Saturday 29 January 2011

Violence Sweeps the Arab World

The winds of change seem to be blowing through the Middle East. Demonstrations which began in Tunisia during December have now reached Yemen and Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country. Whereas many of these countries have previously seen demonstrations, this time the unrest is different. Demonstrations in the past have usually been directed against western countries and non-Muslims. The current outbreak is directed against the leaders and governments of Arab countries. When considering the stability of the Middle East and particularly from Israel's perspective, the fact that the unrest has reached Egypt represents a substantial risk.

Most Arab countries have been governed in a distinctly undemocratic way. Even those that have held elections, have given only token representation to democratic principles. Egypt has previously held elections in which Mubarak was the only candidate. This seems to be the limit of democracy across the Arab world. Many Arab countries are ruled by royal dynasties such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates, or by family succession such as Syria and Mubarak's attempts to introduce his son to succeed his rule. It is not unusual for rulers in the Arab world to be around for lengthy periods of time. The thirty years that Mubarak's rule in Egypt has lasted is not an unusual occurrence in this part of the world. There are numerous other examples of leaders outstaying their welcome in the interests of clinging to power.

The unrest over the past couple of months has come unexpectedly, and it is unusual in that it has succeeded in ousting at least one leader from power so far. Events in Egypt indicate that President Hosni Mubarak may well be the next casualty. It would have been almost impossible to predict these events 12 months ago, or even 6 months ago. Traditionally, Arab leaders rule their countries in an autocratic type of way, and tolerate absolutely no opposition or threat to their authority. Despite this fact, the demonstrations in Tunisia which overthrew the rule of President Zine El Abiden Ben Ali, seem to have emboldened opposition movements in Yemen and Egypt. Under these circumstances, it is likely that these demonstrations may spread to other countries and it is difficult to know where this will end.

It is evident that the citizens of these Arab countries have had enough of their political aspirations being suppressed. Until now, they have been afraid to express their opposition to the ruling government. Having witnessed the success achieved in Tunisia, however, opposition movements have gained confidence in their ability to make their views known. The success achieved in Egypt will give even further momentum to those in other countries who wish to oppose their ruling governments. Until today, I would not have dared to bet against Mubarak surviving this attack on his regime. At the current moment, with Omar Suleiman installed as Egypt's first vice president in 3o years, Mubarak's hold on power is looking extremely shaky.

From an Israeli perspective, Mubarak's rule has proved to be good. He has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood movement which presented as much of a threat to Israel's safety as it did to the Mubarak regime. He has also placed a fairly tight control on the Gaza border which has made it more difficult for Hamas to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip, which are then used to threaten Israel. If Egypt descends into a state uncertainty as a result of Mubarak being ousted from power, it is expected that Israel will not be immediately threatened. After all, the focus of all the parties is currently on internal political issues. In due course, however, Mubarak's successor will need to get down to the issue of foreign policy and, in particular, policy to be followed regarding Israel and the Hamas state of Gaza. No matter who replaces Mubarak, it is almost certain that Israel will be much more nervous about security on its Egyptian border, and on the border with Gaza.

Even if Mubarak survives the next few days and weeks, it is most likely that he will no longer be in power by the end of 2011. Indications are that the winds of change blowing through the Middle East will see that 2011 is a year of dramatic changes in the Arab world. For Israel, this brings a period of uncertainty and an element of nervousness. Even though Israel is always on heightened alert, the past 30 years have allowed her to be less concerned about events on the Egyptian border. This may be about to change.

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