What Next in the Mideast?

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   The idea that the US can prop up dictatorships and treat third world states as pawns in power political games is obsolete.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.

  1. #1 by 2012 Consciousness Shift Resources (is a link) on February 1, 2011 - 16:16


    Do you not find it to be rather ironic that when a corporately controlled democracy receives a wink and a nod from the corporately controlled UN to evade a free society in order to incorporate a countries resources it’s called a Liberator, yet, when the peoples of the evaded country sets out to form a resistance in order to protect its countries resources, it is deemed a terrorist organization by the corporately owned medias?

    “9-11 was a Ritual Human Sacrifice. That, and the obvious catalyst for the so called “War on Terror”. Behind the scenes, there is only One Party. Our Party. ‘Democracy’ is an illusion which is created to uphold your slavery. Whichever side ‘wins’; the Family wins.” – Hidden_Hand

    “Q: (L) What are the blasphemous titles on the heads of the beast?
    A: In God we trust.

    Q: (L) “And the beast that I saw resembled a leopard…”
    A: New World Order.” – 6D STO

    The very best to you on your journey of discovery,

    Travis @ http://www.focusonrecovery.net

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on February 1, 2011 - 22:03

    If you think that the state of Israel will not survive, you have not followed its history.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on February 1, 2011 - 22:14

      I have followed Israel’s history very closely. The thing is, even top Israelis believe they are facing a new kind of threat, and that the continued existence of Israel could be in doubt if terrorism expands and a radicalized Arab youth takes over. The tiny Israeli state could be overwhelmed, or engulfed by nuclear terror. Now that is the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that change leads to a better chance for a long term peace. The odds are that neither the worst nor the best case scenarios will happen.

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on February 2, 2011 - 16:51

    Not only given its history, but in the event of a possible worst case scenario, I don’t think anyone truly realizes how capable Israel is militarily speaking, as well as being able to throw the decorum of fighting a war with moral terpirtude out the door to maintain their existence. I highly doubt they’d give one damn what the US or UN had to say if they started taking a moe ‘spec-ops’ approach right to the street en masse to defeat their enemies, in some form of genocidal retribution.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on February 2, 2011 - 17:05

      Israelis have developed a powerful military because they are in very precarious position. The country is small, surrounded by potential enemies, and now in the era of weapons of mass destruction one could imagine a terrorist-based conflict inflicting serious damage and potentially making huge chunks of Israeli territory unlivable. Their economy is also weak. The problem Israel faces is that they can win any 20th century war — states attacking them (so long as there are no nuclear weapons), but now warfare is changing. States may be involved alongside terror groups, with someday WMD available. Israel has 7.4 million people, but about a quarter of those are non-Jewish, mostly Arab. They are not invincible, and they know it. The 2006 war with Hezbollah was a wake up call. Sure, they’ll ignore the UN and the US — but that’s not where the threat comes from.

      By comparison, Egypt has 83 million, Jordan 6 million, Saudi Arabia 25 million, Syria 20 million, Iraq 30 million, and Iran 70 million. Still, the worst case scenario probably involves nuclear weapons both in Israel and the Arab world. I don’t think it will come to that, the Arabs know Israel has 100 to 300 nuclear weapons and wouldn’t go down without taking others down with them.

  4. #6 by Mike Lovell on February 2, 2011 - 19:59

    I’m not necessarily arguing that Israel is invincible. What I’m saying is that pushed to a certain point, voices may contradict it publicly, but I think they will take the gloves off (i.e. saying to hell with the Geneva Convention). It wont be entirely a 20th century style war, but that they will plain and simply start putting down anyone remotely associated with the enemy, and that genocidal retribution will be redirected toward an arab population in and to some degree outside of Israel’s borders. The idea of civilized warfare will be nowhere to be found, and any efforts at outside interference diplomatically wont be heeded. If for no other reason but Israeli/Jewish survival.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on February 2, 2011 - 21:08

      Yes, if they faced the prospect of being eliminated as a state, they’d do whatever necessary to prevent that — just as an individual in a fight to the death would usually not worry about the rules of the fight, just about survival.

  5. #8 by Titfortat on February 2, 2011 - 20:10

    Until common citizens understand that our consumeristic culture feeds discord throughout the world, nothing will change. The reason the west has “friends” like Mubarak is because we like having certain things(oil) on the cheap. Once we start paying a fair price for oil everything thing else will go up. Im pretty sure most people arent quite prepared to pay the price for freedom for others. Dictators are much cheaper, well, at least in the short term. 😦

    • #9 by Scott Erb on February 2, 2011 - 21:01

      I actually think a lot of our problems — environmental, third world suffering, economic crisis, wars, support for dictators, etc. — can indeed be traced to consumerism.

  6. #10 by Titfortat on February 2, 2011 - 20:12

    If you want to read an enlightening book on the middle east and Islam, I would suggest ‘American Raj’ by Eric Margolis.

  7. #11 by Titfortat on February 2, 2011 - 20:13

    Israelis have developed a powerful military because they are in very precarious position(Scott)

    What, the position of a thief?

  8. #12 by renaissanceguy on February 2, 2011 - 20:59

    Titfortat, that’s a nice name to call a people group that were killed by the millions in Europe. What would you suggest, let them succomb to a true Final Solution?

    • #13 by Scott Erb on February 2, 2011 - 21:06

      Well, it’s tricky. You’re going with collective identity (Jewish people were killed and these people are Jewish), but one could also argue that Israel’s actions should be judged on its own merits, not on what happened to Jews in the past. Arabs saw the Israelis as nothing but European colonists — how can someone claim they deserve land because people of their religion happened to own it 1900 years earlier. I think there are a lot of points to debate about Israel, but I don’t really think bringing in the holocaust really helps.

  9. #14 by Titfortat on February 2, 2011 - 21:15

    renaissance guy

    I think Stalin could rival Hitler in many instances, yet he was our “Ally”, go figure. There have been many genocides in history, many causing millions of deaths. Just because the collective guilt of the world(western) decided the Jews needed their own homeland doesnt mean they werent thieves. Im sure the palestinians might agree. Or do they not matter in this regard? Dont you find it somewhat troublesome that people should get their own land based on the desires of a desert god?

  10. #15 by renaissanceguy on February 3, 2011 - 17:11

    Scott, have you forgetten the historical context? You write as though some Jews got together in 2011 and said, “Hey, since some of our people were killed in the 1940’s, let’s take land away from the Arabs.” After World War II, it was clear to Jewish people that they needed a homeland, and it was clear to those in the world who cherished peace and justice.

    I would feel sorry for the Arabs if they had already had a nation of their own or if they had not been given a territory (Trans-Jordan) by the U. N.

    European colonists? That’s a good one. The people of Europe tried hard to wipe them out.

    Since you ask why they deserve the land, I would ask why you think the so-called Palestinians deserve the land.

    Titfortat, no the policy of the United States has not always been consistent or sensible. You are not suggesting that Hitler was good because Stalin was worse? I would hope not.

    If people got there own land based on the desires of a desert god (whatever that means), then I would find it troubling. If people move back to their ancestral homeland after they have been nearly wiped out in other lands, then I do not find it troubling at all.

    It’s funny that people in America care about restoring land to Native Americans and respecting their sacred sites, but when it comes to Jewish people and Israel, they sing a different tune.

    • #16 by Scott Erb on February 3, 2011 - 19:02

      These were Arab lands, and suddenly the Europeans came and cut a chunk away and gave it to Europeans as a sovereign state. The Arabs didn’t mind Jews living there, not claiming sovereignty over it. They were from Europe, they came and took the land. Is that not colonialism? Were they not European? They considered themselves European. The Arabs had a point when they said that if the Jews deserved a land, it should be taken from those responsible — the Germans — and not from the Arabs.

      And if people all started claiming the right to go back to their “ancestral homeland,” that would create conflicts all over the globe. Migrations happen. All that said, I’m not saying Israel should go away. That’s not realistic. BUT, what really gets me irritated is when people can’t see the Arab perspective, and can’t understand why it is that they fought Israel’s grounding. Only when both sides can understand the other’s perspective can they make a lasting piece.

      To make a statement like “I’d feel sorry for them…” shows a keen disregard for the historical context. It’s as if suddenly Mexicans took over a third of Texas, and when the Americans get upset they’d say “you already have your own country, the rest of Texas…or maybe the UN can give you a section of the part of Texas we took over.”

      The Arabs had reason to be mad. The Israelis had reason to want to create a state. They were European colonizers, but also fleeing Europe. The problem is that both sides see intently their own perspective, but then do as you did here RG, totally trash and ridicule the other sides’ perspective. That’s a reason why the problem doesn’t get solved. On their own terms, each side has a perspective that makes sense and is very persuasive. That has to be acknowledged and understood. Then we have to say “but we can’t change reality, how can we respect each perspective and create a stable future.”

  11. #17 by Titfortat on February 3, 2011 - 21:02


    Actually the policy of the States and any other colonial power is perfectly consistent and sensible when you see what its intention is. To gain access and control of someone else’s resource you need to implement certain things. The Romans, French, British and Americans implented these systems at one time or another. I know the Jewish holocaust is pretty recent, but that doesnt mean it was any more nasty than any other genocide. I believe Scott pointed out quite nicely why we dont take someone else’s land to compensate for west’s collective guilt. My ancestors are both French and British, does that mean I should have access to those lands if I suffer some horrific crime caused by the Russians? I bet I know what your answer would be.
    Oh, by the way, one of the big reasons that Bush jr and his cohorts so support the Israelis is because it coincides with their religious belief. You know one of the things that needs to be for Jesus to have his second coming, dont you?

  12. #18 by renaissanceguy on February 4, 2011 - 02:02

    Why were they Arab lands? Because Muhammad ascended into heaven from Jerusalem?

    Maybe they should be Turkish lands, since the Ottoman Empire ruled that territory before the British did.

    • #19 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2011 - 02:19

      They were Arab lands for the same reason Bavaria is German land. The natives were Arab. Granted, that’s all the same reason that the Dakotas were Lakota Sioux land, and the Lakota fought against giving it up just as the Arabs did. The Arabs should have made the deal in 1948 saying “this is unfair to just give sovereignty of these lands to Europeans who came here to colonize the land, but for the sake of peace we’ll do so and work with them.” If the Arabs had done that, they’d have a larger Palestinian state and a lot of turmoil would have been avoided.

      RG, can you really not understand the Arab perspective? They were finally rid of the Turks, had been promised sovereignty of all Arab lands, and then a chunk is given away to these Europeans. The Arabs didn’t mind the Jews living there (after all, Islam honors Jews another ‘people of the book’), they just didn’t want a separate state there. To them it was akin to the Sioux fighting for their land, or any other people. Seriously, RG, I can’t believe you’re unable to view this from their perspective and understand and even empathize with it. There is no doubt: the Jews were Europeans, colonizing the land, and the Arabs didn’t like that, believing it to be their land since they’d been living there for generations.

      The reason the issue is still so contentious world wide is because a lot of people empathize with the Arabs on that, especially those who suffered European colonialism. You can’t talk about the historical context of the Jews without acknowledging the historical context of the Arabs.

      And yet most Arabs and the Palestinians living there had given up all claim for that land, and even for most of the land taken by Israel in the 1948 war. All they wanted was the land occupied in 1967. Israel can’t annex that land, because that would give Arabs a majority and they could vote the Jewish state out of existence. Israel can’t engage in ethnic cleansing, that would lead to certain war, and be opposed by a lot of Israelis who would view such a thing as similar to many Nazi policies of the 30s and early 40s, before the holocaust. The Palestinians living there have had no real rights and constant humiliation for 45 years, generations have grown up feeling under the thumb of the Israelis. That’s why after the peace efforts of 2000 fell apart, they started to drift towards tactics like suicide bombing and more severe efforts. They feel like they are a David fighting a Goliath.

      The only way to get the only feasible long term solution — a stable and viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel — is at least for the two sides to acknowledge the legitimacy of each others’ perspective, and understand it. Only then can they put past misdeeds of each side behind them, and forge a viable future.

  13. #20 by renaissanceguy on February 4, 2011 - 15:44

    I don’t know why you assume that I cannot grasp the viewpoint of the so-called Palestinians. Of course I can.

    Jewish people were among the natives in Palestine in 1948, or did you not know that there were Jewish communities there for generations?

    I am not sure why you keep referring to Jews as Europeans. Do you think that the Jewish Temple was in Paris? Do you dispute DNA tests that prove that Jews are Semites? Do you not realize that Europe did not claim them–that Europeans tried to exterminate them?

    Perhaps the Arabs had been promised sovereignty over Palestine, but it is very clear that Jewish people were promised a homeland there by the British government. (Of course, I freely concede that the British had no legitimate claim to the land, but you are talking about promises made by other powers.)

    All that the refugees from the holocaust wanted was a small bit of land in their historic homeland–a place to be free from the hatred that might have led to their complete annihilation. Like the so-called Palestinians, they already had communities there. They had at one time had their own sovereign state there. (Yes, it had been a long time, but one thing that is clear is that the “Palestinians” never had had such a state there.)

    There already are Arab states alongside Israel, including the one that the U. N. meant to be a homeland for the “Palestinians,” that is, Jordan.

    Why do people have such visceral hatred for the Jewish people and for Israel? Why have the Jews been conquered, exiled, libeled, and murdered in pogroms again and again? Why is it that liberal-hearted people can sympathize with the plight of every oppressed people in the world except for one–the Jewish people? Why do people resent their success on the one hand but dehumanize and demonize them on the other hand? Why can’t the rest of the world be content to allow the Arabs and Muslims in the world to have their vast terrority and also allow the Jews to have that tiny piece of undesirable land?

  14. #21 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2011 - 16:46

    The population of Jews before the immigration of Europeans started in the 1880s was tiny. These were clearly Arab lands. You can’t deny the fact that the Jews were, often self-described, European colonists even before WWII.

    The Jews were European! No one can deny that — they themselves were living in Europe for generations, speaking European languages, identifying with states like Germany and France. To say they were not European is absurd beyond belief. They certainly considered themselves European. They had Jewish heritage and many followed the Jewish faith. I am an American, even though my great grandparents came from Germany.

    The sovereign state was created in 1648, before that you had mass migrations and changing empires. The European Jews never had a state in Palestine. There had been a Jewish empire deep in the past, but there have been lots of empires in history, to try to lay claim to past lands (like the Sioux in the US?) would be ridiculous. There is no way to make an argument that somehow they were entitled to that land.

    One of the most dehumanizing and evil rhetorical acts is to deny identity. Denying the Palestinians identity is morally wrong. Moreover, their land is Palestine, it is NOT Jordan. You are wrong in your history if you think the UN gave them that. The UN had Palestinian territory to be much greater than even the occupied lands are now. If we use the UN formula, the Palestinian state would be much larger than what the PA was demanding.

    To push them to Jordan would be ethnic cleansing and evil. You are the one dehumanizing the other. You are denying Arab claims and Palestinian identity. You are warping history if you suggest that the Jews that moved there weren’t European. Now they are Israeli, but the were definitely Europeans (just as the Boers were Dutch in South Africa).

    All that said, I do think a secure Israel is a necessity. I do not think the state is illegitimate. I am not arguing that. I also understand the argument of the Israeli side. When I teach about the conflict I give both sides as persuasively as possible to show people that the core problem here is that each side sees their own perspective clearly, but doesn’t recognize the power of the other side’s perspective. I can give the Israeli perspective as strongly as I can present the Arab one. The key here is for both sides to recognize they have to come up with an agreement if they want peace — a viable Palestine along side a secure Israel. This means not trying to dehumanize the Palestinians by denying their identity; it also means accepting the legitimacy of the Israeli state and its right to security.

    The reality is that these two peoples’ destinies are intertwined. Israel won militarily in 1967, but winning the war is only the first step towards stable peace. They now have to figure out how to live alongside the Palestinians, and that will never be secure if there isn’t a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have to put aside anger and resentment for what they’ve eperienced as 45 years of oppression and humiliation. They have to recognize that Israel won’t trust a Palestinian state if Israel feels secure. Both sides have to reject the extremists who want to drive the Jews into the sea or the Arabs into the desert. The extremes are out of touch with reality.

  15. #22 by Scott Erb on February 4, 2011 - 19:59

    Al Jazeera had a nice visual from the Egyptian protests Friday — Egyptian Christians forming a ring around Muslims at prayer time to protect them from any violence. About 10% of the Egyptian population is Christian. Muslims there also protected Christians earlier in the year when there was Christmas violence. Small gestures, but potentially very meaningful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: