We still don’t know where the protest movement in Egypt will go. Word is that the Obama Administration doesn’t think Mubarak can last, but also doesn’t want American fingerprints on the transition. They are taking a wait and see approach, as is the world. People are drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution in 1979, and some say that the US should take a stand to support Mubarak or Obama will have “lost Egypt.”
This is no longer the 20th Century. The idea that the US can prop up dictatorships and treat third world states as pawns in power political games is obsolete. That simply won’t work. As I noted last week, demographics and the information revolution make change in the Arab world inevitable. So what if this is a start of a great transformation in the Mideast, the start of a process of modernization that at some point could yield democratic, modern societies? How will this unfold?
Alas, just as the US can’t simply prop up Mubarak and hold back the change, neither can the US or anyone wave a magic wand and dictate that Egyptians will peacefully go to the polls and vote in a reasonable moderate government. Forces of Islamic extremism, secular modernism, moderate Islam and democratic human rights advocacy co-exist. They may unite against Mubarak, but will fight with each other.
Moreover, if Egypt is a canary in a coal mine, the first of the authoritarian post-Ottoman states to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government (Iran was never part of the Ottoman Empire), what will happen if this spreads? Already Jordan and Yemen have growing protests, while tensions exist in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ oil money can buy them support Mubarak could not afford, but no government will likely last. Much as Communism fell virtually overnight in Eastern Europe, change may come more swiftly than people realize in the Arab world. What will it be like?
If Europe’s modernization process is any guide, it may be very messy. To be sure, the Europeans modernized at their own pace, with no one ahead of them either pushing them faster than they wanted to go, or showing them the way with aid and advice. The Arab world is modernizing in a global interdependent system which itself is undergoing transition. When Europe modernized there was blowback. The Church fought capitalism and modernism, ideologies like communism and fascism emerged to offer new threats. There were civil wars, holocausts, purges and ultimately two world wars engulfing Europe, taking countless millions of lives, before the Europeans found something that works — a stable cooperative economic and political arrangement known as the ‘European Union.’
A new political culture needs to emerge; a new set of norms, understandings and shared values upon which a stable political system can be built. There is no “right” political system or government, only ones which work because the underlying culture fosters values that promote stability. To build that from an authoritarian state where dissent is violently repressed is very difficult and usually follows a rocky path.
This opens the real possibility that this wave of protest could unleash a war against Israel fought not by Arab armies easily defeated by the IDF, but rather waves of terrorism and fighting by young people — again, the population of the Arab world is almost half under 23 and the population keeps growing. One can imagine Iran challenging the Arab world and a potential war between the Arabs and the Persians, this time with Iraq as a battleground (and host to a civil war).
A best case scenario would be for Egypt to model a kind of “government of national unity” that would forge compromises between the various groups. Moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood would need to have considerable influence to make that happen, though there is evidence that even Muslim fundamentalists are dubious of the violence and desire for conflict against the West that drives groups like al qaeda. In a “best case” scenario, Egypt’s turmoil convinces other states to proactively reform, trading power for a comfortable future (no violent overthrow, but instead protection of wealth in exchange for giving up power).
The US and the West walk a tightrope. Intervention and support for dictators makes it more likely the extremists can exercise influence by playing the anti-Americanism card. If the West is generally supportive and non-interventionist, letting events work themselves out as they will, a quiet role of helping create stability could be played. This would be at the invitation of Arab governments, not through a forceful desire to create “regime change.”
If it weren’t for two issues — Israel and oil — the West could probably just sit this out and let that region change on its own. The Israelis were shocked by the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s continuing strength in Lebanon along with the possibility of a resurgent, nuclear Iran, has already unnerved the Israelis. The possibility that their Egyptian ally could totter likely brings them close to panic. The good news is that confronted with the possibility of all out war with a nuclear Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, which contains moderate elements, might join Hamas to hammer out a peace deal with Israel. The logic of this view rests with the fact that right now Israel has no reason to truly compromise, they are in a position of relative strength. If that changes, then perhaps Israel will be forced to compromise in ways that can lead to an effective solution.
Another possibility is all out war — with Israel’s survival in doubt. When these changes sweep the Arab world, something will give in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Either there will be war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons and the end of the Israeli state, or there could be a move towards peace. It’s impossible to accurately set the odds for either outcome. If there is war, then oil supplies will likely suffer dramatic cuts. Even if there is some turmoil in Saudi Arabia oil prices will rise. This could usher in another recessionary wave, perhaps bad enough to push the global economy into clear depression.
So the stakes are high, yet the US is not and can not control how things develop. We are in a position of having to react. Iraq taught us the limits of our military power, Iran in 1979 showed the impact of being too closely associated with the former dictator, and though President Obama has restored some prestige to the US in that part of the world, we are mostly spectators in this historical transformation of the Mideast.
And what if Mubarak pulls through, and the protests die out? That will mean that the leaders in the Mideast have been served notice — there is a storm brewing below them if they don’t make clear and consequential changes. I get the sense that something big is starting, something that will shift the course of history in ways we cannot yet know.