Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beyond Egypt: the changing face of the Middle East

Daily Times Friday, February 18, 2011

COMMENT: Beyond Egypt: the changing face of the Middle East — Dr Mohammad Taqi

The Saudis are deeply worried by the Bahrain-like events where the demographic makeup of the population and regime are lopsided and the socio-political unrest has the potential to topple the regime

The toppling, within a month of each other, of two autocratic rulers, due to popular uprisings, is a first in North Africa and the Middle East (ME). Well, as a placard in the Tahrir Square read last week: “Two Down, Twenty To Go!” These events have monumental geopolitical implications for the broader region — a region where despots and destitution both abound.

We noted last week that the US pundits, wearing their geostrategic interest blinders, had completely missed the ball on Egypt. On the eve of Hosni Mubarak’s disgraceful exit, Zbigniew Brzezinski — in a state of denial matched only by Mubarak himself — was still talking about how democratic transitions in the ME could really have adverse outcomes! I was reminded of Benazir Bhutto’s lament that such US and western double-speak treats democracy as a non-universal value, applied only selectively in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. She wrote in her Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West::

“Here again, one can only wonder how different the history of the Middle East, the Arab world, and the Muslim world would have been, if Egypt, the cultural leader of the Arab world, had been encouraged and allowed to develop a sustained, viable democratic government. It could very well have triggered the domino effect of democracy throughout the ME that the United States hoped to achieve with its intervention in Iraq in 2003.”

Benazir was spot-on about Egypt’s pivotal position in the Arab world and her book is a must read in the backdrop of the Tahrir uprising. The way things are unfolding in the Arab capitals from Algiers to Amman, it is no longer a matter of if, but of when the dominoes will start falling. The key questions are how would such a change start and what would be the extent of it? The Rock of Gibraltar is in a sea of uncertainty since the status quo is no longer acceptable to the — largely young — Arab population.

Whether it is the people’s perception of the economic inequalities in society or a desire for civil liberties, it would not be placated by the autocracy’s belated perestroika from above. It is premature to say how events will unravel in the Maghreb and the ME because the objective conditions in each country will ultimately determine the course and extent of change. However, it is clear that the one-size-fits-all model of revolutionary change will not be applicable any more. It is the inspiration and not the revolution itself that has become the biggest Egyptian export to the region. For future political changes in the ME to succeed, there cannot be copycat upheavals. The secularists and the Islamists both cannot afford to ignore the ground realities, including the pan-Arab aspiration for democracy.

A traditional classification of the Arab world has the oil-rich monarchies with sparse populations on the one hand and the states without oil but with sizeable populations, on the other. Historically, the countries without oil have had strong opposition movements, which, despite severe state repression, maintain a certain level of political organisation. Algeria, Syria, Jordan and Palestine fall under this category and until last week included Egypt as well. Yemen, with its tribal structures intact is rather unique but also belongs in this group.

The West and the US have no love lost for the regimes at the helm in these states, except for Jordan, and are likely to remain neutral towards, if not encouraging of the change. Jordan — essentially a US-Israeli protectorate — had remained a cornerstone, along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, of the American ME policy. Nothing would rattle the Saudis and Americans more than an imminent political change in Jordan. But despite that, it is likely that a fairly representative constitutional monarchy, accommodating even the Islamist Action Front is in the offing. But if one were to take a pick, Abdelaziz Bouteflika appears to be the next one out the door, leaving behind an Algeria not too different from post-Mubarak Egypt.

A key question is whether the oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and smaller sheikhdoms are immune from an Egypt-style change. The UAE with its liberal economy and society would perhaps be the last one from this group to experience any major upheaval. And while many would like to see a regime change in Riyadh, the monarchy appears relatively safe in the short to midterm. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA’s) unique geography with population, business, political and religious centres being far apart from each other, near absence of past or present political activity — notwithstanding one political party created last week — and coffers flush with cash, suggest that the rentier model of state may still work for perhaps another generation. Outside of some unexpected external force causing a major shift in the kingdom’s dynamics resulting in geographic as well as regime change, the impetus for transformation coming from the liberalised royals and restive youth would result only in a veneer of openness.

The Saudis, however, are deeply worried by the Bahrain-like events where the demographic makeup of the population and regime are lopsided and the socio-political unrest has the potential to topple the regime. Similar events in Kuwait can trigger uprisings by the population in the oil-rich eastern KSA, which can become a pain if not a threat for the kingdom.

Pertinent to note are the events in a non-Arab entity, i.e. Iran, which can have an impact on two Levant states. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted the world to believe that the Egyptians were following Khomeini’s lead but the Iranian opposition showed that the converse is true. The desperate call by the hardliner Iranian MPs to execute the opposition leaders has lifted the regime’s façade of strength. What had started in the Muharram of 2009 will end like the Muharram of 1979 — the fall from power and grace of the tyrants. This will remove key support that Iran extends to Syria and Hezbollah, leading to a weakened regime in Syria and strengthened anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. A regime change in Iran could drag down Bashar al-Assad with it or at least tamper with his tremendous capacity to use brute force.

Alexis de Tocqueville had said that the power of the periodical press is second only to that of the people. The social media has now upended the traditional media. But it is the people who ultimately remain the most powerful agents of change and only they will determine what the changing face of the Middle East looks like.

The writer can be reached at

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