Monday, 31 January 2011

Tunisia, Egypt and the ‘new and improved’ Arab state

The way events in Egypt are moving, if I do not put pen to paper today my thoughts will be stale by tomorrow!
The world has seen the removal of Tunisia's strong man, Ben Ali, a few weeks ago. Notwithstanding the Egyptian government's assurance that 'Egypt is no Tunisia' the winds (gales?!) of change are blowing through the Arab world's largest country. 
The coat of arms of the Tunisian state

Just as Japan broke the sheen of the 'white man' through its actions in China and the Far East in the lead up to World War Two, the toppling of Tunisia's long time ruler suddenly made the Arab world's ruling establishments look vulnerable. With all the unrest on Cairo's streets, two questions remain unanswered: What is next for Egypt? Which country is next in line?
The outcome of any revolution is difficult to predict. There are too many variables involved. In a combustible environment, these unknowns often combine together in a seemingly random manner and lead to surprising outcomes.
Events in Egypt are revolutionary by any measure.
Egypt is a country which until a few weeks ago implemented a zero tolerance policy for dissent. For the last few days, tens of thousands of protesters have defied curfew orders with virtual impunity. Draconian measures such as disabling the internet and cellular phone traffic have made no difference to people's ability to organize.
Egypt's three decades old president, Mubarak, has fired his government, made a concessionary late night television appearance and even sworn in a nominal successor. But the streets still swarm with Egyptians baying for his blood. Demonstrators seem determined to continue with their efforts until the current regime is a subject for history books. 
The Ottoman style Mohammad Ali mosque in Cairo

So far, the script follows the Tunisian model.
But the differences between Tunisia and Egypt are important. Tunisia is far wealthier than Egypt, with a per capita income of approximately USD 8,000 versus USD 6,200 for Egypt (purchasing power parity basis). Egypt's population is eighty million while Tunisia has eleven million inhabitants.
However, the most important distinction has nothing to do with size. Egypt has a history of grassroots based Islamic political activism while Tunisian politics are largely devoid of Islamists, mainly due to Tunisia's more secular political culture.
There is a real possibility that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood may seize power in Egypt's should a power vacuum develop. The implications of an Islamist government running the Arab world's largest country are enormous. Not only will other Islamist movements obtain a 'prestige boost' but they are also likely to receive substantial moral and material support from their Egyptian brothers.
An Islamic regime in Egypt dramatically changes the political landscape in the Middle East. Among other issues, there is the Palestinian / Hamas question; Egypt's relationship with Israel and continued stability within Jordan.
Analysts who dismiss the possibility of Egypt taking an Islamist turn suggest that origins of the current unrest having no link with the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement is largely spontaneous and operates without the overt backing of the Brotherhood. However, one need only revisit Khomeini's overthrow of the Shah of Iran to be reminded that middle class revolutions can go horribly wrong.
Lest anyone has doubts about the ruthlessness and organization of Egypt's Islamists, one need only note that Al-Qaeeda's spiritual leadership and ideological guidance originates largely from Egyptian Islamist intellectuals. The assassination of Mubarak's predecessor, president Sadat, by military personnel provides another instance of Islamist intervention within Egypt's politics.
Undoubtedly, the Egyptian state is at a crossroads. Egypt is a lynchpin state within the Arab world. All eyes are watching Mubarak's fate.
If Egypt wobbles, which country is next? Yemen is often mentioned as a possibility. However, Yemen is a state with limited governmental control. Does it really matter if there is a regime change in Yemen? Unfortunately not. A regime change in Yemen may create more tactical space for Al-Qaeeda, ultimately inviting more US involvement. However, the US trajectory in Yemen is already in motion.
Algeria? Algeria went through a vicious civil war in the 1990s. The ruling establishment is entrenched. Any change will be cosmetic and probably not of as substantial a nature as in Tunisia.
Jordan? Morocco?  Certainly these countries are possibilities but it is too early to speculate.
Change in the Arab Gulf countries - unlikely. Discontent in Saudi Arabia spilled over earlier this century and was effectively contained by the authorities. A resurgence of similar violence appears unlikely.
The social contract in the remaining oil rich Gulf countries looks strong, especially as long as oil wealth is spread around the wider population. In these countries, the risk of social unrest, unless actively stirred by external forces, is low.
Mob psychology often appears random. It is easier to read tarot cards than predicting crowds and divining political fortunes. Long standing Arab rulers must be wishing there is more of a science to accurately determine the changing moods of their populations. Reading the odd blog post now and again may be the only way to gauge the mood of the silent majority.

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