- Special Reports
Eighteen Days That Shook the Middle East – Part I
Eighteen Days That Shook the Middle East – Part I
LONDON: The 18-day uprising in Egypt is far from qualifying as revolution. Yet it signals a tectonic shift, sending tremors throughout the Middle East, causing deep foreboding among some and jubilation among others. Mass demonstrations in Algeria against military dictatorship the day after Mubarak’s fall could point to events ahead.
So far, Egyptians have shown courage and unity that may lead to lasting change. But for street protests to culminate in revolution – complete uprooting of the established system is needed.
While Hosni Mubarak resigned, the military remains in power – Egypt’s final arbiter. Generals, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, withdrew backing for Mubarak as pressure by Washington became unbearable. Police, Interior Ministry paramilitaries and intelligence services remain intact. Nonetheless, a new chapter has opened in the chronicle of the Arab Middle East. It’s unlikely that Omar Suleiman, lieutenant general and head of the hated intelligence apparatus for nearly two decades, will enter the race for presidency.
Once emergency rule is lifted, the Muslim Brotherhood will rise as the leading political force. As a member of the National Association for Change, an umbrella organization of opposition groups, the Brotherhood participated in last year’s campaign to secure 1 million signatures for a petition to lift emergency rule and change election laws, collecting seven times more signatures than all secular factions combined. By Western estimates, the Brotherhood enjoys up to 40 percent popular support.
Persistent press reports suggest that the US embassy in Cairo has worked to establish contacts with Brotherhood leaders. The Brotherhood deliberately kept a low profile in protest demonstrations, keenly aware of US and European Union hostility to anything that smacks of political Islam. In any back-channel talks, US diplomats would encourage the Brotherhood to soften its stance.
But the Brotherhood is already a moderate organization. Its 2007 manifesto called for nothing more radical than the establishment of a council of Islamic jurists – a consultative body – to review laws and official policies to judge whether or not they’re in line with basic Islamic precepts.
Already its leaders have declared that they won’t put forward a candidate for presidency nor aim to win a majority of seats in parliament, recalling how Algerian generals crushed the Islamic Salvation Front in 1992 when it won 188 of the 231 seats in the first round of the parliamentary poll.
Nonetheless, preeminence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics will impact the region.
It will ease pressure on the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Since the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War, Gaza Strip and Egypt have had close relations. Hamas evolved out of the Islamic Center, the front organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestinian Territories, in 1987.
Relaxed border control between Gaza and Egypt will improve daily life for 1.5 million Gazans and boost morale of Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Hamas will consolidate its authority and popularity. Conversely, popularity of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which enjoys close links with Suleiman, will decline.
Since a majority of the population in Jordan is of Palestinian origin, King Abdullah II will feel the consequences of the fall of a close ally. He’ll be amenable to let the Brotherhood's political wing, Islamic Action Front, function openly. He may dissolve the parliament elected last November and order fresh elections. The Front and other opposition groups had boycotted the November poll, protesting the electoral law that increased rural representation at the expense of urban.
As a fellow-Islamic party albeit of the Shiite variety, Hezbollah in Lebanon will be elated by the Brotherhood’s rise.
While the secular Baathist regime of President Bashar Assad has repressed the Brotherhood in Syria, it has hosted the exiled leadership of Hamas. Syria has been a strategic partner of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its founding in 1979. It views the fall of Mubarak, whose country signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979, thus fracturing Arab unity, as a US setback.
Mubarak’s fall casts a dark shadow over leaders of Israel. Irrespective of party affiliations, they had forged strong intelligence and security links with Mubarak and Suleiman. Release of cables by WikiLeaks shows that Suleiman’s office maintains a hotline to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, used almost daily.
Israeli leaders have two stark options: strengthen further its siege mentality by enhancing security and intelligence capabilities or de-escalate by making peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs along the lines offered by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia in 2002. The latter requires two independent states, with Palestine almost along the pre-1967 border and East Jerusalem as its capital. The starting point would be a complete freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
With the onset of democracy in Egypt, official policies must start reflecting popular opinion. And that opinion – covering both Islamic and secular segments of society – will insist that Israel reach an equitable treaty with the Palestinians. Without that there can be no peace between Egyptians and Israelis as peoples.
In North Africa, Algeria is bubbling. Opposition factions, NGOs and unrecognized trade unions have formed the National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy. Security forces broke up a12 February demonstration in central Algiers to celebrate the fall of Mubarak.
Fearing the fate of Tunisia’s president, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, promised to lift emergency powers, address unemployment and allow peaceful marches. The time to fulfill his promises is running short. Instability in Algeria, an exporter of oil and gas, will raise hydrocarbon prices, damaging the world economy.
Much was aired in the Western media about what the Obama administration said to Mubarak, but little was published about telephone conversations between Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah, discussing the hand of “foreigners” in the peaceful and persistent demonstrations. Now that Mubarak is gone, the Saudi royal family must fret about the intentions and capabilities of their unemployed young men. With Saudis and non-Saudis living mostly in large urban areas, the potential for peaceful demonstrations has grown. The regime will likely crack down on the internet and allied systems. It’s unlikely that the government will order new local elections, last held in 2005 to satisfy US President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.”
Smaller Gulf monarchies will follow the lead of Saudi Arabia – except possibly Qatar. Its ruler, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, has won praise for sponsoring and funding Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, channels that played a vital role in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s early days of protests.
The new Qatari constitution, promulgated in 2005, specifies a 45-member Consultative Council, with two-thirds of its members to be elected on a universal suffrage. But the election to this council, first promised in 2007, has yet to take place. Events in Egypt could encourage the Qatari emir to install a partly democratic system at home.
“Al Thawra,” the Arabic term meaning “the revolution,” is commonly and incorrectly used in the Arab world for coups invariably mounted by military officers. In reality, these coups bring regime change, not revolution, which involves building new social order on new foundations. By this criterion, only Iran underwent a popular revolution in 1979. What’s happened in Tunisia is regime change in stages.
In Egypt, the generals who have ruled since 1952 have merely set aside their front man. Whether they willingly yield power to popularly elected politicians remains to be seen.