The Arab world at a tipping point?

Egypt’s prospects look better no matter what happens at this point, but its immediate future is still uncertain.

Protests across the Arab world - First Tunisia, now Egypt, whow next?
The fallout from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will shape a new geopolitical structure in the Middle East [CC – Jacob Anikulapo]

Hosni Mubarak is still president of Egypt, but his days in power are numbered; there will be no Mubarak dynasty either. The authoritarian order in Egypt and throughout the Arab world has been profoundly shaken. The ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia, a remarkable event in itself, now appears to have been the trigger for a far broader upheaval that is shaking regimes across the region.  

Since Mohamed Bou’azizi set himself alight in Tunisia on December 17, self-immolations have taken place in Egypt, Algeria, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Unprecedented demonstrations have since spread to Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen. Remember too that all this was taking place against the backdrop of a tense regional environment: the dangerous paralysis in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a simmering crisis in Lebanon, continuing uncertainties over Iraq, and the Iranian nuclear issue. 

Egypt as a catalyst?

Egypt, with a population of over 80 million, is not only the largest country by far in the Arab world, it is also strategically and centrally situated astride Africa and Asia, and has exerted profound political, cultural and social influence in the modernisation of the whole region since the late eighteenth century. During the rule of the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser from 1952 to 1970 Egypt dominated the Arab world.

To be sure, under his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who aligned Egypt with the US, Egypt’s influence in regional affairs waned; but by virtue of its size and history this country commands a privileged place in the Arab imagination. Thus, it has served as a model of authoritarianism for the region and were it to dissolve into chaos or, preferably, a liberal democratic system similar to today’s Turkey the demonstration effect could be significant. That is why Arab ruling elites from the Atlantic to the Gulf must be losing sleep these days. 

Political scientists who until recently were pronouncing Arab authoritarianism as too deeply rooted to fail are now discovering so many reasons why Mubarak is facing the most serious challenge of his long career. There is the economic argument: despite decent aggregate growth, unemployment and a rising cost of living are fuelling popular protest. There is the administrative argument: corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement have gotten out of hand. There is the social argument: Egypt’s youth are alienated, the educational system is in decay, families and marriages are under stress. But above all there is the political argument: the president and his ruling party have become increasingly authoritarian over time. 

The respected Egyptian political scientist Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, in a lecture at the Middle East Institute in Singapore a month before the crisis exploded, described the blatantly un-free parliamentary elections staged by the Mubarak regime, which brought its authoritarian habits to a new low. 

“Stagnation will continue if things remain as they are,” he said, “but they may not remain as they are because people’s reactions show that they do not accept it.” If the people have taken to the streets to demonstrate that they do not accept authoritarianism in Tunisia and Egypt, why should they not do the same thing in other authoritarian Arab countries?

A model for other Arab countries?

Many of the conditions that help explain the eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt are present in other Arab countries. In the non-oil rich states like Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen we see the same volatile social cocktail: a youth bulge, vast unemployment, inadequate education, and gross economic inequality. Little wonder that their rulers are belatedly trying to ease conditions that will take years to remedy. Jordan is offering subsidies; Yemen (where tax evasion is endemic!) is cutting taxes. Too little, too late? 

Will the Arab oil-rich states be immune? Perhaps so if the present upheaval is seen as being driven exclusively by economic deprivation. But there are two other powerful political factors fomenting popular anger: entrenched authoritarianism and subservience to America’s strategic agenda for the Middle East – especially its tacit support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. 

Petro-rulers as different from each other as Muammar Ghaddafi in Libya and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have condemned the popular upheavals, with Ghaddafi voicing support for the disgraced Ben Ali in Tunisia and Abdullah excoriating the protesters on the streets of Egypt as infiltrators, who “in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilise its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition.” Might it be said, quoting Shakespeare, that “they doth protest too much?”  

Is it time to reexamine the proposition often expressed by Western observers that the oil-rich authoritarian monarchies are the ideal model for the Arab world, because they are rooted in a traditional (i.e., patriarchal tribal) culture and seem to convey an image of Islamic legitimacy?   

Where are the Islamists? 

And speaking of Islam, where are the Islamists in the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt? There is scant indication that Islamist organisations played a major role. Yet to believe the conservative US media one would understand that what we are seeing is an Islamist terrorist conspiracy. And virtually every Arab regime has fanned this alleged threat in order to win US military, financial and political support. But this is an oversimplification of the complex realities of Arab society and political culture. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been so slow to get on board the upheaval that it risks its own credibility. As for Al Qaeda, it is nowhere to be seen. 

The fact is that the protest movement is driven less by the slogan “Islam is the solution” than by a popular revulsion at authoritarianism, corruption, poor governance, and subservience to US strategic priorities (of which Israel is at the top). Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a main player along with others in any new Egyptian political order, but don’t expect the Arabs to welcome an Iranian or Taliban-style regime.

Dilemma for the US and Israel
The Obama administration’s confused and timid reaction reflects all too clearly the dilemma it faces.  Egypt is a lynchpin of the American security architecture for the greater Middle East. Egypt helps guarantee Israel’s interests. Omar Suleiman played a key role in helping Israel seal off Gaza in their common effort to dislodge the Hamas government there. Successive administrations have poured money into Egypt to secure its regime and reinforce its client status.  

A radical Islamic takeover in Egypt would constitute the worst possible scenario for Washington and Tel Aviv. But for Israel even the evolution of a new Egypt along Turkish lines would be anathema. Once again, the US is caught between its professed ideals of promoting democracy and freedom and its perceived interest in a Middle East whose publics (and their anti-American, anti-Israeli opinions) are sidelined from political participation by friendly authoritarian rulers. 

So far the protesters in Egypt are not targeting America, and Washington has a moment of opportunity to do the right thing and get behind the transition. But its response so far is weak and hypocritical. If it comes down on the side of the old status quo its real adversaries in the region – Iran and the radical movements – will benefit. 
Whither Egypt?  Whither the Arab world?

The revolution in Egypt has begun. Mubarak is on his way out. General Omar Suleiman, pillar of the intelligence establishment and reliable friend of Washington, looks to be the man in charge of a transitional regime. But transitional toward what? Doubtless the US government, Israel, and the pro-American authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are desperately hoping that he will keep Egypt from falling into the hands of the popular opposition, let alone the Islamist currents.  

The higher ranks of the Egyptian military must share this orientation, given its historically lucrative ties with the Pentagon. But the middle and lower ranks may be another matter entirely. After all, it was middle-rank officers of Islamist sympathies who assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981. And it is hard to believe that the multiple strands of Egypt’s new “people power” are ready to accept Omar Suleiman as an agent of genuine change, even though some of them have viewed him as definitely preferable to a Mubarak dynasty. 

Egypt is at a turning point. If it turns toward a continuation of military-dominated leadership supported by the business elite we will not have seen the end of turmoil. Popular forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot continue to be excluded from meaningful participation. One must hope that the transitional government will do the right thing and open up the political arena for full participation and an early (and this time free) election. 

The Muslim Brothers didn’t make this revolution but they will need to be part of the new order – an order that also includes centrists, leftists, and liberals. Perhaps Mohamed ElBaradei will emerge as the revolution’s representative. 

A genuinely representative Egyptian government will reject the slavish pro-American, pro-Israeli clientelism of its predecessor. That need not mean that Egypt will become a spearhead for anti-Western, anti-Israeli projects. On the contrary, a genuinely legitimate Egyptian government could set a prominent example for non-authoritarian, participatory government throughout the region and play a decisive role in leading the Middle East out of its present dysfunctional condition. 

Michael C. Hudson is the Seif Ghobash Professor of Government and International Relations at Georgetown University. He is currently serving as the Director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books including Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press), Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (Yale University Press) and The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (Random House).

This article first appeared in the Strait Times (Singapore).

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