Riding the Wave of Change in the Mideast

By Riad Kahwahi

The world stands today in shock watching the quick unfolding of events in Egypt that coincide with uprisings and riots in other neighboring countries where people are trying to imitate the successful popular revolt of Tunisia that brought down the Western-backed regime there. A lot of analysis and reports have been written about the "winds of change" sweeping the Middle East region. However, there are few observations that have not yet been fully highlighted that deserve some attention.

First, the fever of succession from father to son that swept through "Arab republics" since the U.S.-backed handover of power in Syrian presidency from the late Hafez Assad to his son Bashar in 2000 has finally come to an end. The image of U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright shaking the hand of Bashar Assad and referring to him as "Mr. President" just two days before he was officially elected by the Syrian parliament in a well-orchestrated transition has prompted other Arab leaders to seek the same treatment from Washington. For the past decade, leaderships in several countries like Egypt, Yemen and Libya have been openly grooming the sons of the current presidents who have been in power for more than two decades, to succeed their respective fathers. The concern by the presidents of these countries to secure the succession to their siblings has been at the expense of national interests and affected the status of their countries. Egypt, a once major power-center in the Middle East, saw its influence dwindle as leadership there was too busy with issue of succession.

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Second, the notion of presidency for life in these "Arab republics" is no longer acceptable by the masses. Current Arab regimes will have to reconsider their future plans and make sure there would be no extension, and a transition of power would take place at end of the president's term. So far two leaders, in Yemen and Iraq, have come out to publicly say they would not seek a new term in office.

Third, Arab militaries in Western-backed states have reached a high level of professionalism and the boundaries between civil and military powers are more clearly defined and adhered to. Military commands in Tunis and Egypt have refused to use force against demonstrators and have refrained (so far) from making a move to grab political power despite the fragility of the situation. It seems as if Samuel Huntington's "Soldier and the State" theories have been indoctrinated within many Arab militaries, especially ones with close links to the West. It is worth mentioning that most fatalities in the Tunis and Egypt riots were in clashes with police and other security services of the regimes there and not the army.

Fourth, Arab societies have mastered the use of the "New Media" and are now capable of carrying out "e-based" uprisings. The excellent use of blogging combined with full utilization of social networks (Facebook and Twitter) and cell phone messaging (SMS and BBM), have enabled once disconnected parties and movements to link-up with one another and to mobilize the masses across the country. The presence of dozens of Arab satellite television stations, radio stations and the internet plus the effective use of the "New Media" have deprived Arab authoritarian regimes from any monopoly on flow of information in and out of the country and within.

Fifth, change being brought about by popular revolt in Arab countries has been mostly opposed by the so-called promoters and protectors of democracy: The United States and the West. Washington and European capitals did not back the Tunisian uprising at start, and have sent out mixed signals with respect to the Egyptian unrest. The most critical point of the uprising has been the self-proclaimed "only democracy" in the Middle East: Israel. The Israeli leaders have been vocal in their support to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and as expected have been playing on fears of the West of seeing an Islamist regime run by the Muslim Brotherhood replace the current one in Cairo. So, for many Arabs today it seems having dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the region are more suitable to Western powers. This is a dangerous perception to let prevail in the Arab world today if the West wants to ensure good future relations with Arab peoples and governments. As for Israel, selling itself and its controversial policies on settlements to real democratic Arab countries will not be as easy as it would be with dictatorships. Hence, Israel must reconsider its policies to fit new changes in its neighborhood, if it wants peace.

Sixth, the longer the riots go on and the more resistance the regime shows, the bigger the impact will be on the West's relations with the concerned country. Prolonging the showdown between the masses and the regime would only strengthen the radical forces and weaken the moderate and secular ones. Hence a lengthy confrontation would jeopardize the interests of the U.S. and Europe in Egypt. The people would blame the West for their prolonged suffering and for the intransigence of the regime, and the future Egyptian government would likely punish the West for this emerging fact.

It is still hard to predict the short-term and long-term implications of the current events on the region as well as the outside world's relations with the main players in the Middle East. Other Arab regimes are expected to either collapse or to take preemptive moves by introducing serious reforms to quell public anger and avoid a humiliating end to their decades-long hold on power. Taking into account the turbulent history of the region, one cannot be too optimistic about the results of these uprisings. For one, "bad habits die hard." However, regardless of what happens, one cannot see it but a step ahead and hopefully in the right direction. No country should feel immune to what took place in Tunis and Egypt. The peoples have come to realize they possess a voice which they can use effectively, and their regimes are "paper tigers." Therefore, the long awaited change in the Middle East has started, and it's like a runaway train on a one-way track. If the United States, Europe and other world powers fail to realize this fact or try to stop it, they will risk losing popular support, and most likely see their regional interest in jeopardy. In the Middle East there is a giant wave of change rising and it would be best to all parties to ride it instead of being swept away by it.

Riad Kahwahi is the CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis. 

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