Will Mideast Be Next Arena of People Power ?

G.H. Jansen, the author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

The swift collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe has been given surprisingly wide publicity in the Middle East media--surprising, that is, because the news could well plant ideas among people in countries where the regimes closely resemble those of the East Bloc, particularly Romania. There is already much speculative talk, however private, in this part of the world about which government here will be the first to go the way of the Ceausescus.

The common factors in the overthrown East European regimes are also common in the Middle East: totalitarian systems, protected by several competing security forces in the service of all-powerful leaders heading cults of personality; corruption at the highest levels; ostentatious display alongside widespread poverty and inflation; a parallel or "black" economy; waste of money on eccentric prestige projects; limitations on travel abroad, and most important, no freedom to think and speak and write.

All or most of these conditions are found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Algeria. (Libya has a leader and regime of such idiosyncratic posture that it defies easy categorization).

Notice that only republics--no monarchies or sheikhdoms--make up this list. The monarchies have cleaned up their acts since the overthrow of Libyan ruler Idris I in 1969. These days, the sheiks enjoy a beneficent, paternalistic image buttressed by forces of tradition. Even the Saudi royal house has curbed the most vulgar manifestations of its extravagances.

In the regime of the Shiite mullahs in Iran, two of the most controlling forces are gone. First, after the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, no single, unchallenged leader has emerged; the so-called "moderate" President Hashemi Rafsanjani does not control the radicals and the ongoing struggle for power at the top level could weaken or even bring down the whole clerical structure. Second, the Iranian Republican Party, political surrogate of mullahdom, proved so unpopular and ineffective that it had to be disbanded.

Replacing the party is an influential network of politicized mullahs; they cling to power knowing that if they do not hang together, they will hang separately.

There is a semieffective opposition in Iran, the Moujahedeen movement. But it could make a serious challenge only in association with disaffected elements of the army.

By contrast, Iraq's victorious termination of the Gulf War has only enhanced the possibility of overthrowing President Saddam Hussein's regime. The Iraqi populace and armed forces are no longer prepared to give the unquestioning support which, for nationalist reasons, they provided while the war was on. Hussein's absolutism has drained the Baath Party of any real effectiveness. The first step he has taken toward an elected non-party Parliament has not yet filled the political vacuum. A gross cult of personality marked by a flamboyant life style, expressed through the construction of palaces, has become comical. And laughter can be a deadly weapon against the pretentions of a leader. Equally pretentious is Iraq's drive toward high-cost, high-technology armament, including missiles, money spent at the expense of an ailing economy.

Saddam's archrival, President Hafez Assad in Syria, is, if anything, in an even more parlous state. His personal power-base, the small and much disliked Alawite minority, is narrower than Saddam Hussein's clan from the area of Takrit. The "ruling" Syrian Baath Party is barely a skeletal structure, and while the Iraqi leader can claim victory of a sort in the Gulf War, Syria's limited resources are being wasted in a prolonged and so far unsuccessful effort to impose a Pax Syriana on Lebanon.

Assad is even being defied and ridiculed in Lebanon by the tin-pot Maronite general, Michel Aoun. At home, while Assad has stopped work on a vast new presidential palace, the economy has to be sustained by a semiofficial black market. More ominously, the strong backing that Assad's Syria used to receive from the Soviet Union has been reduced, and publicly so. Syria has formally resumed ties with the other Arab countries, but Assad remains a leader on his own, with few local allies. He is vulnerable; his support is uncertain, so is his health.

The best assurance against an uprising to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is historic: The economic sufferings of the Egyptian people "are from eternity." The phrase is part of Egyptian life. But not always from eternity to eternity--hieroglyphics tell of a surprising number of peasant revolts under the Pharaohs.

An Egyptian uprising could become likely if Washington, as a result of worldwide U.S.-Soviet detente, cuts its annual $2-billion subsidy to Cairo. The last mass protests in Egypt followed austerity reforms impelled by the International Monetary Fund. Mubarak's preemptive democratic moves--party pluralism and freedom of information--will not satisfy nor stave off the wolves much longer, however well-meant. Egypt's security apparatus is not highly trustworthy. For all of Cairo's boastful claims about being the natural leader of the Arab peoples, Egypt is, in the Arab world, the softest of "soft states" (to use the terminology of Gunnar Myrdal, the late Swedish economist and sociologist) and so a particularly obvious candidate for overthrow.

In Algeria, the party is a larger problem than the president. It is not that the personal leadership of President Chadli Bendjedid is in dispute, but that he seems to have put himself above the battle. The "socialist" ideologues of the ruling National Liberation Front are now in an advanced state of decay and corruption. But with economic stringency continuing, the NLF is living on borrowed time. As with Egypt, the Algerian government's reputation abroad is not matched by its prestige or authority at home which, several times in the recent past, has been openly challenged in the streets, despite the use of the once-respected army.

One feature Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq have in common is the provocative presence of the jeunesse doree, the overprivileged children of the ruling class who flaunt their parents' power and pelf.

As in Eastern Europe, the overthrow of the regimes would most probably come about through people-power--the levee en masse, which may be preceded or closely followed by protest movements in the armed forces. But in the Arab countries, the generals and colonels are no longer as popular as they once were, for only Nasser emerged from their ranks to lead a nation. On the other hand, there is a clear tradition of mass movements in the streets within all five countries in question.

But these movements cannot be wholly spontaneous: There has to be some leadership, some trigger-incident brought about by a particular group. In Iran, this could come from the Moujahedeen; in Iraq, from the dissident Shiites who are in the majority; but in Syria, Egypt and Algeria, it would be the Islamic militants in leadership roles, as they already are.

Another spark could be the opportunity resulting from confusion and division in the ranks of the one-man, one-party state after the passing of the man or the party. But Eastern Europe in 1989 has shown, over and over, that people-power can prevail against even the most obdurate and efficiently organized authoritarianism. The challenge of the slogan "freedom and bread" can be irresistible. The East European examples have not been lost on the Middle East.

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