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Endgames in the Old-New Arab World

Winter 2011 In Situ

Endgames in the Old-New Arab World

APTOPIX Mideast EgyptIs this Berlin in 1989? Or Tehran in 1979? No one is yet certain, and the future of the region is just as uncertain

There is fear and loathing in the corridors of power in the Middle East, as unprecedented popular revolts in Egypt – the heart of the Arab world – threaten to inspire similar anti-government protests across the region – with repercussions that may redraw its geo-strategic map.

Jittery regional leaders have moved quickly to make political concessions and increase economic subsidies. In Yemen, after days of protests, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he would not seek re-election in 2013, and said that he opposed hereditary rule. In Algeria, where the situation has been very tense since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised to lift emergency laws in place since 1992. King Abdullah II of Jordan also moved quickly to head off trouble in the kingdom. He sacked the government that had been seen by many in the country as ineffective in dealing with the global recession, and unresponsive to the need to enhance civil liberties. Calls for democratic reform are likely to also be felt in Syria – a country ruled by a Baathist dictatorship since 1963.

There have been comparisons drawn between the revolution in Egypt and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The analogy holds that successful regime change brought about by popular revolt will have a cascading effect that will lead to the overthrow of other authoritarian governments in the region. Of course, while the fall of the Berlin Wall disassembled communism as an ideology, ended the Cold War, and ushered in a an era of heightened international cooperation, the risks associated with Egypt’s revolution could, in fact, produce the opposite effect in the short-term.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution may well be the more appropriate parallel for the Egyptian uprising. The overthrow of the US-backed Shah by a popular mass movement ultimately (and unexpectedly) led to anti-US mullahs seizing power in Tehran. Through the revolution, the Iranian masses effectively ended US foreign policy influence on Iran and redefined intra-Arab relations – particularly for neighbouring countries. The strategic volatility created by the revolution also played a key role in new regional wars, including the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, and eventually the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991.

Washington today has defensible cause for concern that, should the transition of government in Egypt from Mubarak to a new regime be forcible or conducted with undue haste, then any future government will have to appease the Muslim Brotherhood by including it and its policy agenda in a new, untested governing coalition. A politically more confident and assertive Brotherhood is likely to be sympathetic with its ideological offspring Hamas – Washington fears – and could influence a future government to oppose the blockade of Gaza – thereby wounding US and Israeli strategic positioning in the region. It could embolden the Islamist government in Sudan to roll back recent US-brokered political developments in the South, and increase the influence of extremist elements in Somalia. An Islamist-Nationalist ruling alliance in Egypt could see common ground with Iran – some fear – and consequently deny US aircraft carriers quick passage through the Suez Canal in the event of conflict in the Persian Gulf. This would isolate the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which have relied on US bases and protection to thrive.

While Egyptian political pundits have accused the West of obsessing about the Brotherhood, and indeed exaggerating its influence – pointing to the recent uprising as having evolved from proletarian social action to a popular revolution – there is no guarantee that the final composition of the next government will reflect the grassroots spirit that inspired it. In Iran, what started as a populist overthrow of the Shah in 1979 was hijacked by the mullahs and their followers within a few months. The eight-year war that ensued with Iraq effectively sealed the rule by clergy in Tehran. And in Algeria, in 1992, free elections brought Islamists to power – catching the secular, Western-backed government and military by surprise, and leading to a decade of civil war.

The West – in particular, the US – has been painted into a difficult corner from which it must tread carefully to ensure that it does not, on the one hand, compromise the essential interests secured over the years by the Mubarak regime – to wit, sustaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace, fighting Al Qaeda, and offsetting growing Iranian influence in the region) – and that it does not, on the other hand, betray – and is not perceived as having betrayed – the Egyptian progressives and reformers who have been underwhelmed with the follow-through of the Obama administration in the aftermath of the US President’s famous Cairo speech of 2009.

In the ideal scheme of things, policy-makers in the US and Europe hope to see emerge in Cairo a Turkey-style convergence of secular and Islamic governance. Of course, significant socio-historical differences between Egypt and Turkey would seem to make such a development quite unlikely – thus making the future uncertain indeed.

This uncertainty is fuelled in some significant part by the fact that, by dismantling archaic forms of governance in which the ruler is considered to be beyond reproach, and in which economic policies are determined by self-preserving allies of the ruler among business elites, the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia have managed to redefine the military’s relationship with the population. Since the end of WW2, and indeed from the time of their independence from colonial powers, it has been the military establishment that has held the keys to power in Arab states like Egypt, Iraq and Syria, as well as in Libya, Sudan and Yemen. Since the 1940s, the military has been the instrument of change in Arab state-citizen relations – largely enabling the establishment of police states that often brutally repress civil liberties, maintain iron-clad control of the media, dominate economic policies, and propagate single-party rule. And yet, in both Tunisia and Egypt, the army refused to fire on protesters. In Egypt, the armed forces have to date remained largely neutral and autonomous – often acting as a buffer between pro- and anti-government protesters. While this may change, it is in itself a likely harbinger of a tectonic change in state-citizen relations at the very core of the Arab world.  The shackles of fear and intimidation have come unhinged. But the species of governance that awaits them has yet to be divined.

Nonetheless, a gauntlet has been thrown for countries, which have experimented with democratic process and elections designed to be little more than window-dressing. It is unlikely that any Arab electorate will ever again abide by vote-rigging at the ballot box or allow intimidation by the ruling party. The tsunami from Egypt has demonstrated that in the constant tug of war between reformists and the public on the one hand and the repressive authoritarian figures on the other, it is the will of the people that will persevere.


Firas Al-Atraqchi is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / Emilio Morenatti)

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