Fear, not hope, is driving the politics of the Middle East

05 May 2011

Rattled by events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, Middle East governments are tightening their grip on power and their people

Bored by the indecisive civil war in Libya, impasse in Yemen and the impossibility of rapid change in Syria, the media has moved on to report on the death of Osama bin Laden and the limitless duplicity of Pakistan’s rulers.

Fear is a motivator, but it destroys more than it can ever creat

They are leaving behind the reality that the “Arab Spring” uprisings it hailed three months ago is over. There is going to be no summer of freedom, but a long winter or reaction that will dash fantasies that entrenched regimes would fall like dominos.

It is not the kind of headline readers in Europe and North America want, but the story across the region is that governments are tightening their grip on power, not loosening it. Demonstrations of any kind are now impossible in most of the Middle East. The public realm is being quickly closed to those with discordant views.

This is the first unpalatable fact. The second one is that most of the people of the Middle East, if their opinion was sought, would probably say they welcome such measures. The sight of chaos in Egypt, bloodshed in Yemen, civil conflict in Libya and massive state violence in Syria has converted many initially enthusiastic about developments in Tunisia and Egypt into sceptics. If political change involves violence and disorder, then the majority will probably opt for the status quo and who could blame them?

This sentiment is certainly shared by foreign workers in the Middle East, numbering more than 10 million people in the GCC alone. Many come from countries without functioning democratic systems and they came in the knowledge that they cannot vote in their host countries and never will. It is a small price for jobs that pay far more than any available in their homelands.

Those that have been quietly encouraging Middle East governments to make baby steps towards permitting greater personal freedom now have to deal with the most tangible consequence of the Arab uprisings: the reversal of much of the progress made in the past decade. Even the apparent advances since the start of 2011 may prove to be illusory.

It will be amazing if the government that will emerge from elections due in Tunisia in the coming months is not dominated by people who were part of the previous regime. It will take a cultural change of historic proportions for the army not to seek to influence in a traditional Egyptian way the parliamentary and presidential elections due this autumn.

The third unpalatable development is the likelihood of a crackdown on those using the internet and mobile phones to promote political discord. Governments with billions of dollars to spend on defence equipment and large armed forces can quickly divert resources to contain the threat posed by digital communications.

History has a sombre lesson. The Soviet Union between the revolution of 1917 and its collapse in 1991 probably killed up to 30 million of its people for political dissent. That’s an average of fewer than 500,000 people a year for the whole period. About the same number were imprisoned to lift the annual average of those punished to 1 million. This figure, horribly huge though it is, needs to be set against the fact that the Soviet population throughout the period was nearly always greater than 100 million. So the Soviet regime only needed to kill or imprison 1 per cent of the population in any single year to ensure the compliance of the other 99 per cent.

It was not death and the dungeon that ensured an entire society did what it was told for almost three generations. It was the fear of death and the dungeon.

There is no way someone using electronic communications can be certain they are not being monitored. It will consequently only take the arrest of a handful caught using the internet in a manner governments dislike for fear to be injected into the mind of anyone using a laptop or a Twitter feed.

It is not hope and dreams, but fear of change and reaction that are now driving the politics of the Middle East. Fear is a motivator, but it destroys more than it can ever create and is the region’s principal enemy this summer.

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