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Crumbling Edifice

February 2, 2011

Winds of change would start from one of the more prosperous and stable among the Arab/Islamic nations – Tunisia, no one must have anticipated. That Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s 23 year old reign would just snap like a dry twig surprised many. Ben Ali and his wife Leila are now seeking refugee status in Canada. Leila Ali is alleged to have emptied the coffers of the Central Bank in Tunis and the Ali’s have carried with them booty in gold amounting to unknown amounts. Tunis is quiet after the change but the fire has spread to other parts of the Arab world.

Protesters hurling stones while wearing rudimentary 'helmets'. Source: Guardian, UK

Cairo saw people chanting in the streets soon after. What started with a few dozen demonstrators has now turned to a people’s movement. President Hosni Mubarak is with his back to the wall. Both his sons along with their families have already left Cairo and are now in London. Remarkably, even in London they have not been spared and there have been demonstrations outside their house. Hosni Mubarak has reshuffled his cabinet and made his intelligence chief , Omar Suleiman, his Vice-President. He has himself taken charge of internal security. The million man march on Wednesday has rattled the establishment and Hosni Mubarak has pledged that he will not contest in the elections due in September.

The developments in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities of Egypt saw Mohammad ElBaradei fly back to Cairo. He led crowds of protestors at the Tahrir Square in Cairo. He was briefly house arrested and has been leading the protestors. He has rejected Hosni Mubarak’s plea that he should be allowed to make transition and has said that Mubarak is trying to trick the people of Egypt. A repressive regime is now facing the wrath of the people. More than 300 people have died in the protests and the police and security men have been brutal. Criminals broke out of jails and the building of the ruling NDP has been burnt to cinders. Malls and shopping plazas have been ransacked, burnt and looted. Internet and phones lines have been snapped.

It must be added here that what started in Tunis was basically a reaction to internet reports published by WikiLeaks about massive fraud and loot by Ben Ali and his family. That saw the people take to the streets. The protests in Cairo were also organized on Facebook and Twitter and there were online groups who managed to garner support against the repressive Mubarak regime. Predictably Mubarak and his men have snapped internet connection and people are finding it difficult to convey their messages across. Those including yours truly, who had set aside WikiLeaks as irrelevant were proved wrong and what has come out has transformed at least one nation and is on the verge of making a major change in another.

Fearful of safety, protesters fight pitched battles at Tahrir Square, Cairo. Source: Guardian, UK

The story does not end here. There have been demonstrations in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. King Abdullah of Jordan has named Marouf Bakhit as his new prime minister with an express order of carrying out ‘true political reforms’. Jordan is an orthodox Islamic state and there is huge disparity that is at the core of the problem. King Abdullah’s wife Queen Rania is an ultra modern socialite that does not sit well with the orthodoxy of the nation.

Sanaa has seen demonstrations. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he will not seek to extend his presidency when his current term expires in 2013. There is upheaval all around. This uncertainty has led to a crumbling of an order as it were. Middle East and North Africa are closely linked geographically, politically and culturally. It seems that there is a domino effect. The question is which regime will fall next. But the more important thing as of now is, what does the uprising in Egypt mean for the region.

Map of Middle East

It must be remembered that Hosni Mubarak was a trusted ally of the west. His 1979 peace accord with Israel was instrumental in peace in the region. His unstinted support for the western interests and Israel was a contributing factor to the equilibrium in the region. If the Mubarak regime falls and an Islamist force emerges it will be disastrous for the security of the region. It is understood that while most people are converging on their own on to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Left that is coordinating all these rallies. The military is standing by ensuring that buildings and property are not damaged and that there is peaceful demonstration. In that the military has played a very positive role. It is also a well known fact that Hamas is an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. If Mubarak goes, it is in all likelihood that an appointee of the Muslim Brotherhood will take his place. Even if Mohammad El Baradei is made the president, he will have to tow the MB line as his own political following is minimal.

Benyamin Netanyahu and his government are watching the developments closely. Their stand is that if the US and the west do not stand by their allies then other friendly regimes may also fall. Besides West’s support will not have the same credibility if Mubarak goes and in future their influence in the region will be drastically curtailed. Regimes will not give much credence to western support and that could make the region a hotbed of radicalism.

Protesters hide behind makeshift barricade at Tahrir Square, Cairo as a journalist tries to take photographs

From Washington’s point of view, they believe that Egypt’s is a popular uprising. The US believes that there is very little they can do except to ensure that change is engineered smoothly. Here there is a difference of opinion between Tel Aviv and Washington. Americans are skeptical of sticking their neck out as they have still not forgotten what happened in Iran and how their unstinted support to the Shah of Iran boomeranged so badly, they are still smarting from that setback. Washington will be loath to support Mubarak beyond a point. American embassy is all but empty and more than a thousand US citizens have been evacuated from Egypt. They would hate to see an encore of Tehran circa 1979.

The fear among western powers is that the edifice that has served them so long so well might just be crumbling. Egypt was a staunch ally, that in all probability is now gone. If Jordan falls too, things could be really difficult for the west and the security issues of the region might be seriously in danger. Syria is another potential flash point. While it is true that Assad was never a western ally, but at least he was manageable. Lately, there had been conciliatory overtures from Damascus. A regime change and an overtly Islamist regime in Syria could spell doom for the Middle East. One reason why Syria is potentially fragile is because Assad, a Shiite is ruling a largely Sunnite nation. Such nuances may not mean much to the western audience but can be reason enough for an uprising.

The worst of nightmares for the west would be if Saudi Arabia saw a regime change. Riyadh has been perhaps the most dependable ally of the west and the bedrock of western interests in the region. If King Abdullah and his family are forced to abdicate and the kingdom turns to democracy or worse still a Caliphate the region could turn to cinders. The edifice on which western game plan in the region rests were Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and the UAE. From the developments in Cairo it appears that this whole edifice might crumble like a castle built from sand. A new order will emerge that will most likely be overtly religious. Islamic countries do not have a tradition of democracy. People in Cairo are demonstrating against Mubarak but none is calling for democracy. From dictatorships that tolerated modernity to orthodoxy is perhaps where the region is headed. There was discontent in the region and all it needed was a spark.  People have tasted success. They will not hesitate now. They want change and they will have nothing less. The crucial point is, what kind of change will this uprising bring in? The region is evolving right in front of our eyes. Will this usher in democracy or will this lead to stricter theocratic states?  Any which way one looks at this, one thing is for sure, west’s influence in the region will diminish in the short run. The US and its allies may have to work from scratch to bring the new order around to their point of view. That may not be an easy task. The interim period will be one of chaos and uncertainty with some serious security issues that will have to be dealt with. The only reason perhaps why Mubarak is still around is because of the covert support from Tel Aviv with Washington as a curious bystander.

This uprising has thrown up another problem for the US. They may not be able to withdraw completely from Iraq as of now. The regional imbalances will force them to stay put in Iraq for a longer period than they had anticipated. They might just as well brace up for a longer stay in the region. Some permanent bases in Iraq might also be on the cards now. Perhaps, DC was looking at this possibility any way. Be as it may, the Obama administration has its plate full for the remaining two years of the present term. If there is continuity in Washington, Obama will have to deal with this fluid situation with utmost care and restraint. It is a tricky situation and how bad it is going to get from western point of view the coming months will tell. How Obama deals with the situation may also be decisive whether he gets another term in office. From the point of view of Israel, this could not have come at a worse time. Washington is not as responsive as it was during Bush era. The Iran question was in a limbo and now this recent unrest has made this only non-Islamic state in the region very edgy. The region has burst open without a warning and they have been caught napping.  What is for sure is that the edifice erected by the west in the Middle East is past its expiry date and it is time to replenish to make sure it is palatable.

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