February 11, 2011
Mubarak’s fall heralds new power player in the Mideast: the Arab street
Hosni Mubarak’s resignation Friday from Egypt’s presidency following three weeks of intense street demonstrations raises a host of questions not just for the future of Egypt and its peace treaty with Israel, but for the entire Middle East.
The most remarkable feature of the developments in Egypt—and, several weeks before it, the ouster of the longtime dictator of Tunisia amid similar protests—is the introduction of a major new power player in the Middle East: the Arab street.
Until recently, the Arab street—essentially, popular will—often was viewed as little more than an irritant by autocratic regimes from Cairo to Tehran that sought to repress its power or, occasionally, redirect its anger against some outside foe, like Israel or the United States.
When massive street protests greeted the dubious re-election in June 2009 of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, popular will was successfully repressed by the government’s deadly security tactics. Eventually, popular will (in this case, the Persian street) was rendered irrelevant.
But the success of the Arab street in Egypt and Tunisia raises the prospect that people elsewhere in the autocratic Middle East will feel emboldened to rise up and seek to overthrow their unelected leaders.
Already, protesters in Yemen and Jordan have staged massive demonstrations against their governments, and smaller protests have taken place in Algeria and Syria. In Iran, the government is trying to keep a budding protest movement in check for fear it will redirect its rage toward the regime in Tehran.
For Israel and its allies, the ascendancy of the Arab street could be a game changer.
While Israel has cultivated relationships with the leaders of many of these countries—in some cases, as in Saudi Arabia, with Washington as an intermediary—Israel remains largely reviled by the Arab street.
In Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries that have full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, professional unions still maintain a boycott against any interaction with Israeli colleagues. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey conducted in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon showed unfavorable views of Jews at 95 percent, 97 percent and 98 percent, respectively.
So if the Arab street becomes more powerful, Israel’s relationships in the Middle East will be at risk. For example, while the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia see eye to eye on such issues as the Iranian nuclear threat and the rising danger of Shiite power, including Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon, the Saudi people—like the people in Egypt and Jordan—are more inclined to view Israel as a hated foe rather than a country with which they share common cause.
On the other hand, if countries like Egypt or Tunisia were to become true democracies, they could become inherently more stable and less belligerent toward Israel. In this respect, Turkey could be the model: a democracy in a Muslim country whose relationship with Israel persists even at times when its government and people engage in harsh, anti-Israel rhetoric.
Until the situations in Egypt and elsewhere around the Middle East sort themselves out, it seems there’s not much Israel can do but wait and watch and pray for the best.
That’s not the case for the United States, which wields influence in Arab capitals through a combination of aid, trade and diplomacy. With future control over the reins of power uncertain, however, the United States is trying to keep all its options open.
The balancing act the Obama administration has tried to practice throughout the Egyptian crisis is a prime example of this.
With Egypt a longtime reliable and stable ally, President Obama didn’t want to alienate Mubarak in the event he stayed in power; otherwise, Washington would be viewed as a turncoat, not a friend. But if the street were to triumph, Obama did not want to be seen as an enemy of Egyptian popular will.
With Mubarak now gone, it’s not clear whether Obama’s balancing act did the trick—especially because it’s not at all clear who will lead Egypt.
If the Egyptian army controls the reins of power, either overtly or behind the scenes, it’s likely that things will not change drastically in the near term. The army, much of it funded by the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt, is vested in its positive relationship with the United States and its working relationship with Israel.
Along with the Mubarak regime, the army has been key to the fight against Islamic terrorism, and it has helped contain Hamas in the Gaza Strip and kept anti-Israel elements in Egypt at bay.
The only thing that seems assured is that more uncertainty lies ahead, in Cairo and beyond.