Today's February 17, 2011 and as I embark upon this column the theater of the New Muslim Revolt has shifted – this time it's Bahrain. This island kingdom has an unusual significance. Ruled by Sunni Muslims, the country has a Shia majority. This uprising, therefore, may play a dual role, namely: linking Arab reform activists with protesters in Iran, on one side, and stimulating similar developments in Saudi Arabia, on the other.
The well-known causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain allows millions of Saudis to escape frequently from the abuses of Wahhabism to the 'crescent of normality.' These are the states between Kuwait and Oman is where women are free dress as they wish and can drive automobiles, where non-Muslim religious institutions are open and free, including Christian churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples, and above all, where the hated Saudi morals patrols or Mutawiyin are absent.
At the other end of the 'crescent', protests continues. In Yemen, which, like Bahrain, includes a mixed population of Sunnis and Shias, though the Yemeni proportion reverses that of Bahrain – Yemen has a Sunni majority and a Shia minority. And demonstrations, along with deaths at the hands of police, have been reported in Algeria and Libya, as well as in Bahrain and Yemen.
Most importantly, as predicted two weeks ago, the protest movement has revived in Iran. The dictatorship of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad tries falsely to equate the Egyptian revolution with that in Iran in 1979, but has mobilized its thugs against the partisans of democracy, refusing the Iranian opposition the privilege of marching in solidarity with the Egyptians. Loyalists for the Tehran tyrants attacked demonstrators on 14 February, killing at least one. At the same time, Iran is interfering in the Bahrain confrontation, attempting to transform it into a sectarian conflict.
The bloodthirsty hardliners in the Iranian regime demand the death penalty for opposition leaders Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of who are themselves clerics and are under house arrest. On 16 February London Financial Times writer Najmeh Bozorgmehr commented that the Iranian opposition claims greater strength than that in the Arab countries, based on the larger size of the protests, higher education level in the anti-regime movement, clearer democratic goals, and better organization for 'citizen journalism'.
'Citizen journalism', if one may apply this expansive term to the social networking of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, has found a hero in 30-year old Wael Ghonim, Middle East marketing director for Google. Ghonim is 'admin' or referee of the Facebook group titled We Are All Khaled Saeed, which is named for a young Egyptian killed by police in 2010, and had a prominent role in mobilizing the Egyptians against Mubarak.
Ghonim was kidnapped by Egyptian security agents early on 28 January and was held blindfolded for 12 days. He was released on 7 February, the same day he gave a television interview, in the typically long Middle Eastern manner, to Egypt's privately-owned Dream TV. At the end of the interview, Ghonim broke down weeping at the images of young Egyptians killed during the revolution, and dramatically rushed off the television stage, followed by presenter Mona Alshazaly. The next day the mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square had grown to hundreds of thousands, inspired, according to many observers, by the tears of Wael Ghonim. And on 11 February Mubarak resigned.
Wael Ghonim's Dream TV interview has been posted on the net, transcribed, and subtitled in English, and from it emerges the personality of a modern, Muslim bourgeois revolutionary – the kind of figure awaited on the banks of the Nile since the retreat of Napoleon and the reforming effort of Mehmet Ali Pasha 200 years ago. Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt declared that his company is proud of Ghonim's role in the Egyptian events. Schmidt spoke at the Mobile World Congress, a trade show for the mobile and cell phone industry held in Barcelona. The venue was appropriate; for the past hundred years, if not longer; Barcelona has been a focus of avant-garde, innovative, and otherwise revolutionary thinking in art, technology, and politics.
Wael Ghonim, it should be said, deserves the praise of Google CEO Schmidt; but the style of the Egyptian executive-turned-activist differs markedly from the habitual demeanor of U.S. corporate employees. He and his female host in the climactic Dream TV interview occasionally lapsed into English in their colloquies, with Ghonim declaring, "We are dreamers." But more significantly, Wael Ghonim spoke to the Egyptian people in the classic idiom of the bourgeois revolutionary, reflecting a legacy going back to the French Revolution. He repeatedly expressed his respect for the military officers who had kidnapped him, acknowledging that they also love Egypt and had abducted him because they suspected him of evil, foreign-dictated intentions, which he volubly denied. In this way, he held out the possibility of national reconciliation among the Egyptians now crafting their future. He asserted insistently, in terms almost identical to those outlined in this column a week ago, that the transition to democracy in Egypt must begin without "a settling of scores," that is, with a clean slate and new accounts.
He also spoke of his personal business success and his home in the Emirates, with swimming pool, where he could have stayed during the convulsion in his native land, and argued that because he is economically well-off he has no need to ask foreigners for support in his commitment to the internet revolution. In addition, he noted that he is married to an American Muslim woman and could have applied for U.S. citizenship but declined to do so, keeping his Egyptian nationality.
But if these details spoke to his bourgeois status, Wael Ghonim also, probably without realizing it, had recourse to severe terms that define him as a revolutionary rather than a reformer. He twice called for the removal of the symbols of Mubarak's National Democratic Party or NDP – in Arabic, usually called al-Hizb al-Watan or Party of the Nation – from public display. He repeated, "I don't want to see the logo of the NDP ever again… we don't want any NDP logo on the streets." This implies the suppression of the former state party, and goes beyond a program of step-by-step change.
Appearing on U.S. CBS News' 60 Minutes programme on Sunday, 13 February, Ghonim called for the opening of the "black files" of the Mubarak regime, and the return of economic assets stolen from the people by the regime and its business accomplices. These, too, are revolutionary, rather than reformist, demands. Many countries in transition to democracy, in the ex-Soviet republics and East European Communist states, as well as Indonesia, have yet to open the archives of their dictators or propose restitution for their financial crimes.
The mourning tears of Wael Ghonim, broadcast on television, may have been a determining factor in the fall of Hosni Mubarak. But throughout his long interview, one could detect a subtext: the revolution was mainly aimed at an oligarchy of corrupt business interests. The Egyptian army, which has, it is said, been marginalized by those who enriched themselves by their relations with the dictatorship, may prove an ally of the technologically-based bourgeois class represented by Wael Ghonim.
The ardent Google executive, as noted above, praised the army that had confined him, but disclaimed a significant role for the Muslim Brotherhood in organizing the revolution. Above all, corruption, favoritism, and other disincentives to entrepreneurship and obstacles to transparency and accountability are the basic issues that the discontented people of Egypt, Iran, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have in common. If it succeeds, the new freedom movement in the lands of Islam will promote capitalism and prosperity rather than Islamist ideology.