Egypt and Syria rightly get the lion’s share of attention in the Arab world these days. However, three other important developments in Kuwait, Sudan and Tunisia during the past week have highlighted other important trends that help us see the full condition of the region and the transformations that are likely to ensue.
The deep political volatility across the whole Arab world and the very different forms of protest, contestation and change under way indicate clearly that we are witnessing something more historic than the mere desire of hundreds of millions of people to live in more accountable democracies. We are experiencing the collapse of significant portions of the Arab order and its power structures that defined a majority of countries and governments since the 1950s. This order is crumbling under the weight of its own deficiencies, failures and illegitimacy.
The three developments I have in mind are the anti-government protests that have erupted across Sudan; the turmoil in Kuwait as the emir, the courts and agitated citizens contest which parliament should be in power; and the decision by the Tunisian government to return a former Libyan prime minister to Libya to stand trial.
The Sudanese protests are the least surprising. Sudan has long suffered heavy-handed rule by a regime that has carried out violent attacks against citizens in different parts of the country over several decades, to the point where the president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and the Southern region of the country seceded peacefully last year. It was only a matter of time before Sudanese citizens started protesting against their government’s policies. In due course they will also demand the removal of the regime, in line with the developments in many other Arab countries.
Nor are Sudan’s protests surprising because the Sudanese, after the 1950s, had already elected democratic and legitimate governments three times, only to have them overthrown by military dictators; and the Sudanese people were the first to overthrow an autocratic regime through street protests, when they forced the resignation and exile of Jaafar Numeiry in April 1985.
The popular revolt removed that corrupt and dictatorial regime, and the armed forces commander in chief, General Abdul-Rahman Suwar al-Dahab, also made history when he kept his pledge to turn over power to a democratically elected legitimate government a year later. The Tunisian government’s decision to extradite Baghdadi Mahmoudi, a former prime minister of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, was a historic marker of changing political relations among Arab countries, peoples and governments.
Arab governments had long engaged in the courtesies of fellow autocrats, ignoring each other’s internal repressions and claiming that they could not interfere in other Arab states’ domestic affairs (Numeiry was deposed during a stop in Cairo to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who gave him asylum). Mahmoudi had fled Libya to Tunisia last September as rebels took control of Tripoli. He is wanted in Libya to stand trial for his role in the Gadhafi regime. Even though the Tunisian president and prime minister disagreed over how the extradition was handled, we now have the important precedent of a democratic Arab country extraditing for trial by his own people a former Arab state official from a former tyrannical regime.
If this trend continues, it will be more difficult for those who participated in the atrocious governance records of previous authoritarian regimes to escape accountability for their complicity in a range of crimes, including corruption, criminal mismanagement, human rights abuses, security services excesses and more.
The third and most interesting development last week continued political dynamics that had been going on for some months in Kuwait, a wealthy country whose citizens are cared for from cradle to grave, but also a country where many Kuwaitis are saying that they do not want to live by bread and material wellbeing alone.
This week several thousand Kuwaitis rallied in a public square to protest the Constitutional Court’s declaration that last February’s National Assembly elections were “illegal,” because the emir had called the elections in the absence of a sitting Cabinet.
The court dissolved the opposition-dominated parliament, and reinstated the previous pro-government parliament. The emir had dissolved the previous parliament amid allegations of corruption among its members. This followed the Cabinet’s resignation so that the former prime minister could not be questioned by parliamentarians about alleged bribes paid to pro-government parliamentarians.
This extraordinary battle of wits among the emir, the courts and the parliament brings to a close the legislature elected this year, that had 34 of its 50 seats held by opposition parliamentarians, including 23 Islamists. This is the fourth time the emir has dissolved parliament since 2006, indicating the chronic nature of political tensions between Arab rulers and ruled, even in wealthy Gulf emirates where poverty and disparity among Gulf nationals are not a major issue.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.