by the way, was told to pack his bags and be on his way by Feb. 11, which happens to be the exact day when the Iranian monarchy finally collapsed in 1980. The boys and girls in Langley, Va., seem to have a sense of history, not to mention a sense of humor.

NAM contributor Behrouz Saba is a Los Angeles-based writer and native of Iran.