The Tunisian revolution will set the tone for the coming year. There are a number of tinderboxes in the Middle East that seem to be crackling as 2011 opens. Tunisia seems poised to provide the spark that could make 2011 the biggest year in the Middle East since 1979.
1979 was a phenomenal shift in the strategic outlook of the region. The first reason that comes to mind would be the Iranian Revolution, itself dominating the month of January that year and culminating on February 11th with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. But also that year Saddam Hussein consolidated his rule in Iraq and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. These events set the stage Iran’s reach into Lebanon, its alliance with Syria, the heating up of the Syrian-Iraqi cold war, and the Arab obsession with destroying the Shiite revolution in Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia extended its influence in order to combat 1) Iran and 2) the Soviet Union. Militant Sunni doctrine would spread to mobilize Muslims against Shiite and Communist movements.
2011, though still nascent and yet to provide all the major changes that it would take to rival 1979, has seen the outbreak of protests against four authoritarian regimes, the ascent of Hizbullah to power in Lebanon and a sudden jolt to the ability of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with Israel. Considering developments over the last two years, and obviously since September 11, 2001, the region will not look as it did this past December when we enter 2012.
Egypt is the major chess piece. Continuing protests, fueled by years of frustration and motivated by Tunisians’ success, signals at least the beginning of a necessary period of reforms to pacify fed up Egyptians, if not an outright and brutal confrontation with the regime.
The protests that brought down the Iranian government 32 years ago began in 1977. The pattern of protest was uniquely Shiite. Every forty days after a suppressed demonstration, mourning caravans would commemorate those killed in the protests according to Shiite tradition, which in turn became political demonstrations in and of themselves. This pattern resulted in steadily growing protests that culminated in the involvement of armed opposition, popular revolt and the exile of the Shah.
Egypt is not restricted to a steady pattern of protests like Iran. That history made the Iranian opposition strategy in 2009-10 easier to predict for Iranian security services, enabling a more congruent system of tactics to be implemented to cut off demonstrations in the winter last year. Egypt does not have a revolutionary history, and its security services are equally as resented as the Iranian SAVAK at the point of the Islamic Revolution.
Most importantly, the distinction in opoosition leadership is pronounced. The most popular and credulous would be Mohamed Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who had announced his candidacy for president in next year’s Egyptian elections. His international standing is a stark contrast to the figure that was Ayatollah Khomeini. Additionally, Elbaradei’s goals are much more generic, while Khomeini carried with him a fully developed doctrine of religious rule, velayat e-faqih, upon his return from exile in February 1979.
For any arguing the Muslim Brotherhood would assuredly take the lead in an Egyptian revolution, perhaps on par with Khomeini’s religious leadership. There is no undercurrent of Islamic fundamentalism ready to take the helm in Egypt. The population is aware of the human rights violations of established dictatorship and the brutality of the Iranian revolutionaries. It would find itself hardpressed to welcome a religious party that might perptrate the same misbehavior as the current Iranian elite. While there may be sharp differences between Sunni and Shiite doctrine, they would make little difference for Egyptians looking for democratic government. It is important to know the Brotherhood is seen as corrupt and inept. Early in the week, its leadership announced its non-participation in the planned demonstrations, citing its being held on a national holiday for the country’s police.
The irony of such a situation is iconic for Egyptian cynics. As elsewhere in the Arab world, supposed democratic opposition is more often a tame form of political theater. But as is often the case near the end of flimsy regimes, the artificiality of their politics and placation to the regime becomes too obvious to take seriously. Egypt, whether it be now or it be in the next couple years, will more than likely be free of Hosni Mubarak by reform, by revolution or by his passing.
Iran’s revolution caught the entire world, particularly the Arab world, off guard. In a way, it showed Iran was at a stage in its political evolution to tolerate such dramatic changes whereas the Arab world was not. But the tremendous international opposition to that revolution made its leadership more consolidated and extreme, particularly in the face of a US and Arab-backed Iraqi effort to dislodge the new regime.
Egypt, if it shifts, would likely not provide the throne to an authoritarian figure, but it could seek to dominate Middle Eastern politics and offer itself as a serious contender for global leadership in an increasingly multipolar world. It would likely not undertake the aggressive tone of Iran’s objective to ‘spread its revolution’. It has an opportunity to challenge Turkey and modern Iran for the helm of the Middle East, with an advantage being an Arab state. Mohamed Elbaradei, the likely victor of these changes, would leverage that international standing and popularity to solidify permanent political reforms and seek a balanced relationship with, not set himself in opposition to, the United States.
The next few days are crucial for American influence in the Middle East, and there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to demonstratively engage the general population of the Arab world as he promised to do in Cairo two years ago. The fallout between the US and Iran does not have to repeat itself with Egypt, especially given the groundwork has already been laid for engagement. It is in the best interests of the US not to support Hosni Mubarak, rather to actually compound the pressure on him. If the US opts for caution, Obama and his engagement doctrine would likely come to mean nothing and his personal credibility would be totally destroyed. If his policy of balance with the Muslim world is to mean anything, the last month’s pattern of Arab protests should demonstrate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot resolve all the region’s problems nor America’s tenuous position among Arabs on the street.
Revolutions can become extreme as happened with Iran, or they can be stable and world-changing, as with the US. Whether Egypt becomes a positive facet in the Middle East or an agitator, and whether Egypt’s minority Christians and multiple political outlooks are tolerated, may depend on its engagement with the outside world and the support other countries offer it. In this last point, it is what the world can do differently this time, not what Egyptians do differently from Iranians, that may distinguish an Egyptian Revolution from the Iranian one.