THE year is only 34 days old and already it has seen the absolute demise of one dictatorship (Tunisia), the near collapse of another (Egypt), the rattling of a third (Jordan), the likely ruin of a fourth (Yemen) and the possible failure of a fifth (Algeria).
That, by any measure, is a good start to what may be the most fundamental political change in the Middle East since 1948, when the state of Israel was founded. The drama of the past 34 days was enhanced by the fact that two of the dictatorships either to fall (Tunisia) or flirt with downfall (Egypt) were, until recently, considered, especially by the US government, the most stable and least likely to fall In fact, US strategy in the Middle East has rested largely on an expensive peace between Egypt and Israel bankrolled by the US. It is largely because of this peace, brokered by former US president Jimmy Carter back when he occupied the White House, that Egypt is one of the top three recipients of military and other aid from the US, after Israel.
The peace rested on a firm understanding between the Americans, Israelis and Egyptians, whose state is the largest and most politically significant in the Middle East, that the other Arab-led dictatorships in the Middle East posed little existential threat to Israel so long as Egypt honoured its side of the Camp David agreement.
But Mubarak now looks likely to fall, meaning Egypt as we know it could change dramatically as Egyptians, fed up with corruption, neglected by a statistically impressive but empirically hopeless economy, and fed up with a leader, Hosni Mubarak, who seemed to think he was fated by history to rule, take to the streets to demand his ousting. But it is not only Mubarak’s Egypt that is likely to go into the proverbial dustbin of history. The US policy of making nice with Mubarak while ignoring his brutality against his political opponents and, occasionally, using Mubarak’s apparatus of repression for the “rendition” and torture of enemy combatants, will also have to change. The last thing the US wants is to, again, find itself backing the wrong side in the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East.
The US made that mistake by backing a coup against a democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950s, supporting Saddam Hussein and even plying him with arms in the 1980s while he fought against the hated ayatollahs of Iran, and abandoning, in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, who had helped the US give the hapless Soviets a taste of Vietnam.
That is why the US has been treading gingerly on this. That is why US President Barack Obama has been frantically trying to sound allied to both pro-democracy protesters and Mubarak at the same time. Obama wants to be able to claim some credit should Egypt be delivered finally from dictatorship.
But what is the lesson of the recent events for southern Africa? In particular, what lessons does the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East have for Zimbabweans?
The most important lesson to come out of Egypt and Tunisia, it seems to me, is that revolutions cannot be outsourced.
There has been something rather obscene about the ways in which some human rights activists, Zimbabwean and non-Zimbabwean, have presented the problems in Zimbabwe as if they are entirely SA’s or, to be exact, Thabo Mbeki ’s. One got the impression sometimes that these activists wanted Mbeki and South Africans in general to march on Harare. Some even suggested SA invade Zimbabwe.
What these hysterical calls did was absolve the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe of the responsibility to take the lead in the fight against Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship.
Why is it, for example, that none of us who want to see Mugabe out of office and on trial for all sorts of crimes have bothered to ask why the Movement for Democratic Change, whose roots are supposedly in Zimbabwe’s labour movement, has yet to organise a successful strike, stayaway or other form of popular protest?
None of this is to ignore the brave men and women, journalists, lawyers, farmers and ordinary citizens who have protested against Mugabe’s rule and paid with everything from their lives to their limbs and property. The actions of these people must be recognised and honoured. But they cannot and should not be the exception.
Zimbabweans cannot outsource their revolution. They cannot leave the fight for their freedom to others. Sure, they need support, solidarity and the knowledge that the rest of the world is on their side. But they cannot expect the fight to be led by outsiders. That, for me, is what the Egyptians and the Tunisians have taught us.
Mubarak has one of the most formidable repressive machineries in the world but that has proved worthless in the face of popular protest. Voting with their feet, as the millions of Zimbabweans have done by moving to SA, Zambia, Botswana, Canada, Australia, the US and the UK, must have been a difficult thing to do. But it is by no means courageous.
Courage is staring down a dictator, telling him to go and standing your ground. That is what the North Africans have done. Let us hope Zimbabweans learn from them.