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Which Mideast autocracy will be next?

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Algerian protesters face off against riot police in the capital city of Algiers on Monday. magharebia/Creative Commons

With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?

Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.

In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.

In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the west bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his cabinet.

Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman — not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.

“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”

In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.

“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”

The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.

High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption, and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.

Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.

That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year and a half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters, and executed organizers.

This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers, and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.

Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.

“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”

Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that compose the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.

As protests — a recurring presence in the kingdom — gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.

“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.

“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia — everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.

“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to what was the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

News Analysis

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

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A demonstrator with an anti-Gaddafi sign outside the Libya Embassy in Cairo Feb. 22 shows his solidarity for Libyans protesting their leader. Sierragoddes via Creative Commons

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya, said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise — if it comes — wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel — including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and North Africa — on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal — something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber-rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber-rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes somewhat friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

For more about the J Street conference, go to jstandard.com.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Why Glenn Beck is correct on the Middle East

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 26 August 2011
 
 
 
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