There goes the neighborhood, again, and again…
February 1, 2011
The world is dealing with the ripples emanating from the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution, most notably in Jordan, Yemen and, especially, Egypt.
In my Sept. 1, 2010 column, I noted the perilous state of Israel’s neighbors. Nothing has changed for the better, and much for the worse.
To the North, there is Lebanon, where the United Nations has allowed Hizbullah to routinely violate a Security Council Resolution meant to curb hostilities in the wake of the last Lebanon war. In the past week, Islamist Hizbullah has taken over the Lebanese civilian government.
To the East, nothing has changed on the Syrian front, with Syria continuing to support Hizbullah in Lebanon and its alliance with Iran intact.
On the West Bank, the situation is the same and arguably worse. Al Jazeera released Palestinian correspondence indicating that the Palestinian leaders were willing to strike deals with Israel in contravention of their most doctrinaire public positions, revelations that angered the Palestinian street.
In Jordan, one of two Arab countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, there is populist, anti-autocratic sentiment, originating in Tunisia. A call from the Muslim Brotherhood, the main political opposition, led to demonstrations and a call from King Abdullah II for reform.
Gaza is still under the firm control of Islamist Hamas.
Then there is Egypt, which has dominated the news cycles in recent days. The situation in the only other Arab nation with diplomatic relations with Israel has been chaotic, bordering on revolution.
Although it has not been at the forefront of the current upheaval, The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is the country’s oldest and largest Islamic political group, poised to seize the opportunity. According to Al Jazeera, it is the “world’s most influential Islamist movement.” Its forebears had relations with Nazi Germany and it has offshoots around the world. The assassins of Anwar Sadat had links to the Brotherhood.
Since Nasser, Sunni Egypt has been considered the leader of the Arab world. This has created a rivalry with Shi’ite Iran, whose media have been gloating over events in Egypt. Despite their recent history of condemning popular demonstrations against their own government, official Iranian news outlets have given support for the Egyptian uprising, sometimes using the word “revolution.”
The response of the United States has been muddled at best. Did the CIA and other intelligence agencies have any inkling about the Egyptian tinderbox? Egypt has been a client state of the United States for decades. Since 1975, it has received $28 billion in foreign aid. How does that play with the protestors?
The London Telegraph reports that WikiLeaks documents that the United States has been working with Egyptian dissidents for three years to foster regime change. In a secret diplomatic dispatch sent on Dec. 30, 2008, the U.S. Ambassador to Cairo reported that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for “regime change” to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.
Candidate Obama ran as the anti-Bush and his administration’s policies have been crafted to distinguish them from those of his predecessor. But one of the Bush policies was to promote democracy; the Obama administration has played down the confrontational tone of the Bush administration, opting for a behind-the-scenes approach.
In a prescient March 2010 article in Foreign Policy, Barbara Slavin wrote: “The first major test of the Obama administration’s stance will come in the next few weeks when Egypt is likely to renew a 29-year-old emergency law that gives the government extraordinary powers to stifle political opposition…. If the past year is any guide, the U.S. State Department will express disappointment, but neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will publicly criticize the government of President Hosni Mubarak.”
Therefore, it should be no surprise that at the beginning of unrest in Egypt, Vice President Joe Biden defended Mubarak, saying he was not a dictator and should remain in office. Does it matter to the underclass if they are being repressed by an autocrat or a dictator? Meanwhile, Clinton on Sunday called for an “orderly transition” to democracy in Egypt — not exactly jettisoning America’s old friend, but hardly a vote of confidence either. She warned there is a long way to go in the process.
As they were in the early days of the Iranian uprising, administration officials were silent for an uncomfortably long time as Egyptians took to the streets. Did no one in the State Department do situational analysis?
Finally, on Friday, after four days of protest, Obama had a 30-minute phone call with Mubarak, admonishing him and saying there must be “political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
One of the nostrums about the Middle East is that an Israeli-Palestinian peace would lead to peace breaking out all over the region. Given the events of the past two weeks, I think it is time that Pollyannaish view should be cast aside. None of the recent events can be remotely attributed to a lack of a peace agreement, but is properly ascribed to autocratic regimes of indefinite duration.
Israel, often a major player in Middle East affairs, now finds itself in the role of spectator. Writing in Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn said, “Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East…. ”
It is an issue of trust. In the developing situation, whom can Israel trust to be a “peace partner?”