As millions pour into the streets in the Arab World to register their resentment against the corrupt undemocratic regimes, seen mostly as U.S. puppets, the whole of the Middle East is on the brink of a change. Iftikhar Gilani reports.
Revolutions sweeping across the Arab world may have caught world capitals off-guard, but there was hardly any surprise in the happenings. Right from Tunisia to Syria including Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and the Palestinian territory of West Bank, hardly any sympathy is left for rulers, who are seen as US “puppets”, protecting the interests of Israel in the region.
A Palestinian journalist told Kashmir Life that former president Yasir Arafat had invested 10 billion dollars of international aid to build casinos instead of spending it on people’s welfare. He gave his wife 100,000 dollars a month to shop in Paris. Tracing the events that lead to the rise of radical Hamas, journalist Abu Tomeh of the Jerusalem Post says the non-deliverance of Arafat led people into the lap of radicals. He said even Christians and core secularists vouched for the Islamist Hamas in 2006 elections held under the suggestion of George Bush ignoring warnings from Israel and PLO that Hamas would win polls.
Irony, however, was that while the US allowed Islamists to contest polls without any conditions; they went to losing party – the PLO – with loads of money to bring down the democratically elected government of Hamas, creating two Palestine states. “PLO is ruling West Bank with the help of Israeli Defence Forces. They will collapse if the forces withdraw,” he maintains. But the popularity of the Hamas is mostly linked to the sanctions being imposed by the West. They draw sympathy and don’t get blamed for non-deliverance.
Though a chastened US reacted sensibly to Arab crises, a contrast from fully backing dictators, the likelihood of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon) taking centre stage is giving Washington sleepless nights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a January 26 speech in Qatar, said:
“The United States supports the aspirations of all people for greater freedom, for self-government, for the rights to express themselves, to associate and assemble, to be part of the full, inclusive functioning of their society.”
Noted Indian columnist Saeed Naqvi warns that demographic changes and unemployment and rising prices could be causes for the eruption, but the real cause is things like insensitivity of these regimes to Palestinian distress. “If the United States were to dilute its support to these regimes, the anger in the Arab street may recondition Israeli thinking,” he adds. US officials are travelling across the countries facing protests advising the leaders and the security forces to observe restraint. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar feels that Iran was coming out as a major gainer of Arab crises to the disadvantage of Israel.
“Israel endeavoured to divert the US’ attention from the Middle East peace process and take it toward Iran’s nuclear programme.”
“This ploy has worked well so far, but the Middle East crisis brings the Palestinian issue back into the vortex of regional politics. It is the camel in the tent that cannot be ignored,” he says.
Western pressure, especially European, will incrementally mount that unless the fundamental crisis of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is addressed, there can be no durable stability in Middle East and Western interests will be in serious jeopardy. Israel may not easily get away with its rejectionist policies. The Middle East crises also came close to the partition of Sudan. Voters in Christian-dominated South Sudan overwhelmingly opted to carve out the world’s newest 193rd state from the North African Muslim country. The voting repudiated theories that right to self-determination, redrawing of boundaries or secessionism has lost relevance in the 21st century.
In 1952, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a military coup that displaced the Egyptian monarchy, civilian officers in the military, and British influence in Egypt. Nasser created a government based on military power as the major
stabilizing and progressive force based on secular and socialist values. On Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat replaced him. On Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak ascended the throne.
The demands for Mubarak’s resignation come from many quarters, including from members of the system — particularly the military — who regard Mubarak’s unwillingness to permit them to dictate the succession as endangering the regime. Chief of Stratfor, an American private intelligence group, and academic George Friedman believes that demonstrations represent both a threat and an opportunity. West is particularly concerned at the Muslim Brotherhood taking centre stage, whom they had crushed through Naseer, Sadat and other rulers. However, Friedman believes that consensus of most observers is that the Muslim Brotherhood at this point is no longer a radical movement.
Some believe it is too weak to influence the revolution. “I would suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood has more potential influence among the Egyptian masses than the Western-oriented demonstrators or Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who is emerging as their leader,” says Friedman.
For the United States, an Islamist Egypt would be a strategic catastrophe. Egypt is the centre of gravity in the Arab world. This would not only change the dynamic of the Arab world, it would reverse U S strategy since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sadat’s decision to reverse his alliance with the Soviets and form an alliance with the United States undermined the Soviet position in the Mediterranean and in the Arab world and strengthened the United States immeasurably. The support of Egyptian intelligence after 9/11 was critical in blocking and undermining al Qaeda. Were Egypt to stop that cooperation or become hostile, the U.S. strategy would be severely undermined.
Also the great loser would be Israel. Israel’s national security has rested on its treaty with Egypt, signed by Menachem Begin with much criticism by the Israeli right. The demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula not only protected Israel’s southern front, it meant that the survival of Israel was no longer at stake. Israel fought three wars (1948, 1967 and 1973) where its very existence was at stake. The threat was always from Egypt, and without Egypt in the mix, no coalition of powers could threaten Israel (excluding the now-distant possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons). In all of the wars Israel fought after its treaty with Egypt (the 1982 and 2006 wars in Lebanon) Israeli interests, but not survival, were at stake.
If Egypt were to abrogate the Camp David Accords and over time reconstruct its military into an effective force, the existential threat to Israel that existed before the treaty would re-emerge. Also the Israeli military is not nearly large enough or strong enough to occupy and control Egypt. It would also impose substantial costs on Israel and limit its room for manoeuvre.
Another Western commentator Simon Jenkins concludes that the rise of radical Islamism was always the other side of the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries. He also warns that even if the regimes survive in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and … maybe, hopefully, even Saudi Arabia) against this background with liberal cosmetic surgery, it will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist backlash.
Attacking hypocrisy of Western liberals, Jenkins believes: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”