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Globalisation and the World after Mubarak

By Dr Bukar Usman


The Tunisians started it but it took the Egyptians to ignite the fire throughout the Middle East. Tunisian leader Ben Ali's ouster through mass revolt might have remained an isolated affair without leading to the widespread Middle-East uprising we have today had the Egyptians not risen against their own sit-tight ruler. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's fall from power was what emboldened the masses of other nations and enhanced the spread of the fire of mass revolt across the Middle-East.

     The people's coup which took place in Egypt marked the beginning of a new era in world history on account of its far-reaching socio-economic and political implications. The fall of the Shah of Iran and, lately, of Saddam Hussein, significant though they were, did not quite affect the Middle East and the rest of the world as profoundly as the unfolding events set off by Mubarak's fall. Egypt has been the symbol of stability in the Middle East and the entire Arab world, which largely controls the world's oil resources. And oil, we know, is sought after by every country for its economic and social well being. A change in power structure and resource control in that region will significantly affect the rest of the world. Thus, what begun like a tremor in Tunisia, became an earthquake in Egypt, and from there, in quick succession, triggered further quakes in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, among others. And it may well change the political face of the earth fundamentally. From the point of view of the current struggle to entrench democracy worldwide, this change may, hopefully, also be for good.      

     Mubarak's fall on February11, 2011, after ruling Egypt for thirty years was, in some respects, comparable to Barak Obama's accession to the presidency of the United States of America, the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the release of Nelson Mandela from detention and the fall of the "Iron Curtain." This assertion is based on several factors, among which is the notably intense and sustained media focus it generated across the world, particularly through the ubiquitous employment of the new social media buzzing across the internet.

      One unique feature of the Mubarak affair was the undisguised high degree of foreign interest and intrigue, which largely amounted to "meddlesomeness" hitherto frowned at in international relations. Under the glare of world media and openly supported by world leaders, Egyptian protesters were encouraged to sustain their 24-hour world vigil over the 18-day period it took to unseat Mubarak. Considering what Egypt went through and the high level of foreign interest in the matter, I wonder if there is any serious regard for "sovereignty" in this era of "globalisation".

     Only recently, I watched how Greece and the Republic of Ireland were literally forced by EU to swallow the bitter IMF/World bank pill peddled as cure for their ailing economies. Like two children being forced to take unpalatable medicine, Greek and Irish leaders put up feeble defence, which was over-ruled by the EU, the regional union which ultimately ensured they swallowed the pill.

     Humiliating leaders of sovereign nations didn't start today. Presidents Manuel Noriega of Panama, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Nicolai Ceausescu of Romania were all hounded out of office. No doubt, they all, like Mubarak, faced considerable internal opposition to their dictatorial rule, but foreign propaganda and influence significantly played a part in their ouster.

     In the case of Mubarak, the patronising comments by foreign leaders, including the UN Secretary General, not only fuelled the protests but dictated a political roadmap for Mubarak's successors. Gone were the days of the cold war when foreign leaders usually reacted to undemocratic change of government in a any nation by the mere issuance of a statement of "recognition" or "denouncement," if the new regime was perceived to be potentially hostile. Today's involvement, interference, or meddlesomeness in the affairs of other countries, as we have seen in the case of Egypt, clearly offends diplomatic practice and demonstrates that the classical notion of ‘sovereignty' no longer subsists or is severely eroded. Only Mubarak could tell the amount of external pressure which was brought to bear on him. However, it was clear from his statements up to the last moments in office that he came under heavy external pressure to give in to the demands of the protesters. He protested in vain against foreign interference.

     Sovereignty, as I understand it from the intense debate which went on among political thinkers and international jurists of the 16th-18th century, strictly entails that an entity or ruler is answerable to no one. Hence, princes and kings in medieval times commanded absolute loyalty over their subjects. Subsequent belief that "sovereignty" lies with the people inspired the French and American revolutions in the 18th century. This position subsisted until the 19th century when new thinking ascribed "sovereignty" to the State while the people remain its ultimate guardian. It is not surprising, therefore, that after enduring Mubarak's 30-year oppressive rule, the people decided that "enough is enough" and exercised their sovereignty, as was the case in Russia, Iran and, more recently, Tunisia.

     What surprised many was how quickly the revolt in Egypt followed a similar event in Tunisia and how they were both ignited by people of no consequence. Mohammed Bouazizi, a graduate who earned a living as a cart pusher, set off the revolt in Tunisia. Angered by a policeman who demanded that he should produce a licence for his trade, he set himself ablaze after pouring petrol on his body. In the case of Egypt, the catalyst and hero was Wael Ghonim, an activist, who mobilised his countrymen through his website on January 25. Notwithstanding the immediate steps taken by the authorities to thwart his move by cutting off internet services, detaining him for 11days, and embargoing foreign media, the fire he ignited was so unquenchable damage control measures proved ineffective. Egged on by the sustained powerful global media coverage and foreign leaders' patronising statements, the crowd Ghonim inspired could not be dismantled. Mubarak could only buy time, but after eighteen days, his 30-year iron rule collapsed, firmly establishing the potency of the newly found social media in the mobilisation of a highly literate society such as Egypt. 

     The hail of statements from the US, Britain, France, Germany and UN,  which welcomed Mubarak's resignation, suggested  that the leaders were acting in concert as they all strove to set an agenda for the new government in Egypt with emphasis on a common theme: democratisation leading to immediate free and fair elections. The only noticeable difference was Obama's somewhat peremptory statements some of which were tantamount to instructions on what the new government must carry out. These included immediate commencement of transition to a "credible" democracy, ensuring that "all voices" are brought to the table and respect for the Egypt/Israeli peace treaty.

       The high profile involvement of the US in the crises, which saw Obama constantly issuing statements after meeting with his advisers as the situation developed, is understandable. There was considerable anxiety. The stakes were high. The US has entrenched interest in Egypt as the fulcrum for its Middle East policy. It contributes $1.5bn annually to the Egyptian armed forces. The overt American involvement in dictating events in Egypt during and after Mubarak's departure, therefore, was nothing but a clear manifestation of the dictum: "He who pays the piper dictates the tune."  What further evidence is required to substantiate this than Obama's appearance at the Grand Foyer to announce to the whole world that he had just finished speaking to Mubarak shortly before the latter's nationwide address to his people. Equally curious was the high degree of accuracy with which the timing of Mubarak's resignation was predicted by the US media. Moreover, it could not have been Mubarak's wish to see the armed forces, his power base, responding to such a monumental crisis by simply rolling out tanks but folding their arms. Beyond the trite excuse that they were the guardians of national interest and, therefore, aligned with the peoples' aspirations, lay the belief by informed observers that they were remotely barred from acting by the very same forces which hamstrung Mubarak from abroad. There was much relief when the armed forces council eventually assumed power, somewhat reluctantly, even as anxiety over the future of their country still weighed heavily upon the people.

     It was quite predictable that the Tunisian hurricane, which devastated Egypt in a matter of days, was going to sweep across the conservative polities of North Africa and the Middle East with far-reaching consequences for sit-tight leaders outside the two regions. True to the predictions, protests soon erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, among other places. The outcome was equally predictable except that those countries were not as thickly populated as Egypt and seemed to have capitalised on the benefit of being alerted by the events in Tunisia and Egypt to put in place measures to avert or stem the protests. Their thin population made it easier for their security forces to cope but only with limited success in Yemen and Bahrain. In Libya, the uproar has degenerated into full-scale civil war: the status quo has been upset and now the anti-Ghadaffi resistance, militarily and diplomatically supported by the West, are marshalling their forces to overwhelm the entrenched power of the man who has ruled the oil-rich country since the mid 1960s.

     The point to note here is that what started timidly in Tunisia has set off a chain of events which will make life uncomfortable for sit-tight rulers across the world. With the exception of Libya, Western powers hitherto supported, if not sustained, the political establishments now being challenged in North Africa and the Middle East. Pragmatically, the West, which has been in the fore-front of the global campaign for democracy and human rights, distanced itself from the embattled leaders, in support of their protesting populations. Maybe it did that for democracy but surely the economic interests of the West, which needs stability in these oil-producing countries to thrive, dictated their action.

     Times have changed and information technology has evidently lifted the cloud of silence and complacency among the people. The tide of democracy was rising against autocracy, and it was rising from the people themselves, the peoples of these regions whom the Western media had influenced over the years. The Arab world can no longer remain an island, an island of unelected rulers the West used to love and support for selfish reasons. Whether Western-style democracy would deliver stability and democracy in the Arab world is a different matter. It is going to be the immediate and long-standing headache of the protesting population.

     While many, including foreign powers who supported the protesters in their continuing bid to "plant" democracy among the Arab countries and elsewhere, may be happy with the developments in the Arab world, there is no doubt that the consequences would affect everyone. That explains the double speak by some foreign powers who, while encouraging the protesters to act as catalyst for change, at the same time urge them to exercise restraint. The appeal is informed by enlightened self-interest as any interruption of oil supplies, as a result of the upheavals in the sub-region, will have serious consequences across various countries of the world now striving desperately to come out of recession.

     Among those who made statements before and after Mubarak's departure was the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. I thought his pronouncements were somewhat premature as the UN was not saddled with the matter. Upon further reflection, I realised how deep "globalisation" has eaten into the conduct of international relations. Nations are no longer as "sovereign" as we used to know them. Today, for example, the conduct of elections or population headcount by a country is no longer an "internal affair" of that country. We have seen it in Nigeria's headcount and in the conduct of our elections as well as in the fight against corruption or terrorism and several other cross-border crimes, like drug- and human-trafficking as well as cyber crimes. These days, other countries, international organisations and regional bodies not only send observers but also contribute financially and otherwise to the effort. In the end, as we see in the case of elections in Ivory Coast, international opinion on how the votes went is proving to be what lends credibility to the process. And God help any country whose leader scores over 90% of the votes in a general election, as was a common feature in French-speaking West African countries in the recent past.

     In today's world, the privileges of sovereignty, in the classical sense, appears to be the exclusive preserve of the strong nations, and there are only very few of them on the planet. It is only the armed forces of such countries which could commit havoc with impunity in other parts of the world and get away with it. The weak can't dare it. Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan is fighting the battle of his life to escape being dragged to the International Criminal Court to face criminal charges. He allegedly committed crimes against humanity while trying to curb separatist tendencies in his country. Have the leaders of powerful nations, who were faced with similar separatist threats and had taken similar measures, been roundly condemned or brought to international justice? No, of course!

     Growing "globalisation" has spelt a death knell to "sovereignty" for most states of the world. The likes of Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Ben Ali are the recent victims but "globalisation" will irresistibly reverberate in style, form and substance across the world as the years go by. Global media, social media, ICT and powerful nations or regional groups working in concert are the tools of warfare, no longer merely tanks, missiles, and battalions. We saw a bit of that in the demolition of the Soviet bloc during and after the cold war. This was followed by the break-up of Yugoslavia. Sudan is the current victim of territorial balkanisation. China, which the West appear to have slated for balkanisation after the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, has, so far, been able to withstand the assault because of its growing economic and political clout.

     Separatism remains a threat to globalisation even within Europe itself. In forming the European Union, Europe appears to have traded its nationalistic instincts for economic survival. It will be of continuing interest to see how it would maintain this unity against the quiet but sometimes explosive revival of nationalism across the EU nations. We were all witnesses to the developments in Belgium where the Flemings and the Wolof, fired by nationalistic ego, could not agree to form a government. Hence, Belgium was without a government for a period so unprecedented it entered the Guinness Book of Records. 

     Indeed, what is predictable is that China, the European Union and the United States of America can't remain in their present form, after other lesser territories have been balkanised by sheer force of nationalism and foreign intrigue. Their fate, in the coming years, will very much depend on the balance of power which will inevitably shift for a variety of reasons. Such reasons would include globalisation, emergence of new economic blocs, revival of nationalism, foreign intrigue, global media, social media, and population growth.

     Analysts overwhelmingly agree that the current upheavals will change the face of Egypt, the entire Middle East and North Africa. Democratisation of the areas will not only sweep away the despots but also seriously shake the powerful sheikhdoms and kingdoms who have presided over the enormous resources of the region for decades. Giving the people greater say in governance will invariably result into a redistribution of the resources as well as dictate the manner of the exploitation and control of the huge oil resources. As a result, we are bound to witness a new regime of not only economic but also political realignment in the entire sub-region and ipso facto the entire world.

     Whether the changes in any country are brought about with or without the support of foreign powers, the effect will be far reaching, although at this moment it will be difficult to predict the nature and extent of the realignment with any high degree of accuracy. It will certainly be a game of high politics and a new scramble for global influence. Concern, already, is being expressed about the rise in oil prices and massive influx of refugees from North Africa into the Mediterranean countries of Europe as a result of the events in Tunisia and Libya. Regarding Libya, the West seems to be in a fix. The events there have touched it where it hurts most. The interruption of oil supplies, the influx of refugees into Europe, as well as its morbid fear of Islamic fundamentalism, are matters of grave concern to the West. Gaddafi has also cleverly accused Al-Qaeda, the mysterious enemy of the West, of master-minding the crisis in his country.

     There is another predicament for the West. In accordance with the democratic principles which it advocates, "all voices" should be involved in plotting a new future for the politically rocked Arab nations. At the same time, Western nations express fears about the policy backlash which may give prominence to some "unwanted voices," like that of the Muslim Brotherhood. This will mean a policy of "pick and choose" which is a negation of the democratisation spirit championed by the protesters and their foreign backers. Libya is proving to be a hard nut to crack while the rulers in Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman, among others, are refusing to vacate office even though they are making some concessions to the protesters. As the saying goes, "You can't eat your cake and have it." The West must be prepared to reap the whirlwind set off by their support for democratisation.

      The Libyan case has been internationalised as it is already being debated at the UN. It will be of interest to see how the grand stand in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain would be resolved. For now, it is in the interest of those countries to heed the appeal for restraint in quelling the protests. Else, the global authorities of our borderless world order may indict their leaders for any highhandedness that may lead to heavy loss of lives.         






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