Over the years I have travelled to several countries on different occasions in North Africa and the Middle East including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Like many, I now look on with interest as the populations participate in a wave of uprisings across the region. Tunisia and Egypt have overturned multi-decade unpopular regimes. Libya is on the brink as I write this article and unrest has been reported in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and others.
These countries are somewhat testing places to travel – tiring from the incessant heat and caution with drinking clean water, frustrating at times to travel around, nervy from cultures very alien to my own western upbringing, occasionally discomforting from feeling numerous unwanted glares, and battling with petty, slow and sometimes suspect officials in visa offices, banks and border crossing.
Indeed, I was in Algeria during the first gulf war (1991), one of the few countries in the world to openly support Iraq in their invasion of Kuwait and strongly condemn the military action led by the United States. Taking six hours to cross the border and avoiding the hotspot of Algiers, the initial welcome felt anything but overwhelming. Additionally, it was during the Islamic month of Ramadan. Except for private drinks of water during the day (yes, it was hot), I also abstained from eating in the daylight hours (not that cafes were open, but it was the correct thing to do). With the exception of two stones thrown at me in one town, only the utmost courtesy, friendship and interest was shown to me through the weeks in the Algerian towns and crossing the Sahara.
While I often tried to start fairly general conversations about conditions in the various countries, it was clear that venturing too close to political commentary was a no-go zone. There may be some quiet and generic complaints about the rate of pay or the health system and even an occasional veiled reference to corruption, but people quickly would start to look uncomfortable and change the topic.
In Australia, like most western countries, I can confidently communicate my views on the government, the laws and the various changes without censorship or any real feel of repression. Even public protest is unlikely to cause any issues unlike in Libya where armed mercenaries are gunning protesters down in cold blood or arbitrarily arresting them. While the army was superbly restrained in Egypt, there were several reports of arrests of the leaders in the uprising.
Most importantly, in Australia, I get a say in who should run the country every three years and have no fear that the defeated leader will try to institute themselves into office for life, arrest or ban all the opposition, call in the military or change the result through foul means. Change is orderly and while all parties make their ambitious claims before an election and make the opposition out to be worse than Hitler, Vlad the Impaler, Pol Pot and Caligula all rolled into one, they follow the basic electoral laws and accept the result.
In many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (and many other parts of the world), there has been decades of disempowerment of the people. Without the benefit of an independent media, people still complain quietly about the conditions but are cautious to keep their opinions very quiet. These leaders, drunk on absolute power, quite happy impose long prison terms or kill anyone who raises their head too high above the pack to complain (spooking others to not follow in their actions). Desperate leaders will unleash the military on their on citizens, the very group charged with protecting the population.
This makes the current uprisings extremely brave and worthy of the utmost respect. Some will lose their lives or livelihoods and all take a great risk if the revolution fails. Uncertainty must reign in their minds but there comes a point where the momentum of people’s beliefs and the efforts in the region can bring important change. Tunisia and Egypt have forced their leaders from office and Libya looks likely to follow. I can only hope that there are several others too.
To my mind, it has similar parallels to the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. I fortuitously travelled to Hungary and Czechoslovakia only months before the momentous events and students were speaking more confidently despite the personal risk. A Polish shipyard led the way but once one regime failed, there was a rapid progression as states claimed independence of the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain countries changed from unpopular and unrepresentative communist regimes. Some leadership rolled quickly (Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution) while other struggles resulted in greater bloodshed. The imagery of suppressed East Germans breaking down and clambering over the wall to re-unite the two halves of their country is fresh in most of our minds.
I am not sure that I’d have the courage to risk my life for such change. It is difficult to tell until you are in the situation. But my admiration goes out to these fine young men and women who have the courage of their convictions to make a better place for their future generations and for a change that is good for the world. Let us hope that their efforts aren’t in vain and result in better countries for the citizens of North Africa and the Middle East.