Disrupting Mideast balance of power

Analysts struggle to comprehend the Middle Eastern shock waves reverberating since the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

Obama reacting to Egypt situation
Protesters react in Tahrir Square to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s televised speech on February 1 [Reuters] 

The magnificent and ongoing upheaval of the Tunisian and Egyptian people has taken the entire region and a good part of the world by storm. We cannot underestimate its implications and consequences, whatever the immediate outcome of the Egyptian uprising.

Whether it is the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak or the preservation of his presidency as well as some symbols of the regime, neither Egypt nor the Middle East will remain the same.

A deluge of analysis pervades the Arab, American, European, and other presses around the world. Much of it is on point, and some of it is actually illuminating even to seasoned observers, politicians, and educators. But the bigger picture regarding the disruption of the balance of power in the region — the elephant in the room — has received short shrift at the same time that it explains the reactions of various regional and international players.

Though the emphasis on whether Mubarak stays or goes carries an undeniable immediacy, after more than a week of turmoil in Egypt, it is clouding the real and perhaps irreversible developments that have swept North African Arab countries and their implications for the region and beyond. Namely, the balance of power that has more or less held in the region since 1979 is no longer, either actually or potentially.

A new regional balance of power is emerging out of the screams, burned tires, and the batons that are being shattered against the bodies of protesters by the sheer weight of their anger and resentment against a regime that crushed much more than their political rights.

Though the collapse of the regime in Tunisia was the first casualty/domino, its impact in and of itself was limited. But the irreversible decaying of the Egyptian regime coupled by the rise of the unrelenting Egyptian people has set in motion a process that will help shape the future of the region and the calculus of all players involved.

So much so because the structural conditions of inequity, unemployment, political disempowerment, and dismal nationalist credentials pervade most other Arab countries. Egypt, however, has always been thought of as the real litmus test in the region, a cornerstone holding the Arab state system.

For nearly a century, Egypt has been the lynchpin of both stability and upheaval in the Arab world, a model and pioneer in terms of development, state-led growth, and reform, however imperfect all have been. As the largest and most powerful Arab state, the cultural mecca of the Arab world speaks to more than Egypt.

Whenever its foundations are shaken, they send palatable shockwaves throughout the Arab world and beyond: if Egypt can no longer be the horse that America, Israel, and conservative Arab regimes can bet on, all such players will have to undergo some serious recalculation, akin to the one our loyal car’s GPS announces when another road must be taken. Now, even if prematurely, they are all recalculating – fast.

Recalibrating expectations

The panic, disarray, and ambivalence that characterise the responses of politicians and people, from Obama to Osama, speaks to the depth of a longstanding stable reality that seems to hang in the balance, awaiting the next day, the next development, the next number of people congregating in Tahrir Square, which has witnessed more than its share of upheavals for more than half a century. Regional and international stakeholders are both glued to the events and jittery about the prospects. All are jockeying to position themselves appropriately so as to handle the repercussions.

The main players from the supply side are the United States, decrepit Arab regimes and their cronies (including “sons”), and Israel. The main players from demand side are the people, a player that was absent yesterday, but calling the shots today, causing the said disorientation and putting the powers that be on the defensive, as well as inspiring citizens everywhere.

While we await a showdown between the resolve of the Egyptian people and that of the sinking regime, we might take a moment to ponder the kinds of changes to which the impending shift in the balance of power will give rise, or impetus. These changes are not confined to the relative standing of political players.

More significantly, they include new ways of envisioning the region, its people, and their prospects in relation to each other and to the rest of the world. It has been a long time since one thought in that manner, since one ventured into areas of the imagination that have been surrounded by self-imposed barbed wire.

Though the implications of a shift in the regional balance of power are too numerous even to list, the most notable ones relate to the salient issues that are shaping the responses of local and global political actors.

Namely, on the regional front, we are likely to see three immediate shifts in the balance of power related to the Arab-Israeli conflict (which in large measure explains the US and Israel’s support for Mubarak and the status quo), the question of stability and succession in other Arab states (which explains the support of conservative Arab regimes for Mubarak and the status quo), and the broader questions related to the Egyptian/Tunisian popular will and where it will take the region (which explains the deep support throughout the Arab world of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts).

The lens through which all these implications are best noted is that of the fate of US power in the region. With Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and perhaps Iraq no longer in the US orbit in the manner they once were, we are likely to witness the formation of new alignments that will disrupt a status quo that has held for more than forty years. As matters unfold on the streets in Egypt – as opposed to the closed corridors of high power – it will only become clearer how far reaching the shift in the balance of power will be.

Best not to speculate excessively or in too much detail at this point, lest we miss the full scale of the people’s revolt in Egypt. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing one-million protesters’ march and the President’s recalcitrance, one thing is for certain: all political players involved will soon be rushing back to their regional/international relations drawing board.

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. He serves as Founding Editor of the Arab Studies Journal a peer-reviewed research publication and is co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, About Baghdad, and director of a critically acclaimed film series on Arabs and Terrorism, based on extensive field research/interviews. He is the author of  Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Forthcoming, 2011, Stanford University Press). Bassam is also Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.