In the turn of the 20th century, there was a great colonialism by European powers that set up much of the present day states.
Parliaments were instituted and there was a type of free voting that did not last. The elected governments were eventually discredited because it proved to be largely a game played by big landlords who became chieftains and called themselves “King” and “Sheik” and other swellheaded names.
When the discovery of oil and new riches came to those desert countries, the desolate sands became new gold that enriched the elites who had established themselves. But the people, not part of the governing system, were left out.
Beginning in the 1950s, the old parliaments were kicked out of office and land reform was undertaken, but all that changed as nationalist officer corps headed their fiefdoms that bestowed power on strongmen followers.
In more recent years, those dictators became friends of the U.S. and performed services that assisted American foreign policy. The ruling families fell into U.S. favor, and government got deeper into self-dealing that advantaged their family and relatives. The U.S. benefited them in return for favors in oil and other businesses.
Examples of Middle East abuses of power are legend. The wife of the dictator of Tunisia, Zine EI-Abidine Ben Ali, the notorious hairdresser Leila Ben Ali, placed her relatives in key business positions that flourished.
Four years ago, in 2006, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis estimated that half the major entrepreneurs in the country were related by blood or marriage to the president or his wife.
In Egypt, Ahmed Ezz, created for himself a huge example of abuse. From his high position in the ruling Nationalist Democratic Party, and his close friendship with the son of Hosni Mubarak, Gamal, he took control of the government-owned steel business and then proceeded to control 60 percent of Egypt’s steel market.
The politics of one-party states distorted development. They built universities, but neglected K-12 education for the rural and urban poor. Now Egypt is literally flooded with university-educated graduates who have no job, so they join the lines of rural and the not educated unemployed.
That convergence of both sectors of society, both unemployed, were ripe for uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Universal military service kept the army friendly with the people and they have not marched against their own citizens. Other Arab countries are threatening overthrow with armies that are not as friendly. They have shown they will shoot the dissidents.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has been the dictator in Yemen since 1978. To save himself, he has recently said that he would not seek another term in 2013, and he would not try to seat his son in his place. Nepotism flourishes in Yemen with his half-brother as head of the air force and nephews are highly placed throughout the government.
Likewise, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said he will not seek another term. His opponents have charged him with operating secret torture cells and a private army to protect his strongman position. The question remains, with the oil riches in the hands of the government, will Maliki really leave all that behind?
Algeria’s corrupt state petroleum elite represented by President Addelzziz Bouteflika is now also experiencing masses of protesters in his streets. The country’s generals who rule the Muslim fundamentalist party allowed an opposing political party to enter the parliamentary elections in 1991, and when they won two-thirds of the votes, the generals canceled the election. It resulted in a civil war in which 150,000 lives were lost.
Libya is another Arab country run by one man. Mumar Khadafi. With crowds now in the streets, he is supported by three sons, each in charge of the air force, navy and army. Khadafi did not respond but delegated his son to reassure the people of free elections, but he won’t endorse their promise. He dings to his dictator’s office.
The left-behind citizens of those heavy-handed ruled countries seek a time when they will return to the 1930s and 40s with free parliamentary elections. If they are denied that dream, Arab masses may turn to more desperate and dangerous alternatives. The absolute power of the absolute corruption of their leaders is intolerable.
Edmund Reggie is a retired Crowley judge.