M A I N   N E W S

Special to the tribune
Rattled by protests, Arab rulers turn generous
Offer economic and political sops; too little, too late, say analysts
Shyam Bhatia in London

February 9
Eid has come early for the Arab masses. The season of exchanging gifts and giving to the poor is not due until much later this summer, yet Arab monarchs and presidents are digging into their pockets in never-before fast and furious ways.

Impoverished Arabs throughout West Asia have Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to thank for their good fortune. Whatever happens to the Egyptian dictator, it is the sight of the masses rising against their government, and before that the Tunisian uprising, that has prompted Arab leaders to discover the grievances of their constituents.

One leader recently donated “from his private bank account” over 10,000 heaters to schools throughout his country while another decided to give each citizen a $3,000 grant. In another Arab country, the President invited opposition leaders to a meeting in his palace and talked about the need for political and economic reforms.

Of late, an Arab monarch has been visiting poor families in villages where electricity and running water are unheard of. Another has sacked his government and launched a dialogue with his rivals from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even Egyptian authorities finally seem to have twigged that they are in power to help their people; hence, the decision to raise salaries of government servants by 15 per cent.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad announced establishment of a $250 million charitable fund to distribute aid to the needy in his country. In Jordan, a senior government official declared war on corruption.

And in what is seen as a pre-emptive move, some Arab tyrants have followed the examples of ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by declaring that they would not seek re-election.

“Arab dictators have suddenly become nice folks who care about the poor and unemployed,” noted Jamal Halaby, a political commentator from Egypt. “But all these changes won’t save them. They should have thought about fighting corruption a long time ago and not now, when they are afraid of the train of change threatening to invade their countries.”

Echoing an identical sense of disappointment, Jordan’s former foreign minister Marwan Muasher, said, “So far, the Arab leaders’ reactions to recent events have been thoroughly disappointing. President Mubarak agreed to step down before the next election, but this is too little, too late. Today, lip service to reform will not be enough. Arabs no longer trust in their governments’ abilities to deliver better management of political and economic matters. The leaders need to understand that if they want to maintain power, they have to share it. Otherwise, what is happening in Egypt won’t stay in Egypt.”

Renowned Palestinian newspaper editor Abdel Bari Atwan said that Arab dictators were mistaken if they think that reducing prices of fuels and basic goods will spare them the wrath of the angry masses. “What is happening in the Arab world is not a bread intifada,” Atwan wrote in his London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. “This is an intifada for dignity. It’s an uprising against humiliation of the Arabs for more than three decades.”

Atwan pointed out that judging from the reaction of Arab leaders, it has become obvious that they are no longer ignoring the suffering of their people. The “culture of fear” prevalent in the Arab world for decades is over, he said. “The Arab regimes have, for the first time, begun revising their policies in a serious manner.”

Palestinian journalist Walid Omari said that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have left Arab leaders in panic. “The picture has been turned upside down,” he wrote. “Now it’s the Arab leaders who are afraid of the people and not the other way round.” The uprisings have seen the emergence of a new Arab identity, he said. “The new Arab can no longer be deceived. A new era has begun in the Arab world.”

Attempts by Arab leaders to persuade their people that they are serious about bringing about real change appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Many Arabs also don’t seem to buy claims by the dictators that radical Islam is the only alternative to corrupt secular regimes. Most Arab dictators have long been arguing that democracy and free elections would bring Muslim extremists to power.

“The Arab leaders are using Islamophobia to avoid political and economic reform,” remarked Dr Khaled Hroub, another Palestinian commentator. “What we have seen in the Arab world so far is the silent majority, especially the youth, taking to the streets to demand change.” In both Tunisia and Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood activists have played a minor role, if any, in instigating the popular uprisings, he said.





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