Under mounting public unrest, President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11th. International relations experts are unanimous that Middle East is going through a fundamental change and shift in the balance of power. What’s occurring in Egypt foretells the shape of the emerging Arab world, which will impact politics of every other region. This article also examines the dynamics of social media assisted revolutions.
In PoliTact’s January 28 analysis, we had indicated that Egyptian Army would likely play a pivotal role in any transition. Now that Hosni Mubarak is gone and the Army is in control, the key strategic questions in the medium to long term are:
- What would be the shape of the new government?
- Will Egypt once again play a prominent role in the Arab and Islamic world and what that would mean for other Sunni states?
- What would be the repercussions of American posture in Egypt on the rest of Middle East?
It would be wrong to consider the Egyptian crisis solely from the prism of nation-state classification of the present world order. Furthermore, it would also be naive to not factor in the role of following events in triggering the Egyptian crisis:
- 911 and the subsequent Iraq and Afghan War
- The Gaza Crisis of 2008-2009
- The Freedom Flotilla incident last year
- The documents released by WikiLeaks
- Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process
- The decisive role of Social Media
Gaza Crisis And Flotilla Incident
In PoliTact’s recently analyses (see Related Articles section) PoliTact has been discussing the above variables as agents of change in the Arab world. However, in our estimate, the growing gap of perceptions between the public and their governments has played a significant role in what is unfolding in the Middle East. When autocratic, or even democratic rulers, cease to represent the sentiments of their people, the system is bound to seek at least some semblance of equilibrium.
Last year, PoliTact had pointed to events such as the Freedom Flotilla incident that decisively took the initiative away from the Arab Sunni republics and in favor of Turkey:
“In the game of public perception, the Arab states are beginning to look more and more pithy, especially when compared with the daring of the Turkish-led flotilla, in stark contrast to the compliant attitudes of the Arab states regarding Palestine-not that the other Arab states don’t care for the Palestinian cause, but their reliance on the US, prevents them from taking any actuating steps against Israel in the name of the Palestinians. This is definitely not the case with Iran, and nor, would it seem, with Turkey.”
In the aftermath of Gaza crisis of 2008-2009 and the Freedom Flotilla incident last year, and due to the complacent role of Arab leaders, Turkey was able to position itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. On the other hand, Iran remains at the helm of the Shiite Muslim world.
Furthermore, the role of Egypt in recent years had tilted in favor of Israel and against the feelings of its own citizens. Egyptian relations with Israel has been a peculiar one. Its policies were complicit in the Gaza blockade that prompted the Freedom Flotilla in the first place. The only border not under total Israeli control around Gaza is that with Egypt, and Egypt has cooperated with Israel in maintaining the blockade against Gaza by sealing its border. While the border blockade was deeply unpopular with the Egyptian public, the government kept it in place partly because it feared the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood group that originated in Egypt, and has caused considerable problems for the Egyptian government.
Bowing to public pressure since the Freedom Flotilla incident, Egypt opened the Rafah border to Gaza, allowing select food and medical items to go into Gaza, and Palestinians with special permits, such as students and those in need of medical attention, to use the crossing.
Reacting to the Gaza crisis in 2008-2009, and reflecting tremendous pressures the Saudi’s were under, Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia wrote in The Financial Times on January 22, 2009:
“So far, the Kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain. When Israelis deliberately kill Palestinians, appropriate their lands, destroys their homes, uproot their farms and impose an inhumane blockade of them; and as the world laments once again the sufferings of the Palestinians, people of conscience from every corner of the world are clamoring for action. Eventually, the Kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel. Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal:
“‘I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake the Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more.’ ”
WikiLeaks And Social Media Assisted Revolutions
In the unfolding Middle East crisis, the role of WikiLeaks cannot be underestimated. It publicly exposed the duplicitous roles of Arab governments, particularly in its dealing with US. With tools like Facebook and Twitter, people were able to vent their anger, organize and maintain momentum. However, these media sites could not provide leadership personalities to take charge of the movement. Thus, it appears that social media has had a galvanizing influence and in providing the initial momentum, with a dangerous side effect of not preparing people for the day after.
Additionally, the modern day social media assisted revolutions, such as the one in Tunisia and Egypt, are not transformations in the traditional sense, where the existing system and players are crudely replaced like what happened in Iran in 1979. The main thrust of the Tunisian and Egyptian movements was to replace the present leaders and not the political, economic or social structures that sustained the system, with little or no focus on what will come after. Inadvertently, the new transitional governments would have to overhaul these systems, which have been tweaked by the former rules for the sole purpose of self survival.
Although it’s too early to tell, these present-day revolutions appear to be merely a dramatic rearrangement of power centers. When long established power player leaves the scene, a natural reaction is a sigh of public relief. With passage of time, the initial public euphoria is likely to fade. It is at this precise point where an opportunist would like to jump in to exploit the situation and the leaderless movement.
The Future American Policy
The Middle East remains on edge. The modern day transformation that started in Tunisia and is presently passing through Egypt, might be heading to Yemen next. From the perspective of other American allies in the region, there is a clear message: it no longer matters if they support US policies and interests. American future strategy would be increasingly tied to the sentiments of the people of these regions and not to their autocratic leaders. If US can maintain this consistently, is yet to be seen.
However, as a reaction, we can expect two behaviors to emerge from leaders of the region: these governments would increasingly attempt to connect with their people and at the cost of their relations to US. Once this happens, US would rely on its military-to-military relations, to resolve matters and in the conduct of war against terror.