Commentary: Wary of the new Middle East

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2011 

Events in the Middle East are taking place so fast and furiously, uprooting decades of established rules within the Arab world, that I find myself gaping in wonder at the changes.

The scorecard since January: in Tunisia, Zine el Abedine ben Ali overthrown Jan. 15 after 23 years in power; in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak steps down after 30 years on Feb 11; in Libya, rebels seize half the country as Moammar Gadhafi clings to power; in Bahrain, the majority Shiites seek power in the streets from the Sunni king; in Yemen, after 32 years in power, President Ali Abdullah Saleh fights off protesters in the capital, tribes in the hinterland, separatists in the south and religious rebels in the north; in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia demonstrators march for democracy.

Frankly, many of us are torn by these unforeseen events. We greatly admire the young people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia who have stood up for freedom and democracy — the right to hold leaders accountable at the ballot boxes.

But we also worry that once the old order is thrown out of power, the new one may not be a whole lot better.

How will people behave when — after decades of heavy-handed repression — the blanket of controls is lifted. (If it is really lifted. In Egypt and Tunisia it seems the same old army and wealthy elites remain in power even though the top guys were removed.) Too many people who live under authoritarian regimes believe that once they get 50 percent of the votes plus one they can then become the new authority.

Very few people in the non-democratic world realize that democracy exists to protect the minority from the majority. The rule of law binds most tightly the hand of the ruler.

We have seen too often that leaders of democracy movements have been ineffective, prone to corruption, quick to repeat the faults of the dictators they replaced and unable to establish the stability that protects the average family. In many new democracies in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon the Palestinian Authority, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Iraq, elections produced leaders who were too weak to rule, became autocrats or were soon repudiated by voters.

In fact, many countries restored the old repressive party rulers who vowed they had learned their lessons and would obey the laws. Think how Ukrainians re-elected communist Viktor Yanukovych and Nicaraguans restored socialist Daniel Ortega.

Likewise, Hitler won only 33 percent of the vote in 1932 but it allowed him to seize power the following year and never allow another election. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Mullahs in Iran also came to power as minorities by alliances with well-meaning liberal, intellectual or soft left parties. Once in power, the moderate allies were eliminated. So when analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood would “only” win at best 30 percent in an Egyptian election, I am not reassured.

I am torn as well by the wild enthusiasm of crowds in Tahrir Square because of oil. My own country’s efforts to lift itself out of recession could be stymied by $3.50 a gallon gasoline. Whoops. Too late. I am already paying that. It’s $4 per gallon looming on the horizon that puts me closer than is comfortable to the civil war in Libya which is driving oil prices to $110 and $120 per barrel.

What if the unrest reaches Saudi Arabia and gasoline hits $5 or $10 per gallon? I think not just of the impact on America and Europe, but of the poorest countries on earth in Africa and Latin America and Asia where costs to transport harvests and fertilizer and building materials would go through the roof; and hundreds of millions of people would no longer be able to buy cooking gas and kerosene or pay for electricity. They will be forced to walk for hours each day stripping the earth of brush and roots and trees to cook their food. Already record high prices for food are spreading hunger in countries that had begun to make progress.

So what can we do about these still developing events? Some say the Obama administration should give military help to Libyan rebels. But both Gadhafi and the rebels say they do not want a single foreign soldier in their country. Using air power to ground Gadhafi’s jet bombers might only prolong the conflict, not decide its outcome. And we would be adding to the thousands of Muslims who have already died due to our expeditions to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

It’s time to transfer our hectoring and cajoling on behalf of democracy and American or universal values into reality. We should invite representatives of the Gadhafi and rebel forces to meet in Cyprus or Malta and discuss a temporary cease fire and humanitarian aid corridors to evacuate those trapped by fighting, aid the injured, feed the hungry and protect continued oil exports.

We can invite other Arab leaders to send delegates to this mediation which is aimed at changing the fighting in the desert to arguments in local councils that could be set up to run services and security in a communal basis.

The holding of mediation sanctioned by the U.N. and the Arab League could become useful in Bahrain and Yemen as well. Offering protesters a seat at the table plus a voice in local government affairs could prove to be a path to responsible engagement by forces who need to learn more about democracy by first-hand experience. It’s a long shot but worth trying.

So part of me is with the democracy advocates in Cairo and Tunis. But part of me is wary.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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