Thursday, February 24, 2011

The ABCs of the Middle East Revolution

Thomas Neumann
Executive Director
23 February '11

Over the last month there has been an absolutely incredible amount of speculation over the chain of events unfolding in the Middle East that so far has toppled two governments and threatens many more. Were the protests spontaneous or planned in advance and who is behind them? These are just two of the many key questions pundits are scrambling to answer. The most important question, however, may be, what is the significance of these events for the United States?

After reading what seemed to be an endless stream of analysis by the multitude of prognosticators and so-called experts one clear thought emerges – every one of their interpretations reflects nothing more than their particular worldview. They are all clueless.

So here I offer another piece of speculation and assumption about the sequence of events that triggered the political wildfire raging across the Middle East with, more importantly, assumptions as to where it is heading.

As with all revolutions, it matters less who started it and why they did so than who is still standing at the end of the day. Seldom in history has the first post-revolution government endured. Aside from historians, who today remembers Kerensky or Robespierre? And how short was the shelf life of the Articles of Confederation?

The spark was a Tunisian street merchant named Mohamed Bouazizi who on December 17 set himself on fire to protest humiliation he suffered at the hands of Tunisian government officials. Bouazizi became a powerful symbol of the hopelessness and frustration felt by nearly the under 30 generation of Tunisians who were similarly suffering under President Ben Ali’s regime.

Without Twitter and Facebook, Bouazizi may have become just another faceless victim of injustice. But with these tools not only spreading the story but also the accompanying rage and anger at unprecedented speeds, Bouazizi was the match that started the fire.

When Ben Ali fled Tunisia it sent a message not only to young people all over the Middle East who saw their future as hopeless but also to opposition groups from all points of the political and religious spectrum that had been waiting for such a moment.

From among these organizations it is unlikely that an American-style democratic movement will emerge. Democracy to Americans means something very different than it does to an Egyptian. Outside of Israel, there is no current or historical experience of democracy in the Middle East.

That the protesters or any of the groups behind them were American-style forces of democracy was a myth created by both the Western media and the State Department. That myth at first did not take hold as evidenced by the White House’s initial calls for Mubarak to remain in office. The Administration soon caved and by the second week of protests was resolutely declaring that Mubarak had to go and the protesters became the forces of democracy

Rather than forthrightly acknowledging the stability that President Mubarak brought to the region and the peace with Israel he maintained, our long-standing relationship with him was disavowed. Mubarak’s relationship with the United States became a liability rather than an asset.

What the Administration failed to understand was that outside of Israel there are only two types of governments in the Middle East, pro-American dictatorships and anti-American dictatorships. The battle at the end of the day would not be between a democratic movement and a dictatorship, but between two types of dictatorships – one pro-American and the other resolutely opposed to America.

Unfortunately, our ambivalence became public policy and served to frighten our other regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia. Surely, the Saudi royal family is questioning the wisdom of placing their country under the American security umbrella. If Mubarak couldn’t depend on the U.S. how can they? Just as bad, American ambivalence has emboldened our enemies, particularly Iran and Hamas.

If this policy continues, it would be logical to assume that at the end of the day anti-American dictatorships will replace pro-American dictatorships. In order to stop the hemorrhaging of American partners we must put at least as much pressure on the Iranian theocracy as we did on the Egyptian autocracy. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, we have not been as forceful in demanding restraint on the part of the Iranian government as we have been with the governments of Egypt or Bahrain.

No one knows how this will end but if Middle East history and political culture are indicative, readers of tea leaves should not be too optimistic.

Thomas Neumann is Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

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