Jasmines could bloom in the islands

By Dev Nadkarni

When a street vendor in the Middle Eastern nation of Tunisia immolated himself in extreme frustration on being unable to gain redress after a raid on his miniscule enterprise by the country’s authorities, it set of a chain of events that has plunged the entire region into an unprecedented crisis.

It was as though this event was the last straw that broke the camel’s back in the Arab nation. The street vendor’s tragic action became a focal point for the pent up frustrations of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians, the spontaneous anti government protests turned violent causing the deaths of at least 219 people. The mass action ultimately toppled Tunisia’s long reigning President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who fled the country to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Fears that several countries in the Middle East, particularly those with long standing autocratic leaders who ruled their countries with iron fists behind a façade of so called democracy had reached similar tipping points proved right.

In the short weeks that followed, the world saw unrest escalate in Egypt, a Middle Eastern nation that has long been considered more open, progressive and stable than other Arab nations. After eighteen days of raging violence that brought the country to a virtual standstill long reigning President Hosni Mubarak, who assumed power after the assassination of iconic leader Anwar Sadat in 1981, resigned after mounting pressure from the nation’s armed forces.

The unrest has next spread like a contagion to other Arab states such as Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, with hundreds of deaths being reported in the latter. Reports late last month also said that many of the country’s diplomats around the world had defected to the protesting parties as Muammar al Gaddafi’s forces turned violently against his own fellow countrymen. Gaddafi has clearly lost the iron grip over the country’s 6.5 million people since 1969.

Many of these countries have enjoyed a reputation as oil rich havens because of the opulent lifestyles and the high visibility of their leaders on the international stage – not to mention the theatrics of mavericks like Gaddafi (he insisted on staying in his customary tent while visiting New York some time back and caused a scramble in the security apparatus as his officials went about looking for a site to pitch his tent).

Recent events have however given the lie to that claim proving beyond doubt discontent among the hoi polloi had been simmering for decades and needed all but a nudge before it boiled over claiming hundreds of lives and sending the autocrats and their cohorts packing.

The common thread that runs through all the leaders of these countries is the legendary wealth they have accumulated at their people’s expense, keeping them in perpetual impoverishment. Egypt’s Mubarak is said to have stashed away US$70 billion. Varying estimates put Libya’s Gaddafi wealth amassed from his country’s oil deals at between US$250 billion and $US1 trillion – much of it spent on impractical ventures that have brought no value to people’s lives.

While Mubarak and Ben Ali tried their best to buy time by promising all sorts of grand plans, they had to escape for fear of life and limb. But the Gaddafi regime has so far tried putting up a brave face and staying put with the dictator’s son Sayf al-Islam promising political reforms while conceding that the police and army had made “mistakes.” Factions of the army appear to have turned in support of the protestors, which threatens the very integrity of the country.

While revolutions throughout history have been triggered by seemingly innocuous events like the Tunisian vendor’s suicide, they are essentially tipping points that turn the tide in a nation’s history that expose the raw nerve of the long suffering, silent multitudes.

Can such a phenomenon as we have seen unfold in the Middle East happen in the Pacific Islands? Let’s look at some of the ingredients that go into the potentially explosive tinderbox that causes these Middle East type revolutions.

For one, these are ruled by iron fisted despots, often political dynasties leaving no room for dissent, debate or the fair distribution of wealth and essential services such as education and healthcare among the masses. Leaders build their power base and personal wealth on a structure that is aimed at keeping the masses poor, uneducated, disempowered and all too focused on the business of survival.

This last point has become increasingly important for the poor of these and many nations across the world as food prices have spiraled through the roof following a cocktail of circumstances ranging from the global financial crisis to climate change and freakish weather that has affected agriculture and food production in many parts of the world including the Middle East.

Add to that bubbling cauldron the fact that the Middle Eastern nations have shared histories as well as shared cultural and religious mores. They are also land locked facilitating an easier transfer of ideology and people – not to mention weaponry, as has been reported at least in the case of Libya, where there is allusion to foreign forces fighting on behalf of the protestors.

But probably the factor that has the rapidest multiplier effect spreading such unrest far and wide and in the most unlikely of places is the proliferation of mobile and online social media.

Both Tunisian and Egyptian protests are believed to have reached a critical point following Twitter and Facebook messages exchanged between citizens, spurring the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes to pull the plug on the nation’s internet service. What has now come to be the “Jasmine revolution” is even reported to have spread to China, where authorities have swiftly moved to snuff out even the slightest whiff of dissent.

The geography, social mores, political and economic ground realities and the levels of activism of Pacific Island peoples is vastly different from those of people from the troubled Arab countries. It is unlikely that the same drivers that ultimately sparked the revolution that is rapidly spreading to the fringes of the Arab world and beyond could drive similar movements in the Pacific.

However, leaders simply cannot afford to be complacent with that unlikelihood. None of the Arab leaders saw the revolutions coming until the tsunami of protesting citizens hit them from all sides, causing them to flee.

The extent of discontent among people, the deep distrust of politicians and their jetsetting lifestyles at taxpayer expense, their indulgence in corruption, nepotism and routine abuse of power eventually builds to a tipping point. The ever rising prices of food, fuel and essentials, diminishing opportunities for employment, worsening living standards and a general feeling of despondency and deprivation brings the cauldron to a boil.

All that is required to tip it over is the instant media that today’s communication technologies provide. It is by far the most powerful tool available to the common citizen. And no political leader of any hue anywhere can afford to ignore that.

So there is nothing to suggest that jasmines can’t bloom in the islands.

First appeared in Islands Business, March 2011