By Tariq A. Al Maeena
The swift ouster earlier this month of the despotic Tunisian president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali caught Arab leaders from Algeria to Yemen off-guard. Bin Ali, his wife and their extended family have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves, readily dipping into state coffers to loot and plunder, leaving very little for the ordinary Tunisian.
Following the people's revolution in Tunisia, protests have sprung up in Algeria, JordanEgypt and Yemen. There is discontent over leaders holding on to power for decades, often through the suppression of dissent by threat of force, and with little in the way of an improved life for the masses.
Tunisia has proven that you can only suppress and subjugate the Arab street to a point. Egypt is presently in the thick of an uprising. A republic that many Egyptians claim is ruled in an authoritarian manner, where leader was expected to pass on the mantle to a corrupt and inefficient son does not augur well.
Last week, inspired by the Tunisians, thousands of protesters had a run-in with police on the country's streets, stirred by lingering discontent with the perceived pervasive corruption.
In central Cairo, people who had nothing to lose were beaten with sticks and fists and dragged away as police fired tear gas into the crowd. Demonstrations also took place outside the capital in the port city of Suez and Alexandria.
The Daily Mail reported that Jamal, Mubarak's son was said to have fled to London after the country was rocked by two days of riots over poverty. Jamal Mubarak, 48, who was being groomed to be his father's successor, boarded a private jet from Cairo to London with his wife, daughter and around 100 pieces of luggage, according to reports.
Ray of hope
Former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Al Baradei, an Egyptian, returned to the country, despite death threats, to be with "his people". Speaking to reporters last week, Al Baradei stated that "there was an edict against me a couple of weeks ago basically saying that my life should be dispensable because I am defying the rulers".
Asked whether he will run for the presidency, Al Baradei replied, "Whether I run or not, that is totally irrelevant. And I made it very clear; I will not run under the present conditions, when the deck is stacked completely. The priority for me is to shift Egypt into a democracy, is to catch up with the 21st century, to get Egypt to be a modern and moderate society and respecting human rights, respecting the basic freedoms of the people."
Sweet words to a people devoid of any democratic process or apparent respect for human rights. But such a statement could apply to a number of Arab countries, where the regimes have outlived their usefulness and are now mired in corruption and self-interest. The Arab street has only contempt for these long serving despots.
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader who has held power since 1969, condemned the Tunisian protesters for inciting violence and causing the president to flee. "What is this for? To change Zine Al Abidine? Hasn't he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive," Gaddafi said in a speech last Sunday, according to a report that sourced Libya's state media. Another three years of corruption and the usurping of the country's treasury?
The message coming from some Arab leaders is often diametrically opposed to the expectations of their people. Promises of progress which have failed to improve the lot of the Arab street in most of the Arab world, whilst their leaders were swept away in a gluttonous frenzy to enrich themselves through nefarious means and at the public's expense will prove to have far less tolerance amongst the hungry and despairing citizens.
It isn't enough that one has no bread to eat. Nearly half of all Egyptians live under or just above the poverty line, set by the World Bank at $2 a day. But when the wife of the Tunisian president is reported to have flown the coop with gold bullion cleaned from state coffers, or the son of the Egyptian president flees with over 100 suitcases in a private jet, it clearly demonstrates where Arab leaders and their priorities actually lie.
I applaud the current Tunisian regime's move to issue an international arrest warrant for Bin Ali, his wife Leila, as well as other family members charged with taking state money out of the country illegally.
Banks across Europe must cooperate with the people of Tunisia and elsewhere to return such ill-gotten gains back to the respective countries.
There is definitely a fear in the palaces of power.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.