"Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December/But the days grow short when you reach September/ When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame/ One hasn't got time for the waiting game." -- Maxwell Anderson, September Song, 1938
In his speech on the Middle East Thursday, President Obama greeted the arrival of spring in the Arab world with enthusiasm. His prescriptions for achieving Arab-Israeli peace, however, leave the Palestinians once again stalled between seasons.[I] Although the President characterized the transformations sweeping the region as a "story of self-determination" and lauded the courage of Arab citizens who had "taken their future into their own hands," he took a dim view of efforts to pursue international recognition of Palestinian statehood this fall. According to Obama, "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state." Instead of taking their future into their own hands, Obama suggested, Palestinians should continue down the path of negotiation with the Netanyahu government, however futile talks might seem.
What Obama seems unwilling to acknowledge is that the protest movements across the region and the drive for Palestinian statehood have more in common than just the anxiety they are producing in Israel. They are also premised on a similar impulse. No less than the Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis who have revolted against autocratic regimes, what the 4 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are seeking is the freedom to govern themselves. For them, independence means more than a seat at the Unuted Nations General Aassembly (UNGA). It means being able to decide where in their country they will live, work, and worship. It means knowing that their government is able to keep them safe. And it means having a say in how their country's resources are used and distributed.
Seen from Damascus, the crisis that is gripping Syria is fast approaching crunch-time. The regime appears to have stopped pretending it can offer a way out. More than ever, it portrays the confrontation as a war waged against a multifaceted foreign enemy which it blames for all casualties. This narrative, which informs the security services' brutal response to protests, has cost the authorities the decisive battle for perceptions abroad, at home, and even in central Damascus -- a rare bubble of relative calm that has now entered into a state of utter confusion.
The primary benefit of observing events from the Syrian capital is to measure just how unreliable all sources of information have become. Local media tell a tale of accusations and denials in which, incredibly, security services are the sole victims, persecuted by armed gangs. Where the regime initially acknowledged civilian martyrs and sought to differentiate between legitimate grievances and what it characterized as sedition, such efforts have come to an end.
No sooner had reports surfaced of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas than congressional calls for cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority began. A statement by House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen described PA president Mahmoud Abbas's decision to end the four-year rift with Hamas as a sign that his leadership was "not a partner for peace" and accused him of "standing with those who want only death and destruction for Israel."
Such sentiment is not surprising given Hamas's designation in the United States as a terrorist organization and the general antipathy on Capitol Hill to most things Palestinian. While Palestinian reconciliation would pose some serious political, diplomatic, and legal challenges for U.S. policymakers, the Obama administration should think twice before heeding such calls. American opposition to Palestinian unity, particularly at a time when the peace process and the entire region are in a state of flux, would be both futile and counterproductive. Details remain sketchy, but the deal seems to center around the formation of an interim government comprised of independents and technocrats not affiliated with either faction -- but approved by both. New parliamentary and presidential elections would then be held after one year.
Though it is not yet clear how -- or even if -- it will be implemented, the agreement is a major breakthrough for the Palestinians, whose four-year split has paralyzed domestic politics, hindered peace efforts, and demoralized ordinary Palestinians. Notwithstanding the humiliation inflicted by Israel's occupation, the self-inflicted nature of the Palestinian division was a source of intense collective shame. At a time when the United States is calling on Arab governments to be more responsive to the demands of their people, U.S. opposition to national unity, which has been a central demand of the Palestinian people for many years, would send all of the wrong messages to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
Europe and America have shared a settled conviction over the last decades: It is that Israel, out of its own necessity, must seek to conserve a Jewish majority within Israel. And that with time, and a growing Palestinian population, Israel will at some point have to acquiesce to a Palestinian state in order to maintain that Jewish majority: that is, only by giving Palestinians their own state and thereby shedding a part of the Palestinians it controls, can Israel's Jewish majority be preserved.
This simple proposition has given us the security-first doctrine: Meeting Israel's self-definition of its own security needs -- it is presumed -- stands as the unique and sufficient principle, allowing Israel to transition with confidence to the two-state solution.
But Israel has not done this -- despite many opportunities over the last 19 years -- and does not seem any more disposed to "give" a Palestinian state now. Seldom is it asked why, if the logic is indeed so compelling, have two states not emerged?
Saudi Arabia has thus far been spared the agitations for change that toppled Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak and that are now pressuring Bahraini and Yemeni leaders. King Abdullah's popularity among the majority of Saudis accounts for much of the lack of impetus for political overhaul in the kingdom. Abdullah, however, is 87 and unhealthy. When he dies, what will happen to the country?
Instead of speculating about who might succeed Abdullah and how Saudi Arabia will change as a result, it's more constructive to analyze how Saudi Arabia has conducted itself amidst regional unrest and understand what this says about senior Saudi leadership.
We don't know when Gaddafi will finally fall or accept a ceasefire that could pave the way for his exit. But we can be confident that, whatever the Colonel's fate, he'll leave Libya in an unholy mess. Cities have been pummeled by artillery bombardments and refugees cluster on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The tribal political settlement that underpinned Gaddafi's rule has broken down. The rebels have armed thousands of ill-disciplined young men who may not lay down their arms willingly.
In these circumstances, there will be no easy transition to peace. In Egypt, where the revolution was comparatively straightforward, the fall of Mubarak has been followed by ongoing unrest and religious violence. There may well be an even bloodier period of score-settling in Libya, possibly comparable to the wave of Albanian attacks on Serbs after NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999.
It's almost certain that some sort of international peacekeeping force will be required to stabilize the situation. At the London conference on Libya at the end of March, Hillary Clinton and her colleagues asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to start stabilization planning. What options does he have?
This week, in response to the highly publicized murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to press Palestinian leaders to end "incitement directed against Jews and Israel within the Palestinian media, mosques, and schools." According to the letter, the grisly killings in Itamar (for which no suspects, Palestinian or otherwise, have been identified), "is a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror."
As evidence for the allegation of pervasive anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian society, the letter cites a recent, official ceremony honoring Delal Mughrabi, a perpetrator of the 1978 coastal road massacre in Israel, as well as a payment of financial compensation made by the Palestinian Authority to the family of a deceased terror suspect.
Such actions are deserving of condemnation. But if it is indeed the case that "words matter" -and if the elimination of violent and dehumanizing rhetoric is, as the letter says, "critical to establishing the conditions [for] a secure and lasting peace"-then what can explain the senators' silence on the veritable carnival of hate and racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians that has lately engulfed Israeli society?
The Palestinian leadership seems to have given up on negotiations with the Netanyahu government and is obviously moving towards seeking recognition for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, possibly in September this year. Most pundits believe that they will muster a substantial majority in the UN General Assembly.
Israel's foreign ministry has now informed the members of the Security Council as well as a number of European countries that it will react to this Palestinian move with a series of unilateral steps. There are indications that these might include the annexation of some major settlement blocs in the West Bank.
What on earth is this move supposed to achieve? Is it intended to frighten the Palestinians, the UN, or the EU? Does the foreign minister expect the international community to meekly accept Israel's annexation and immediately to stop the process of recognizing the Palestinian state?
In September 2007, U.S. soldiers raided a desert encampment outside the town of Sinjar in northwest Iraq, looking for insurgents. Amid the tents, they made a remarkable discovery: a trove of personnel files -- more than 700 in all -- detailing the origins of the foreign fighters al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had brought into the country to fight against coalition forces.
The Sinjar records -- which we analyzed extensively in a series of reports for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center -- revealed that at least 111 Libyans entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. That was about 18 percent of AQI's incoming fighters during that period, a contribution second only to Saudi Arabia's (41 percent) and the highest number of fighters per capita than any other country noted in the records.
While US and international attention is focused largely elsewhere in the region, especially Libya, the violent crackdown against protestors in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain may well pose a bigger threat to the entire region's stability. The Bahrain situation is exposing long simmering tensions and rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and carries the danger that it will trigger the next regional war. Such a scenario would likely draw in the United States at a time when its relationships with key allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, are under strain. Urgent action is therefore needed to de-escalate the situation in Bahrain and create the trust necessary for the government and opposition to start a much delayed national dialogue that charts the future of the country.
Worryingly, a senior unidentified Saudi official has described the mission of Saudi and other GCC troops to support the Bahraini security forces as "open-ended." A three month state of emergency has led to a campaign of house raids and arrests that have included the leaders of the main opposition parties, as well as human rights activists and other dissidents. There are also mounting concerns that these combined security forces are using disproportionate force and committing serious violations of international law and humanitarian law. The space for dialogue seems to be rapidly closing.
In the days ahead, we are likely to see a deepening of the culture of resistance in Bahrain. In particular, calls for dialogue to establish a constitutional monarchy may be swept away by more radical groups and the combative youth that increasingly supports them. Further radicalization of Bahrainis seems inevitable the longer the current impasse lasts, carrying with it the real danger that the country will be mired in a full blown civil war.
Thursday's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorizes international intervention into Libya to protect civilians, is the first time the world has pursued humanitarian intervention in the 21st century. The resolution calls for "all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country," and indeed, British and French diplomats said this morning that they are now fueling jets to enforce a no fly zone. Speaking in a televised address this afternoon, U.S. President Barack Obama also explained his position largely in humanitarian terms: If the world failed to intervene, he said, "The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow."
That's one reading of the events unfolding in Washington, London, and Paris. But there's also a more cynical view: that the intervention, centered on the enforcement of a no fly zone, is too little too late. And that's if you agree that the United States and its allies should be involved in the first place. Foreign involvement could play into Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's hands, other analysts worry, giving him an excuse to strike harder against the now Western-backed rebels.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Colonel Qaddafi's decision to drag Libya into the jaws of hell by unleashing merciless fire against the opposition substantiates the pessimistic view that the gradual, peaceful change achieved by the Tunisian and Egyptian people will likely be denied to other Arab lands for several reasons. While Arab despots and autocrats may live in splendid insulation and solitude reminiscent of those similar fictional characters that inhabit the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, they are not all alike, occupying a range of places in the hierarchy of despotism. Moreover, the different social, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious structures of these societies -- as well as their different historical experiences, varying levels of economic and political development, and differences in the way the ruling political classes, as well as the opposition, see themselves, their neighbors, and the world -- weighs heavily on how dissent is viewed and dealt with.
The creative, peaceful, and moderate tactics used by the leaders of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt -- two largely homogeneous countries enjoying a clear national identity and a relatively developed civil society -- are likely to face an insurmountable resistance in the heterogeneous societies of Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Qaddafi's brutal suppression quickly turned an initially peaceful uprising into an armed insurrection. Qaddafi's destruction of Libya's nascent civil society and state institutions, replacing them with primitive popular committees; his exploitation of Libya's tribal structures and regional differences, partially explain Libya's current convulsion. Without external intervention, it seems very likely that the Libyan insurrection will grind into a halt and probably be reversed.
Two-thousand Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, most of them from Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain on Monday -- ostensibly to provide security to government installations "threatened" by protestors. In fact, such a show of force, with more troops on the way, is an attempt by the Saudi-led GCC to stiffen the resolve of the ruling house in Bahrain to put down the democracy protests if need be with force. The violence unleashed by the Bahraini army and police against peaceful protestors on Tuesday was the direct outcome of the Saudi/GCC military intervention.
Various interpretations have been put forward as to the reasons behind the Saudi-led military intervention. These include pre-empting the emergence of a pro-Iranian, Shia-dominated government in Bahrain and tilting the balance in favor of the hard-line faction among the al-Khalifa and against the more moderate faction allegedly led by the crown prince.
As any U.S. Marine can tell you, America's first overseas military intervention occurred in what is now Libya. The United States eventually carried the day, won release of its hostages, and the ruler of Tripoli ultimately gave up piracy and hostage-taking. But the operation could hardly be called a glorious success. Interventions can have costs. After the fledgling U.S. naval squadron blockaded Tripoli harbor in 1803, the frigate Philadelphia was captured. Eventually, Stephen Decatur famously scuttled the ship but one would have to observe that this was not an unvarnished victory. Nor was the fact that the U.S. had to ransom its hostages. Finally in 1805, William Eaton led his force of eight Marines and 500 mercenaries across the desert to "the shores of Tripoli" to carry out regime change, but they only got as far as Derna, east of Benghazi. Although a bit short of their destination, they still were able to persuade the Pasha to sue for peace.
If there is any lesson to be learned from this curious episode, it might be that foreign interventions can be messy. No wonder Thomas Jefferson and John Adams argued about the utility of military force in dealing with overseas problems. 181 years later in 1986, President Ronald Reagan -- provoked by Muammar al-Qadhafi's nefarious (indeed murderous) activities in Europe and elsewhere -- ordered an air attack on Tripoli and Benghazi. Two years later, Libyan agents (who may not have been acting alone) brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Today, once again, we are debating the merits of intervening in Libya.
Iran is the largest nation-state supporter of armed resistance to Israel's occupation, a country whose current leadership justifies seemingly provocative actions in the Middle East as countermeasures to Israeli-American expansionism. As popular revolutions designed at securing freedom and throwing off the domination of authoritarian rulers, many of which are U.S. clients, Iran has expressed an official foreign policy that purports to stand with a self-determined Middle East, directed by the will of its people.
So why is the largest national patron of the Palestinian struggle and self-proclaimed ally of Arab world liberation jailing American solidarity activists who shine a light on the systematic Israeli abuse of Palestinians?
Last week, Israel closed its principal trade terminal with the 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip. Karni's closing hardly merited the attention of an international or indeed a Middle East audience captivated by the popular revolts now convulsing the Arab world. But thanks to this Arab awakening, Israel's long-planned action poses an important test to the newfound power of Arab and particularly Egyptian public opinion to chart a new course in relations with the Palestinians, Hamas, and Israel.
For more than two decades after its conquest of the Gaza Strip and West Bank in June 1967, Israel did all in its power to erase trade and physical barriers between it and the Palestinian territories it was occupying. The territories offered Israel a captive market (literally) and a source of cheap labor. In 1982, then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon even removed the two bored soldiers whose sleepy presence marked the old and seemingly redundant border with Gaza.
More than 12 people were killed by security forces in a single day. Activists and journalists were harassed and arrested. A curfew was put in place and neither satellite television stations nor trucks carrying water and food were allowed near the protestors. One would think this occurred in Cairo or in Sana'a, but would be mistaken. This is Iraq.
After the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, many approving pundits in the West portrayed Iraq as a country that had been freed and which was now a "fledgling" democracy. Eight years later, that proposition is being put to a real test. Protests against permeating political corruption and unbearable living conditions began on February 3 and reached their highest point so far on February 25, a "Day of Anger."
With the rumblings of fresh protests in Tehran after over a year of relative quiet from the opposition, some members of the US congress, along with several other former officials, appear to be again dreaming of the possibility of a post-theocratic Iran. One significant sign is their renewed push to have the People's Mojahedin of Iran (also known as the MEK) removed from the State Departments list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. Echoing this sentiment last month, former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, in an event designed to raise support for the MEK's removal from terror list, asked the audience, "Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?"
No matter how one looks at that question, the answer must be a resounding "yes." MEK is a non-state organization that, at regular intervals over the years, has taken pride in attacks that have left innocent civilians dead. In the lexicon of our times that qualifies as terrorism. With their designation as a terrorist organization currently under review, the larger issue is not just whether the MEK is engaged in terrorism at the moment, but that if the organization is further legitimated by U.S. policy makers, it will prove to be yet another disastrous read by the U.S. government.
Since February 11 when Mubarak stepped down, the Supreme Military Council, which has assumed leadership of Egypt's affairs until such time as free elections are held, has repeatedly and thus far unsuccessfully called on Egyptians to "return to work." It has even threatened to take action against striking workers in the name of national security. The civilian middle-class revolutionaries also seem to be insisting that the striking workers "return to work." Even Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in his February 18 Tahrir khutba before hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, urged striking workers to go home, stating that it is impossible for all demands to be met immediately and counselling them to be patient.
This is above all a moment of new possibilities in the Arab world, and indeed in the entire Middle East. We have not witnessed such a turning point for a very long time. Suddenly, once insuperable obstacles seem surmountable. Despotic regimes that have been entrenched across the Arab world for two full generations are suddenly vulnerable. Two of the most formidable among them -- in Tunis and Cairo -- have crumbled before our eyes in a matter of a few weeks. Another in Tripoli, one of the most brutal and repressive, is tottering at this moment. The old men who dominate so many of these countries suddenly look their age, and the distance between the rulers and the vast majorities of their populations born 40 or 50 or 60 years after them has never been greater. An apparently frozen political and social situation has melted almost overnight in the heat of the popular upsurge that took over the towns and cities first of Tunisia and then of Egypt, and which is now spreading to other Arab countries. We are privileged to be experiencing what may well be a world historical moment, when what once seemed to be fixed verities vanish and new potentials and forces emerge.
The same mainstream Western media that habitually conveys a picture of a region peopled almost exclusively by enraged, bearded terrorist fanatics who "hate our freedom" has begun to show images of ordinary people peacefully making eminently reasonable demands for freedom, dignity, social justice, accountability, the rule of law, and democracy. Arab youth at the end of the day have been shown to have hopes and ideals not that different from those of the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South, Southeast, and East Asia.
Last Sunday, with violence mounting as the Libyan government unleashed elements of its security apparatus to put down the uprising against the 40-plus-year reign of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi -- the colonel's son and heir apparent -- took to Libyan television to deliver a rambling speech threatening civil war and the potential takeover of Libya by militant Islamists. As I heard the reports of the younger Qaddafi's speech, I was puzzled -- were these the same militant Islamists the government had released from the notorious Abu Salim prison under a program of rehabilitation sponsored by none other than Saif al-Islam himself?
Along with a number of international experts and researchers, I traveled to Libya in March 2010 for a three-day public relations tour on the dime of the Qaddafi Foundation, the quasi-governmental organization headed by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The ostensible purpose of the trip was a conference on the terrorist deradicalization and rehabilitation program the foundation runs for imprisoned members of an al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. But what I and the other academics and think tankers assembled in Tripoli were really there for was the hard sell of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and the "new Libya" he supposedly represented.
The spectacular downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has cast a spotlight on a great many facts about the Middle East: the contempt and hatred that the masses harbor toward the dictators of the region; the wanton brutality of police forces and regime-sponsored thugs; the deliberate manipulation of fears-foreign and domestic-about the Islamist threat; the popular yearning for democracy and dignity; and the energy and inventiveness of the region's youth.
Also starkly apparent is the dire predicament that Israel is in, largely as a result of its own doing. This predicament is not, as many in Israel and the American pro-Israel lobby fear, a growing encirclement of the country by the forces of radical Islam led by Iran. Rather, the predicament is simply that the only ‘friends' that Israel has in the region are autocrats whose support-overt and covert-for Israeli policies is deeply unpopular. As such, Israel is basically an opponent of democracy in the region, except of course when it can undermine its enemies, as in the case of the current regime in Iran.
Within days of the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority announced plans for municipal, legislative, and presidential elections, as well as a cabinet reshuffle. Although these appear on the surface to be democratic measures in the new spirit of the times, they sidestep -- so far -- the serious challenges Palestinians face, including: the Fatah-Hamas split, the exclusion of refugees and exiles from Palestinian governance, and continued Israeli colonization and control over Palestinian land and lives.
The PA does not seem ready to address the Hamas-Fatah split, otherwise it would have sought reconciliation before the announcement of elections -- the latter of which Hamas rejected. Perhaps the PA still fears an American veto of unity efforts until Hamas meets the Quartet's three conditions. Yet elections in the absence of reconciliation would reinforce the West Bank's separation from Gaza. Even assuming a best-case scenario in which all parties are allowed to contest elections freely and fairly and the results are respected, it is not clear how elections will help bring an end to Israel's occupation.
Israel has been unnerved by Egypt's revolution. The reason is simple: it fears for the survival of the 1979 peace treaty - a treaty which by neutralizing Egypt, guaranteed Israel's military dominance over the region for the next three decades.
By removing Egypt -- the strongest and most populous of the Arab countries -- from the Arab line-up, the treaty ruled out any possibility of an Arab coalition that might have contained Israel or restrained its freedom of action. As Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan remarked at the time: "If a wheel is removed, the car will not run again."
Since 1979 the United States has spent nearly $2 billion annually on aid to Egypt. Approximately two-thirds has been spent on "foster[ing] a well-trained, modern Egyptian military," with the purpose of ensuring stability in the country and in the region. The remainder of the aid has funded development and economic aid programs targeting civil society development, political party training, and educational exchanges, among other aims. In light of the Egyptian people's ongoing and forceful demonstrations for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and their calls for a free and democratic political order, the U.S. should shift its aid distribution so that development aid is on par with funding to the military.
President Obama has already called for political change in Egypt leading to more freedom, opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people. In remarks on February 1, the President went so far as to press for an immediate and "orderly transition," leading to free and fair elections rooted in democratic principles. It is now time to begin putting in place the policies that support these words.
Political demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have sparked a century old discussion: Is Turkey a model for the Middle East? Two contemporary examples of the "Turkey-as-a-model" debate show how this issue can play out: Turkey was presented as a moderate Islamic, democratic model for the Middle East as part of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," and more recently as part of Barack Obama's democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. It is ironic that in 2010 the debate revolved around concepts such as a "shift of axis," "torn country," and "drifting away," but now Turkey has transformed from a "lost" ally to a "model" country.
Interestingly enough, Islamist actors such as Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt declared their intention to emulate the Turkish experience in order to differentiate themselves from the examples of Iran and Taliban. How is it that Turkey is presented as a model country by political actors as varied as high-level U.S. officials and Islamist groups? To make sense of this irony, one needs to consider the questions: whose model and which Turkey?
In fact, there are three main political groups with competing narratives on what the Turkish model means.
It is commonplace for historians to compare revolutions to earthquakes, but the metaphor remains powerful. The Egyptian revolution is much like an earthquake: its epicenter may be Cairo, but its shockwaves have reached all the way to Washington. Since the first crowds began to appear in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian trembler has so shaken the U.S. that small but perceptible cracks have begun to appear in the foundations of America's Middle East policies -- and in the comity of opinion that has guided U.S. views of the region for 60 years. The changes were first evidenced last week, when policymakers, pundits and government officials made the rounds of the Sunday morning television news shows.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on CNN, interviewer Candy Crowley was blunt: which side is the U.S. on -- "Mubarak or the people in the streets?" she asked. Clinton laughed slightly, then rejected the question: "Well, there's another choice, it's the Egyptian people," she said. "We are on the side, as we have been for more than 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights of its people, that respects the universal human rights of all Egyptians." Of course, Crowley knew (as we all knew) that if Clinton had been asked the same question just the week before, her answer would have been entirely different: that our friendship with Egypt is based on its peace treaty with Israel, its opposition to Iran and its hostility to political Islam.
"Enough we say, the decision belongs to the people of the brotherly Egyptian and Tunisian nations... Turkey shares the grief of these nations as well as their hopes." So-declared a self-confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in his prime-time speech on recent events in the Middle East that received broad coverage regionally. While commentators point to the protests and revolutions in the Arab world as being the most recent example of the crumbling vestiges of the Cold War, the more significant long-term global trend is strangely familiar to the Turks. Protests in Tunisia have already overthrown the rule of a 23 year-old regime and inspired a similar uprising in the form of Egypt's ongoing protest movement. Lebanon's continuing instability and threats of Tunisian-inspired revolutions in Yemen and even Jordan further add to the significance of the moment we are witnessing in the Arab world.
The unprecedented levels and inter-linkages of the protests against the traditional authoritarian regimes represented most starkly by President Mubarak, has brought the Middle East back to a period more reminiscent of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism than anything seen in recent memory.
Beyond the immediate dilemmas - how and how hard to push Mubarak to stand down, what to say in public versus in private, and how best to pressure the US-backed Egyptian security forces - the transition period that lies ahead for Egypt will hold its own complicating factors for Washington policymakers.
First, it needs to be remembered that this is not primarily about the US (nor should it be), this is about Egyptians empowering themselves. Nevertheless, the US and other international actors will have a role to play and will have to chart a new policy course for relations with Egypt, and this will in no small measure set a trend for the region as a whole.
One minor luxury that the administration should have is that there are not significant or obviously apparent domestic political pressures being brought to bear on this issue. Both parties, Democrat and Republican, have made nice with dictators in the Arab world while paying limited lip service to democracy. There is no victory lap, freedom coupon to clip as was the case in the former Soviet bloc, there is no Arab democracy political lobby, even if the Arab American community will be largely thrilled by what is happening in the region. The one exception to this is the role that some traditional pro-Israel groups may play in urging a go-slow conservatism to a US embrace of change in the Middle East.
If the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak falls, the tipping point will have been mid-afternoon of January 28. For several hours after the conclusion of Friday noon prayers, the police and Central Security Forces successfully kept demonstrators away from the center of Cairo. About 2:00 pm, 20,000 protestors broke through the blockades and took over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge connecting Giza and Zamalek to Tahrir Square, the hub of the downtown district. Two hours later the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, which President Mubarak leads, was on fire.
Earlier in the afternoon, crowds stormed regional NDP headquarters in the Suez Canal city of Isma‘iliyya and the Delta provincial capital of Mansura. The provincial NDP headquarters in Fayyum was torched a few hours later. Hundreds of thousands of protesters throughout the country defied the 6:00 PM curfew proclaimed by the regime and remained in the streets throughout the night. In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, demonstrators drove the police and Central Security Force out of town. By the time President Mubarak addressed the nation that evening and announced he had requested the resignation of the entire cabinet, the army had begun to assume security responsibility for Egypt's major cities.
The targets of angry crowds are rarely accidental. In this case, assaulting the offices of the ruling party, and other official buildings in Alexandria, Suez, and Tanta underscored one of the main chants of the demonstrators: "The people want an end to the regime." Not "reform" and the resignation of the cabinet, which is a technocratic and administrative body with limited powers, but a regime change and a transition to democracy which would only begin with the resignation of President Mubarak.
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