February 28, 2011

So It's Getting a Little Interesting Around Here

You might have noticed there's been a political shift in the Middle East.

And I have to tell you, it's pretty fascinating having ring-side seats. When the troubles started in Tunisia, it seemed like just another scuffle in North Africa. But after a few days, things really started to happen and everyone took notice.

When the protests came to Egypt, I was transfixed. I could not get enough news fast enough. I made the leap into the 21st century, signing up for Twitter just so I could have minute-to-minute (or second-to-second) access to news. I never really got Twitter before, but for something like this -- wow.

We cynical journalists began a pool to see when Mubarak would step down. A week passed with no winners and we figured the protesters would finally go home. But they didn't. This was so important to them, something we all take for granted, and they were determined. Freedom as the US knows it doesn't exist in the Middle East, and it hasn't for a long time. Imagine any one of our last six presidents with a 30-plus year term. It wasn't just students, or trouble-makers, or intellectuals. It was Egyptians, and that was something to see.

A friend of mine who lives in Kabul was inexplicably drawn to Cairo at this moment. She had to see the revolution. So she packed a small bag, made some contacts and went. It was her misfortune that after nearly a week there, Mubarak stepped down the following day.

After Egypt, there was talk of a domino effect. Who would be next? Would it come to the Gulf? Just in case, the King of Bahrain offered payments of $2,500 to each citizen. Surely that would make folks think twice about protesting.

Bahrain, like the UAE, is known for being pretty stable. They have a quasi-legislature with representatives from the minority Shia population. But Egypt gave people ideas. Surely if a peaceful protest worked in powder keg countries like Egypt and Tunisia, it would work in Bahrain. Until the police fired on their own people.

Libya was next. The chaos has been coming fast and furious, and I still can't get enough information. Because Libya is a totalitarian government, there was no foreign press in the country when their protests started. Their protests, too, started out peacefully, until their insane leader decided that bombing his own people was a good idea.

Libyans who were able to communicate with the outside world begged for attention. They wanted to know why nobody was covering their plight. Meanwhile, journalists were desperate to get visas to cross the border. A CNN journalist was the first to get into the country. I don't believe he made the crossing legally.

Libya has rather put a whole new face on things, hiring mercenaries to kill its own people. That, I think, is what helped save Egypt -- it was a conscript army that would not fire on its own people.

But the Gaddafi family is certifiable. I get that the father is a nutcase. But the son ought to know better, no? (My prediction --Gaddafi the elder dies, at the hands of a former loyalist, and Gaddafi the younger ends up being tried for war crimes)

Shortly after the incidents in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia essentially paid off its populace, too. But there are rumblings on the blogosphere that it is too late. There is supposed to be a Facebook-organized protest in March. I don't think anyone thinks Saudi protests will be peaceful.

In the UAE, several influential sheikhs made a tour of the poorer Northern Emirates. It was time, they said, to meet with the people. I suppose one could draw that conclusion.

And now Oman. Considered the most stable of all the Gulf countries, protests there are entering their third day. We are about 100 miles from the border of Oman, and the protests are in a port city away from Muscat. But Oman is not a large country. It is about the size of North Carolina. Or the size of Yemen (which is having its own problems and is also a neighbor of ours)

Omanis want jobs. A third of their population is expatriate workers, but Oman is not a rich country. People there are not content to spend time sitting around, and their educated populace is frustrated. I do not know if Omanis would do the jobs that expatriates do. But I do know they drive taxis, something you would be unlikely to see in any other Gulf country.

All of this is a long way of saying yeah, we're watching. We're OK. We're not particularly worried, but we're certainly paying attention (as is the government).

I told Paul the other day that this was the most exciting thing I had witnessed in my life. He was incredulous -- What about the Berlin Wall and all of Eastern Europe?
And maybe this isn't as momentous. But I was 25 and living in California. I had never been to Europe. I worked in a Sports section. It just wasn't relevant to my life.

But this -- I feel like I'm in the middle of history. I don't know how it will turn out. As Paul says, these things aren't fast. It takes time to see if these countries will be able to pull it off. For those who aren't plagued by protests, I think they will make more concessions to their populations. Maybe not great ones, but each step matters.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times tweeted: If democracy is OK for the US and Israel, why isn't it OK for the Middle East. It's an excellent question.

I worry that the American media is portraying this as a Muslim uprising. In fact, there has been very little religion involved in this, aside from in Bahrain, where the Sunni minority rules the Shia majority. (And despite claims to the contrary by Gaddafi's son) Sure, religion is a part of life here. But that's not what is driving the protests. It is the freedom of movement, from one Arab country to another. The option for a better life. For less corruption. For more jobs.

And this, my first post in over a month, is my long-winded and rambling way of saying don't worry about us ... we're watching from afar, and taking nothing for granted. And meanwhile, I'm glued to the internet, watching history being made.

1 comment:

Nate said...

Great post, Leah. I'd been wondering what that view from the ringside was like. Am glad that you're soaking in the history.

Thinking of you guys (and tell PaulO there should be an email coming soon)...

Nate