More Signs of Change Across the Arab World

BOSTON - Egypt and Syria rightly get the lion’s share of attention in the Arab world these days, but three other important developments in Kuwait, Sudan and Tunisia during the past week highlight other important trends that help us see the full state of the region and its likely transformations. The deep political volatility across the whole Arab world and the very different forms of protest, contestation and change underway indicate clearly that we are witnessing something more historic than merely the 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 most countries and governments since the 1950s, as this order crumbles 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, because Sudan has long suffered the 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 openly protesting against their government’s policies, and in due course they will also demand the removal of the regime, in line with developments in many other Arab countries in the past 18 months.
Sudan’s protests are not surprising because the Sudanese since 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. Not only did a popular revolt remove that corrupt and dictatorial regime, but the armed forces commander in chief General Abdel Rahman Suwar el-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 to Libya Moammar Gathafi's former prime minister, Baghdadi Mahmudi, is a historic marker of changing political relations among Arab countries, peoples and governments. Arab governments had long shown each other the professional courtesies of fellow autocrats, ignoring each other’s internal repressions and crimes and claiming that they could not interfere in another Arab state’s domestic affairs (Jaafar Numeiry, by the way, was deposed during a stop in Cairo to see Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, who gave him asylum). Mahmudi had fled Libya to Tunisia last September, as rebels took control of the capital Tripoli, and is wanted in Libya to stand trial for his role in the Gathafi government.
Even though the Tunisian president and prime minister disagree on how the extradition was handled, nevertheless we now have the important precedent of a democratic Arab country extraditing for trial by his own people a former Arab state official from the former tyrannical regimes. 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 others.
The third and most interesting development last week continued a political dynamic that has 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 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 had dissolved the opposition-dominated parliament, and reinstated the previous pro-government parliament. The emir had dissolved parliament amidst allegations of corruption among its members, and had followed the cabinet's resignation so that the former prime minister could not be questioned by MPs about alleged bribes paid to pro-government MPs.
This extraordinary battle of wits among the emir, the courts and the parliament brings to a close the short-lived last elected parliament that had 34 of its 50 seats held by opposition MPs, 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 Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global