The Telegraph ( Calcutta - India)
Jan. 29, 2011
New Delhi- A chain-smoking Egyptian policeman in the port city of Al Arish told a group of Indians carrying aid to the Gaza Strip earlier this month that "even (President Hosni) Mubarak cannot help unless you pay up”.
Egyptian Security police in the Sinai peninsula’s largest city – that is also the gateway to the Gaza Strip – had detained the Indians in the international airport and were haggling for two thousand dollars as baksheesh.
One of the Indians, Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, sat down on the floor in the terminal’s foyer and began spinning yarn from his "charkha”, symbolic of Gandhi’s satyagraha against the British, even as backroom negotiations were on. An hour later, the corrupt police packed the group into creaky minibuses and escorted them to the Rafah Crossing into the Gaza Strip, "liberated Palestine”.
Little did the Egyptian security police know that that brief encounter with a bunch of Indians would presage violent public outburst on the same road two weeks later.
For the last two days on that desert road, the baksheesh-hungry security police have been spraying bullets and aiming water cannons on the public from the Mediterranean port city through the village of al-Mahdeyya near the Rafah Crossing where protesters burnt tyres and blocked vehicles.
Sadly for New Delhi, the non-official Satyagraha inside the airport terminal in Al Arish was the last bit of Indian pacifist activism in the country that is now in ferment.
Even as the Indians carrying aid to the Gaza Strip were waiting to cross Rafah, Egypt’s tiny neighbour, Tunisia, was on a tailspin into turmoil. During the five days of unrest in Egypt so far the fire lit in Tunis has swung eastwards, cutting a swathe through Jordan and up to Yemen bypassing Saudi Arabia.
In a strange connect, Calcutta and Cairo have forged a link: along the banks through which the Nile and the Hooghly flow, thirty-year-old regimes are on the verge of breaking down.
And in New Delhi, India’s diplomatic establishment is trying to configure where the protests will lead and -- specifically, how they might singe Pakistan – as if it were trying to crack the riddle of the Sphinx. Arab Street is drawing dangerously close to Kashmir.
In the Arab World, however, there is a sustained perception that India has in recent years diluted its engagement while intensifying its relations with Israel. Whether true or not, such a perception itself creates a communication gap that is felt most by New Delhi in times such as these.
"We wish stability in the region. But we do not want to venture any prescriptions,” was all that a senior foreign ministry official would say on Friday when asked by an Arab journalist for India’s assessment of what was happening in West Asia.
Commentators in the West who find increasing purchase in New Delhi have been quick to suggest that the popular upheavals in the Arab world are symptomatic of "fragrant revolutions”, like the "colour revolutions” – such as the velvet, rose, tulip and orange – that swept Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). The term gaining currency is the "jasmine revolution” because many Tunisian men are in the habit of sticking the flower in an ear. But, on a recent windshield tour through a large part of West Asia, covering Iran, eastern Turkey (Turkish Kurdistan), Syria, Egypt and into the Gaza Strip, a correspondent of The Telegraph found evidence of increasing ire against the US and it’s alleged interventionist policies in the Middle-East.
At Saida, near Lebanon’s border with Israel for example, a youth with obvious Hezbollah sympathies, greeted an Indian journalist saying: "Hindostan? You have nuke bomb. Give it to us. We will drop it in Israel and US”. Even in secular Turkey, the hatred was in-your-face, with brazen youth climbing into buses and asking the passengers, "I love Al Qaida. What about you?”
It is more likely that the West will be rudely stunned by stink in its hunt for fragrance.
"At present these protests are a youth movement – against corruption and rising prices. But the Muslim Brotherhood (a large but banned outfit) has joined the protests since yesterday. Eventually these protests can feed into Islamic fundamentalism,” warns A K Pasha, director of the Gulf Studies Programme in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Eclipsed by the current wave of popular upheaval is the issue that has been at the core of Arab politics so far: the question of Palestine.
Since the Israeli raid on a ship carrying aid activists to the Gaza Strip in May last year, public sentiment against Israel and the US has been on the rise. The leakage through the Arabic news channel
Al-Jazeera of the "Palestinian Papers” last week – in which the more "moderate” West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas is alleged to have compromised with Israel, has only strengthened the more radical Hamas. The Hamas is the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip that is blockaded by Israel. And Israel, in turn, is in the middle of a ring of fire – Egypt, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and possibly Jordan.
"The Palestinian people look for stability in the Arab world,” says Zuhair Hamdallah Zaid, minister with the Palestinian mission in New Delhi. "This is not the kind of ‘Intifada’ (uprising) we look far even though we are with the people. Our Intifada was against (the Israeli) Occupation. I think that in these countries, the regimes need to give the people some rights and I am afraid that the most important issue in the Arab world – Palestine – is in danger of getting lost.”
The protests that have broken have to do more with rising prices and unemployment and dignity for now than with Palestine that is an aspiration shared by all the peoples across the Arab world across borders. Jordan, to the west of Israel and Palestine, is home to most Palestinian refugees. Protestors in its capital Amman have been alleging that the Hashemite king and his accomplices are minting money at their cost.
To Israel’s north, in Lebanon, an administration supported by the Iran-backed Hezbollah – whose raison d’etre is to wage war against Israel – has taken over. In cosmopolitan Lebanon that in-turn has led to protestors pouring out in thousands choking the streets of its capital, Beirut.
It is ironic that the two countries that appear to be most stable across the region are Iran and Syria, both strongly anti-US. For all the charges of nuclear proliferation and human rights abuses against it, Iran’s running democracy, complete with charges of rigging, is comparable with India. The big difference is that Iran has proclaimed itself an Islamic country.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who has been running an administration handed down by his father, Hafez-al Assad, has been vocal against the US himself and considers his country to be at war with Israel over the Golan Heights and, often, with the US because American troops are at its border with Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia, where the US firmly backs the regime of king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and abandons its mission to foster democracy in the rest of the world, the Sultan has been more generous – on a relative scale -- with the riches from selling oil while drawing a tight political shroud over public dissent. The king was also India’s chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2006 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh last year.
But beyond Saudi, in Yemen, where the US has been worrying over a revival of the Al Qaida, demonstrators have been wearing Pink headscarves and holding Pink placards that warn the Sultan with slogans such as "thirty-two years is enough” and "Yemen has strong people too.”
This eastward swing has brought Arab Street dangerously close to Pakistan and through it – to Kashmir. In a sense, though, the possibility of Pakistan actually acting as a buffer exists because it is already being consumed from within by multiple conflicts – Shia versus Sunni, jihadi versus the US and the ISI versus everyone else.
"Anti-Americanism can engulf Pakistan but it remains to be seen how much because of the violence that is raging through that country right now,” says Pasha, the professor from JNU.
In a region known for duststorms that last days, finding the paths that cut through deserts can itself be challenging. "Could it be, perhaps, that the Arab world is going to choose its own leaders? Could it be that we are going to see a new Arab world which is not controlled by the West?”, columnist Robert Fisk of The Independent (UK) wonders.
With the Muslim Brotherhood joining the protestors, the possibility of Political Islam overtaking the serious economic demands exists. In Egypt, for example, 50 million of its 85 million population live in poverty. A moderate leadership emerging, if Mubarak were to quit, is a possibility with Mohammed El Baradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returning to Cairo. In the same way, the failure of the moderate – as in Iran, as in Lebanon – could mean the success of the extremist. That is true from the Hooghly to the Nile.