Powered by Television – and Who Else?
Plenty of water has cascaded under the bridges of the Middle East and North Africa since Dec. 17, when a desperate Tunisian youth immolated himself after he was deprived of his living as a poor vegetable street seller and triggered the first Arab population revolution in Tunisia. The events since then pose big questions which are exercising the minds of rulers and secret service chiefs in other Arab capitals, Israel and the West, especially in Berlin, Moscow, Paris and Rome.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly focuses on some of them.
Above all, many are beginning to wonder if a single hand or entity is not behind the unfolding uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and Jordan. The revolutions in Egypt and Libya share some common traits: They were – and still are – focused on unseating an autocratic ruler and they erupted in major cities, hardly touching the rest of the country.
In Egypt and Bahrain, the capital's main square – Al Tahrir in Cairo and Pearl Square in Manama – was chosen as the main platform for an exhibition of people power which in both cases led to the torching of government buildings. Tripoli was the exception: Col. Muammar Qaddafi had time to study the tactical evolution of the disturbances in other places and kept Green Square off-bounds to demonstrations.
The suspicion about the underlying causes of the Arab uprisings rests on their progression: In Cairo, a demonstration of less than 10,000 in Tahrir square quickly gathered hundreds of thousands; and a turnout of 40-50,000 soon evolved into one million.
News media play ping pong with protest leaders
That progression was closely dogged by news correspondents who, at some point began pumping up events by dramatizing them or even feeding uncorroborated data into their reports. The images they projected brought more crowds to the protest venues and strongly influenced the diplomatic and political policies and actions of world governments and the international community.
This trend was particularly conspicuous in Libya.
For nearly two weeks, reporters on the ground claimed that Libyan Air force jets and helicopters had slaughtered civilian demonstrators with heavy machine gun fire, an allegation which gave rise to the unanimous UN Security Council sanctions resolution of Feb. 26.
In fact, these allegations were never borne out.
The new French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Tuesday, March 1, flat out that they were not true. A day earlier, US Secretary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates said they had not been confirmed and reports about the numbers killed in Libya "were still in the realm of speculation."
As the Libyan crisis escalated, live television coverage exposed a vibrant network of mutual ties between correspondents and protest leaders and expanding reciprocal influence on coverage. While the Arab revolutions were originally depicted as a triumph of the social networks, television soon took over in the driving seat.
Popular standards of living will depreciate
Another key question is this: Who is funding the protest movements? The regimes and secret services would soon have put a stop to financing from any domestic sources.
No answers have been offered to another question: Why were Egypt and Libya targeted for popular uprisings when both led the Arab world in economic development and the modernization of their financial markets?
(The Bahrain showdown is still unresolved and the Yemeni regime is nearing final defeat, as seen in a detailed roundup in this issue.)
In Egypt, for example, Hosni Mubarak had a reform program going which was slowed by the global recession. In 2009 and 2010, the Egyptian economy achieved a remarkable 4.6 percent growth in the face of adverse world conditions.
In Libya, too, substantial revenue from the energy sector coupled with a small population yields one of the highest per capital GDPs in Africa. The Libyan National Oil Corporation had set itself the goal of nearly doubling oil production to 3 million bbl/day by 2012.
So, while the Egyptian and Libyan peoples may genuinely hanker for a "modern civil state," "freedom," "social justice" and "human dignity," their revolutions will sharply reduce their per capita GDP and energy-supported standard of living. When the dust settles, they will see they have come out of their struggles as losers, whereas the parties with an interest in keeping oil prices high will profit hugely.
When will oil price hikes be considered out of control?
Tuesday, March 1,US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said rising oil prices could hurt the chances of economic recovery. In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, he said a prolonged increase in crude prices could pose a risk to the recovery. But he predicted only a temporary increase in inflation, not runaway prices.
His remarks indicated a debate within the administration over whether it is wiser to maintain the tempo of the Middle East revolutions which are pushing oil prices up, or stop them because the American economy cannot withstand roaring oil prices.
The world can weather the disruption of exports from Libya without facing immediate shortages. But Middle East unrest has boosted prices again to $100-a-barrel – and set people on edge. For now OPEC heavyweights like Saudi Arabia have enough spare capacity to make up for scarcities, but what happens if the oil kingdom is caught up in the surging protest movement? Will oil go to $130 or even $150 a barrel?
It is hard to see the oil kingdom escaping disturbances that will be aimed at ousting 88-year-old King Abdullah, who is harshly at odds with President Barack Obama and his Middle East policy.
(More on this in our country-by-country roundup).