As events unfold on a daily even hourly basis in Egypt and other countries, this may be a good time to look at their wider implications for global security, American interests, and stability and peace in the region and beyond.
Yesterday’s reign of premeditated violence by the Mubarak regime was a turning point – not for, but against Mubarak and perhaps for his legacy and appointed new leaders. The lessons for other governments in the region and beyond must be profound and disheartening.
Authoritarian regimes exist not just in the Middle East, but also in places like Burma, The Ivory Coast, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, and yes ,China, and to a degree in Russia. Within the Middle East and near regions they naturally feel the winds of change most strongly.
The revolts in Tunisia—and especially Egypt—brought a certain clarity to the decisions that the key powers now face in deciding their policies in the Middle East. Earlier, cases were made in the corridors of power both in Washington and in Europe that we needed to bend towards predictability and stability and the arguments included the need to keep the cooperation of some key authoritarian governments for reasons of oil supplies and help to stamp out terrorism. Today, while still being made in some quarters, the fallacies and ideological myopia of America bending blindly towards authoritarian rule are less persuasive.
The officially sponsored mobs of the Egypt rulers have helped bring that clarity. The image of democratic and largely peaceful demonstrators being beaten and killed by official thugs has turned the tides of public sentiment. Just as important was the reporting of Western reporters of being assaulted, detained, and vilified in the official Egyptian media in the last two days. It seems that on Friday, a sense of overreach and error may have taken hold by the key actors in the Egyptian government, and especially the powerful army who but a day ago permitted these acts to be carried out.
The immediate reality and the image of common citizens demonstrating and taking down the old order has changed our assumptions and builds a still uncertain but hopeful new order. In the seeming chaos it now looks like they may yet get democracy despite renewed efforts to try to bully the demonstrators. This turned most of the rest of the work against Mubarak, including Obama’s administration, and was probably the biggest mistake since the start of the upheaval.
Frankly, looking further ahead, I wonder if Israel has the capacity to find a creative approach to the new landscape—they seem to be just a mirror image of Mubarak—i.e. have their heads in the Egyptian sands. Their earlier opposition to a more than fair peace deal now looks like a major mistake. They need a re-think of their new position and their policy. Now, and sadly, this may be is a reassessment of necessity rather than of choice.
The issues facing American decision-makers in the wake of events unfolding in the Middle East are becoming clearer and yet more difficult since the terrain has changed and remains uncertain and perhaps even dangerous.
The first new decision has apparently been made by the Obama administration, namely to help orchestrate a departure of Mubarak (and probably some of his close and most corrupt henchmen). The second element is to help put in place a peaceful process of transition to a responsible and democratic government likely of different orientation than the old regime. This appears to be a process the White House has undertaken.
Many have argued that we should simply keep our hands off and let the Egyptians do the dirty work alone. This could be wise advice if we could not influence the outcome in a positive way. But yesterday, the demonstrators alone faced thugs who had a different way of determining the outcome. But the indications are that we still have some leverage with the military, who clearly want to return to stability with the respect of the people. America still does not seem to be hated by the average citizen, but rather disliked for our policies and not trusted. This is the time to regain that respect and show we are, in the end, on the side of human rights and democracy—like Churchill said: America just has to be pushed into doing the right thing, after trying every other alternative!
The second and most important element is a very quick and intense reevaluation of our past policies, not just in the Middle East, but globally. Unrest and massive unhappiness with the status quo is endemic in a whole range of nations around the world. Some are likely not to change soon, but the vision the oppressed people now have of their potential power will be profoundly changed, and so will that of their oppressors.
We need to soon consult with our allies in Europe and Asia on the implications and work together on a broad and agreed strategy to adept to the new situation and to cooperate towards shaping the new landscape and help peaceful transitions when possible. The list is large and not all will be peaceful and not all successful, but we need a new assessments and a new set of tools and policies.
Other powers need to adapt and be more flexible and forward looking. Israel naturally comes to mind since it occupies a space in the region which is changing before it and seems not able to respond to new realities. The same goes for governments in traditional Arab societies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and North Africa. But as noted above, watch other regimes. We need to re-formulate a different approach to these nations before it is too late. However, let us not forget that each nation is not the same as another.
Already, the forces of reaction both at home and abroad are taking action. Right-wing Republicans and others are saying “stay the course” with the old order, even as they said they want to promote human rights and democracy. They are against development aid and support for international organizations that can help promote better societies. Some even want to abolish USAID. Abroad, hard choices are ahead for old regimes. But, if the Egyptian transition works, it might also show the way towards peaceful passage and democracy under a constitutional and electoral process where all elements of the society can participate and have a role.