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A new Domino Theory for the 21st century

Many could see 2011 as the year of coalition: one in which it is firmly entrenched, or one in which it begins to crumble. But few would predict 2011 would be the year for revolution. With the ongoing events in North Africa and the Middle East, not only are we witnessing good old fashioned, grassroots, bottom-up revolt, but a potential paradigm shift in international relations that will have profound and lasting ramifications for the western world. Domestically, it may indeed give inspiration to and throw barely-needed fuel on the fire for students / public sector workers / socialists / anarchists / insert disgruntled sector of society who are all coming out to protest as the cuts bite in, but the impact of these phenomenal public uprising will be felt much deeper. What exactly are the people rejecting? Arguably not rule by dictat. The contagion that has spread from Tunisia to Algeria, to Egypt and now to Yemen, has stemmed from unfathomable levels of unemployment, rising food prices, dashed aspirations and a general lack of opportunity. Each of these countries’ situations have their individual complexities, yet by and large the undercurrent of political dissatisfaction bubbled beneath the surface until these economic factors impinged on civil society and combined with an inability to legitimately express dissatisfaction with the political regime. The result? A nation-wide explosion of discontent. In Tunisia, the 23 year rule of President Ben Ali fell; Egypt’s President Mubarak has said he will stand down at elections in September after 30 years, but may well be forced out earlier as riots turned violent yesterday and external pressures continue; the Emir of Kuwait is paying its citizens an extra £2,250 to celebrate 20 years of independence and undoubtedly to prevent the domino effect from spreading across his borders; yesterday we learnt that the King of Jordan has dismissed his entire cabinet and instructed a new one to look at enacting meaningful political reforms; and this morning, the press reports that Yemen’s President Saleh announced he will not seek re-election or pass rule to his son, after 32 years at the helm. Egypt’s situation is under the most scrutiny as it is a key geopolitical ally for the West. There is always potential for an escalation in the Israel-Palestine tensions that could draw in other states. An unstable, potentially nuclear-capable Iran, driven by religious fundamentalist dogma presents some obvious concerns. An increasing suspicion of Syria and of Hezbollah’s tight grasp on Lebanon has made Western headlines in recent years. So having supportive states in the Middle East for the US – who view the potential for such incidents as a direct threat to their security – is nothing other than a necessity. Trade links and tourism, of course, are also well established between some Arab states and the US, UK and EU generally. Oil also dominates this relationship; the US is the largest crude oil consumer and the cost per barrel has hit a two-year high as a result of the protests. Fuel prices are already extremely high and set to increase further in April 2011 and this volatility will certainly have another knock-on effect at the petrol pumps. For all these reasons, stability is the end game as far as the West is concerned. But what happens if Egypt gets democracy? As has been widely commented since the weekend and is compounded by Tony Blair’s recent comments, the “highly organised” Muslim Brotherhood opposition group would most probably succeed if free and fair elections became a reality. For Egypt to lose its “incomplete secularity” would be almost as unpalatable for the West as it would be to obstruct the advent of democracy. However, the peoples’ grievances are pragmatic, certainly economic, but secular and not necessarily about democracy. The feeling on the streets of Cairo – so we are told – is not a pining for an Islamic Revolution or indeed a coup from any one individual, although we are told that former Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei has popular support to lead an interim administration. This is simply a desperate plea for something better than they have now.  As Eisenhower feared when the cold war era became established in the 1950s, a domino effect looks well underway, but it is certainly not driven by ideology, simply a rejection of decades-long, ineffective dynastic rule that is abruptly coming home to roost. Governance has been plagued by nepotism in each of these nations and now the people want someone to put them first.