Tunisia Yesterday, Egypt Today, Tomorrow?

Decades ago at the Department of State, the Arab world was simply referred to as the “Middle East tinderbox.”  The region was unpredictable and always on the verge of chaos or conflict.  There was the specter or reality of war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, fighting in Lebanon, revolution and repression in Iran, and brutality on the part of regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. 

Many U.S. Foreign Service experts–Middle East hands–saw the region as a place where America was and should be viewed as a force for stability.  But often, this meant supporting authoritarian governments and the status quo.

Polls in the region show that populace believes in unconditional U.S. support for Israel–without regard for Palestinian human rights–and for autocratic regimes.  America is now reaping the bitter seeds of its past policies.  President Obama speaks out in favor of change, reform and democracy in the region.  But skepticism is high that American policies are changing, and the Arab world sees the U.S. as indifferent to people’s aspirations for democracy.

All the elements of the tinderbox have remained in place for 50 years—deep poverty, corrupt governments, poor social services, unemployment, subjugation of the rights of women and the rise of extremist groups who employ terrorism.

Elites in the U.S. and Europe profited from this quid pro quo: support for dictatorships in exchange for a continuous flow of oil.  But the people in the streets of Arab countries–without jobs, basic services and civil protections, and a voice in their government–suffered.  And they see America indifferent or even responsible for their plight.

President Hosni Mubarak long ignored his citizens’ demand for greater democracy.  Billions in annual U.S. aid–in exchange for Egyptian recognition of Israel and support for the peace process—went mostly to the military, and did not reach the poor.

As this blog is being written, President Mubarak is still trying to stay in power.  He has appointed his security chief, Omar Suleiman, and long time associate as Prime Minister.  The question is whether this will lead to the transition of a new government, or is simply the last gasp of a failed regime.

What or who follows Mubarak?  One option is the Army.  Another is a stand-in government for Mubarak’s own party, or a centrist, secular leader of a civilian government, like Mohamed El Baradei.  The worst outcome is the more radical Muslim Brotherhood League gaining control in the midst of a breakdown in authority and order.     

Is another repressive Middle East regime like Saudi Arabia next?  Other countries on that list include Yemen, Jordan, Iran, and faraway places like clearly unstable Pakistan.  Already in Jordan thousands are on the streets shouting “we want change” and asking for action on corruption and better economic opportunity.  This threat to the rule of King Abdullah II, an ally of the U.S., has many consequences for the region especially when combined with Egypt’s upheavals and Lebanon’s turmoil.  

It is time for American to decide what is in its long-term security interests.  It is time to decide whether U.S. values and goals are democracy and honest government, or maintenance of a status quo that provides temporary stability and longstanding enmity and continued impoverishment for most of the region’s population. Yet, continued unrest and instability also bring a high cost to any society and the vital need for supporting a transition that is peaceful and not destructive.

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