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Popular Uprisings in the Arab world

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  • March 23, 2011
    Round Table

    Event Report

    This discussion was organized against the backdrop of the recent Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the 18 day long protest in Egypt that overthrew the Hosni Mubarak regime that sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world. The success of popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt has encouraged people in neighbouring Arab countries like Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain to protest against their authoritarian regimes demanding better economic conditions and political freedom in their countries. Moreover developments in the Arab world have sent tremors in the global oil market. The objective of this event was to discuss this critical issue in the Arab world and its implications for India.

    Ambassador Ishrat Aziz opened the discussion by pointing out the significance of the region to India – more than 70% of India’s oil imports come from the Gulf region; moreover, over 5 million Indians currently reside in the West Asian countries. Professor P R Kumaraswamy, Dr. P K Pradhan, Ambassador K C Singh and Shri Saeed Naqvi presented their views on the ongoing situation.

    Professor P R Kumaraswamy noted that it is difficult to generalize outcomes for countries where protests have been taking place, since each country is unique in its socio-political conditions, degree of grievances and external interference. The case of neglected minorities in each of these countries is also a key factor in the rapidly changing situation in the region. He observed that the options for India to consider would have to revolve around developing a policy, not just for individual countries in the region, but towards the wider Gulf region. This is crucial while keeping in view the continuing instability that the region is expected to undergo.

    Dr P. K. Pradhan’s presentation focused on the details surrounding the uprisings that have taken place in the region so far – a number of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait announced cash and other welfare benefits to their citizens in the wake of street protests in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain. The main question raised was how long these regional governments could find an economic solution to a political problem. Dr Pradhan also pointed out the main challenge for India was to protect the interests of the Indian diaspora in the region. An escalation in regional tensions would require mass evacuations of Indian citizens that could pose considerable difficulties as seen with the evacuation of 18,000 Indian nationals from Egypt last month. He also touched upon the short and long term impacts of these protests; in the long term, there will be a need for reconfiguring the ruler-ruled relationship in these countries, with the people having more of a voice in the affairs of the state.

    Ambassador K. C. Singh touched upon the importance of protecting the interests of Indian citizens living and working in the region, drawing upon his experiences of serving there. He pointed out that India needed to take corrective steps to create greater employment within the country so that the Indian government’s policy towards the West Asia region is not held hostage to the interests of our nationals residing there, in the event of crises such as the ongoing one. Also, he observed that there would be four key states that would stand crucial in defining the balance of stability in the region in coming months – Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Singh made three recommendations on how India can respond to this situation keeping long term national interests in view:

    1. This is a great opportunity for India to create a free zone (such as Dubai), on the west coast of the country, situated outside the Gulf, and in the Indian Ocean, since there is a need to create another transit point for trade.
    2. India must reduce its dependence on laborers’ remittances from the Gulf region.
    3. Diversifying resources is important for India to advance its national interests in a rapidly changing world. India must engage more economically with countries like Iran and Brazil.

    Shri Saeed Naqvi, in addition to giving the participants a historical view on the current uprisings, also observed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would remain a defining factor in determining stability in the region.

    The discussion that followed focused on the need for greater coherence in policy formulation for the West Asia region as a whole; the debate on this question revolved around if and how such formulation could take place when individual countries required unique policies to be framed. On the ongoing situation in Libya, one of the questions touched upon the need for India to take a stronger stance on issues raised in the UN Security Council; this was discussed within the context of India’s decision on the UNSC Resolution 1973 to approve a no-fly zone over Libya. Also touched upon was the question of long-term implications of these protests on Iran, the need to track developments in Syria keeping in view recent developments with and within Lebanon, and demonstrations in Beirut last week. The importance of tracking developments in Egypt was also stressed; any new government in Egypt would have to decide on policies to be adopted vis-à-vis Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, with Egypt having been a key player in the conflict, both as a mediator and due to its shared border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

    The Chair concluded the discussion by noting that the root cause of the uprisings in the region lies in the fact that no regional ruler has succeeded in creating an inclusive national identity and this will not happen without democratic governance and the state reflecting the voting equilibrium of the people.

    Report prepared by Princy Marin George, Research Assistant, IDSA

    Concept Note

    The recent Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the 18 day long protest in Egypt that overthrew the Hosni Mubarak regime have sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world. The success of popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt has encouraged the people in the neighbouring Arab countries like Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain to come out to the streets to protest against their authoritarian regimes demanding better economic conditions and political freedom in their countries. They have also raised issues like corruption, unemployment, poverty, inequality, police heavy handedness etc with their rulers.

    Being nervous about the protests the region’s rulers, in an ad hoc manner, have announced some measures to appease the people. But these measures have failed to completely satisfy the people who are continuing with the protests. The rulers have tried to deal with the situation tactfully, (albeit Libya whose leader Muammar Gaddafi has ordered use of force against the protesters killing over 300 people), offering economic concessions, dialogues with the opposition and promises for a better future. Though usually authoritarian in nature and deal with the popular discontents strictly, the regimes have applied restraint in using force against the demonstrators and have attempted to show a people-friendly face to the world.

    The continuing protests raise the question of political legitimacy and stability in the Arab world. The leaders of the region have been suffering from acute legitimacy deficit, and the growing frustration of the people further deepens that feeling among the people. With people openly questioning the ability and legitimacy of the rulers, the unsettled issues may lead to further internal instability in the countries. Similarly the issues of democracy, human rights and broader questions of equality in the region are also of primary importance to be negotiated between the rulers and the ruled. Poverty and unemployment are other important instigators for the protests. The Arabs have been witnessing the rising economic inequality in their countries with the leaders living luxurious lives spending huge amount of national wealth.

    With such huge inequality and discontent prevailing among the people, the popular protests seemed obvious. While the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia provided the initial spark, success in Egypt became a strong motivator for others to take on to the streets. Needless to say, the use of internet and the social networking sites have become the primary means of communication to spread the message.

    It is still not clear which way the developments in the Arab world would move. But the popular discontent would certainly leave its mark in the Arab politics. At present, countries like Libya and Yemen are finding it particularly tough to deal with the protesters. The relationship between the ruler and the ruled, social inequality, democracy, human rights and so on would resurface in future if not dealt with properly by the rulers. Till now, the protests have been able to dethrone two autocrats from the power: Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Muammar Gaddafi is in real trouble with slowly loosing parts of his country to the rebels and the United Nations Security Council imposing sanctions on the country. It is only a matter of time before Gaddafi goes.

    The developments in the Arab world will have its definite effect on India. Firstly, the safety of the Indian nationals living in those countries is of primary concern for Government for India. There are around 18000 Indians in Libya, 14,000 in Yemen and more than 350000 Indians in Bahrain. India facilitated return of its nationals from Egypt by sending special aircrafts to Cairo. India is also evacuating Indian nationals from Libya. Secondly, the impasse in the Arab world threatens to increase the oil prices which will have its effect on India. Oil prices have already soared up since the protests began in Egypt. The spread of protests to the Gulf region and any sort of hindrances in the oil production and supply may lead to further increase in oil price for India as the Gulf countries are the major oil exporters for India. Thirdly, in political terms, India needs to prepare itself to deal with the new regimes, if they emerge in the region. India must act consciously so that the political developments in the region do not negatively affect India’s relations and interests with the region.

    In this backdrop, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis intends to hold a round table on this pressing issue to discuss the current situation in the Arab world and its implications for India.