The 2011 Arab Revolution
Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed
Summarily, the revolution sweeping the Arab world is as much a revolt against the absence of ethics in business and political life as it is a longing for democracy and transparent governance. Corruption saps the initiative of a people and fosters the division of a society into two classes: a vast underclass dominated by a corrupt upper class which seeks to maintain its privileges through coercion. South Asia is headed in the same direction.
It was a hot summer day in Egypt in the year 2003. We took a boat ride from Cairo to Luxor, a pleasure trip taken by many tourists who wish to explore the ageless vistas along the banks of the Nile. The boat made several stops along the way giving an opportunity for the visitors to disembark and the local merchants to sell their goods.
It was one such stop at a small town in upper Egypt. We stepped out of the boat, careful not to overstep the plank of wood that precariously connected our rocking boat to the pier. The outside air was sultry, dry. A tall Egyptian, his skin darkened from the Nubian sun, his sweating forehead covered with a dusty white turban, sat cross legged in a make shift coffee stall.
“Coffee, twenty piastras”, he called out, trying to attract out attention. For those not familiar with Egyptian currency, the Egyptian pound was worth about twenty cents in the open market at the time, so twenty piastras was four cents for a good cup of dark Arabian coffee.
Right next to the coffee stall was a five star hotel. Its imposing seven story structure cast a demeaning shadow on the coffee stall as if to assert in no uncertain terms its dominance in the landscape. While some of us paid the twenty piastras and enjoyed the coffee at the roadside stall, others more concerned for the ambience of the place, headed out to the cafe in the five star hotel where an identical cup of coffee was sold for ten Egyptian pounds.
That was a ratio of 250. Some had a cup of coffee at a poor man’s hut for four cents. Others had the same coffee at a rich man’s hotel for 250 times that price.
Rich man, poor man. There you have it. There are two Egypts, one wallowing in luxury, the other mired in abject poverty. Just take a look at the imposing skyscrapers that dominate the shores of the River Nile in Cairo and then look at the huts the fellahin live in, in the villages that dot the landscape along the length of that great river. The rich are few in number, perhaps three percent of the population, but they control more than ninety percent of the wealth of the country. The poor move around in circles of poverty which traps them as a grindstone traps beasts of burden, capturing them in orbits of desperation, nurturing a cyclic culture of poverty which in turn begets more poverty.
This is indeed the story of much of the world today. There are two Indias, two Pakistans, two Saudi Arabias, two South Africas, two Uzbekistans, and increasingly two Americas. The opulent rich control more and more of the world’s income and wealth and drive the engines of political power. The poor, increase in number by the day, swallowing up the middle classes like quicksand, and have no say in how the world is run.
Lest you think this is a phenomenon peculiar to Egypt, please consider this. Recently, one of the billionaires in Mumbai built for himself a multistory mansion overlooking the slums of the sprawling city at a cost of one billion US dollars. The ghastly sight of that mansion towering high over the ragged shingled roofs of the slums evokes emotions of righteous indignation and sorrow for the millions who subsist on less than one dollar a day.
It is as if the world stands on an inverted pyramid. The tip of the pyramid, representing the super rich, the kings, politicians and corporate tycoons, gets sharper by the day, while the base that it supports, keeps getting more and more bloated like a balloon into which hot air is pumped in each passing day.
The reasons for this increasingly unstable economic order are myriad and complex. Education or lack of it, discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion, work culture, taxation, coercive politics, social and legal structures, lack of economic opportunity, absence of freedom, technological innovations, globalization, coercive foreign interference, regressive interest rates (riba) are all contributing factors.
However, there is yet another factor that has become the driving force behind rising economic disparities; that is, corruption. We define corruption as a deviation or departure from agreed upon economic, political or social rules. Let us call this the ethics gap.
The upheaval in the Arab world is as much an expression of outrage against corruption and the breakdown of business and political ethics as it is against lack of participatory democracy. No one would hold a grudge against a man who became rich because he came up with a great invention or built up a successful business through hard work. But everyone would resent a man who cheated his way to richness and committed fraud on his people and his nation.
The souks and bazaars in the Arab world and South Asia are rife with conversations of corruption and fraud: Hosni Mubarak, the outgoing President of Egypt has amassed tens of billions of dollars; the Shaikhs of Araby move around in jets reserved only for billionaires; the President of Pakistan buys a multi-million dollar mansion in France while the country faces the worst floods in a century; in Afghanistan only a tiny fraction of US aid reaches the population, the rest is siphoned off by the ministers and the bureaucrats; the central administration in Delhi gave away billions in a 2G telecommunications scam; democracy in India has become a joke with open buying and selling of votes, especially the votes of poor slum dwellers. Perceptions shape attitudes and it is these perceptions that provide the dynamic force behind the ongoing revolution in North Africa and the Middle East.
In the year 2001 when we were visiting Samarqand and Bokhara we were told by informed sources about Muslim investors from Indonesia who were defrauded of millions of their investments in Uzbekistan. Most of the money that is garnered through fraud is siphoned off to Swiss banks. In India, there are reports in the national media about billions of dollars stashed away by Indian businessmen in Swiss banks but the government of India could not even reveal the names of the culpable due to “treaty obligations”. Pakistan is no better, and in some ways is even worse. The world order, championed by the major world powers, protects the scoundrels and punishes the hard working, taxpaying middle classes.
The Arab eruption is an expression of outrage by the masses against this corrupt, fraudulent economic order. It is an outcry of the common man against the rising tsunami of ethical deficit in the economic, political and social lives of nations. Why is there no transparency about deposits by foreigners in Swiss banks? Why do politicians escape punishment when they amass millions on the backs of the very people they are supposed to represent? And what accountability do the sheikhs and the sultans have for the billions they squander on buying arms that are good only to suppress their own people?
The oppressive forces of the status quo do not give up that easily. Qaddafi attacks his own people by air and by land and has invited foreign intervention with his own foolishness. The Saudis ban all protests calling them “un-Islamic” thereby making a mockery of Islam and a laughing stock of Muslims. Bahrain invites foreign troops to quell internal unrest. Yemen kills dozens of its own citizens for the crime of protesting. By what human standard, Islamic or non-Islamic, can these despots justify their brutal actions?
The media project the Arab revolution of 2011 as a call for democracy and freedom. That it is and much more. It is a spontaneous outburst of a people who long for transparent ethical standards and a just social order. A corrupt democracy will not rid society of corruption. A corrupt society elects corrupt leaders through rigged elections and vote buying scams. Of what benefit are elections that replace one set of corrupt rulers with another set of corrupt rulers every four years? It is only when a society establishes just laws and enforces them within a transparent and responsive legal system that it breaks out of the cycle of tyrannical rule followed by more tyrannical rule.
Corruption saps the morale of a people and kills the incentive for hard work. If someone cuts in on a queue at the head of a line, of what benefit is the discipline of a queue for someone who observes it? For a businessman it is a nightmare: he cannot plan anything based on rational business calculations. He too must cut corners to survive.
The establishment of ethical standards and their applications in business, politics and society is a function of the historical, religious and cultural life of a people. It cannot be the same for all nations and all locations and it cannot be imposed from the outside. For Muslims, such standards are clearly and unequivocally spelled out in the Qur’an. Equality and justice before the law; encouragement of trade, commerce and industry; a work ethic that rewards integrity and quality; payment of fair wages; balance and proportion in the use of the earth’s resources and protection of the environment; cultivation of science, technology and culture within a framework of God-consciousness and a spiritual life; mutual societal support and compassion; tolerance, protection, and autonomy for all cultures and religious groups; non-discrimination based on race, color, gender or creed; avoidance of riba and exploitation of the economically weak; provision for the poor; zakat and charity are all precepts well established by religious edicts and the best practices of Islamic people through the centuries. A ruler in Islam is only a trustee of Divine law, not a despot as are so many of the presidents, kings and sheikhs ruling the Islamic world and who perpetuate their power by force of arms against their own people.
Yes, let there be responsive and responsible democracy in Muslim lands. More importantly, let there be an ethical revolution that transforms people and the political, legal and economic structures that govern them so that the poor man has as much of an opportunity to succeed in life as does a rich man. Only then will there be stability in the Arab and Muslim world. Indeed, only then will there be stability in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Democracy alone will not solve the problems that drive this revolution.