When the European parliament issued a critical report on Egypt's human rights record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with nationalistic fury. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, sided with Europe. "Respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples," its parliamentary spokesman, Hussein Ibrahim, declared at the time.
That Islamist movements, or at least the more mainstream ones, should take an interest in human rights is not especially surprising. They have, after all, experienced repression at first hand and had years to reflect upon it. There are some obvious limits, though. While acknowledging universal rights up to a point, they still hanker after cultural relativism. Ibrahim for his part added an important rider, that "each country has its own particulars" -- and made very clear that in Egypt's case the Brotherhood excludes gay rights.
"The Muslim Brothers established this party. We are a national civil party with an Islamic reference...we have Islamists and nationalists," said Al-Amin Belhajj, the head of the founding committee for the newly announced Justice and Construction Party. With the March 3 announcement, Libya seems set to follow the electoral path of Islamist success seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries. After decades of fierce repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the formation of a political party in Libya is a heady experience. What does it mean for Libya's future?
ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images
James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.
Syria's uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria's demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.
At least seven young Shiite Muslims have been shot dead and several dozen wounded by security forces in Eastern Saudi Arabia in recent months. While details of the shootings remain unclear, and the ministry of interior claims those shot were attacking the security forces, mass protests have followed the funerals of the deceased. These events are only the latest developments in the decades-long struggle of the Saudi Shiites, which has taken on a new urgency in the context of 2011's regional uprisings -- but have been largely ignored by mainstream media.
The events of the Arab Spring have heightened long-standing tensions in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Just three days after large-scale protests started in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, protests began in the Eastern Province, which is a 30-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Saudi interior ministry vowed to crush the protests with an "Iron Fist" and has unleashed a media-smear campaign against protests and the Shiites in general. While protests subsided over the summer, they started again in October and have become larger ever since, leading to an ever more heavy-handed response from the security forces.
This repressive response, with distinct rhetorical echoes of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, poses an awkward challenge to recent Saudi foreign policy. The protests of the people in the Eastern Province are as legitimate as the protests in Syria. If Saudi Arabia does not respond to these calls for reform at home how can it seriously claim to rise to the defense of democracy in Syria? The crackdown in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has given the Iranian and Syrian regime, as well as Shiite political movements in Lebanon and Iraq, a useful rhetorical gambit to push back against their regional rivals.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
The deadly struggle for power between Egypt's rulers and Muslim Brothers dates back to the rule of King Faruq, with each episode following virtually the identical script. Each time, for a brief period ruler and Brothers "cohabit," but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination. The ruler, recently arrived on the monarchial or presidential throne, reaches out to the Brothers to benefit from or at least neutralize the political support they command. For their part the Brothers seek purchase within the state to ward off threats, obtain resources, and gain footholds from which they may commence their final ascent to power. But this cooperation will not last, to judge by history -- a history well known to all players in today's unfolding story.
KHALED ELFIQI/AFP/Getty Images
Islamist movements did not start Yemen's revolution, but they have loomed large over its fate. Tawakkol Karman, an ex-member of Islah, a coalition party that includes Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her tireless political campaigning. Backers of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned of the inexorable rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), even after the killing of ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone.
But as in much of the Arab world, the Yemeni revolution has presented both opportunities and challenges to its Islamists. At least five different Islamist trends have played important roles in the unfolding events -- and some have fared better than others. Those struggling to help Yemen's political transition must recognize the diversity and internal struggles among these Islamist trends, and be prepared to engage with them as part of the country's political landscape.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Thursday's parliamentary elections in Kuwait reflected the intense drama unfolding in the country over the last four months -- youth-led street protests, corruption charges that implicated 13 Members of Parliament (MPs), the November storming of the parliament to protest corruption, the dissolution of parliament by the emir, and the resignation of the embattled prime minister. The election campaign was marked by vitriolic rhetoric and violence. And the results empowered a loose Islamist-tribal coalition of opposition candidates which disappointed liberals and set the stage for continued political fireworks in the coming months. Despondent moderates surveying the outcome repeatedly complained that, "nobody is representing the middle."
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
This photo of the "sleeping salafi" from the opening session of Egypt's new Parliament burned like wildfire through the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of my Arab, Egyptian and Middle East watcher friends. The overwhelming tone of the comments was high snark, as liberals fell over themselves snickering at the dozing beards. The image played to every prejudice which has greeted this new wave of salafi Islamists.
There's just one problem. The iconic figure in the lower right corner of the photo wasn't sleeping. He's blind.
Dr. Wageeh el-Sheemy is a university professor and new parliamentarian from the Salafi al-Nour Party. As the We Are All Khaled Said page explained yesterday, el-Sheemy is "the first blind person to become member of the Egyptian parliament thanks to the #Jan25 Revolution. In fact, he is the first ever disabled member of the Egyptian parliament." That's really impressive, and a great story. Congratulations to Dr. El-Sheemy -- and to the Nour Party for putting him forward as a successful candidate.
It should also be a lesson to all. For all the legitimate concerns about where the newly empowered salafi trend will take Egypt -- and there are many -- it is far too easy for people to leap to unwarranted conclusions about them. In the coming days, it will be useful for all Egyptians, and those watching Egypt, to take a breath before rushing to judgement.
We can't help you with that guy in the third row though...
On January 25, 2011 on the Middle East
Channel, Ashraf Khalil marveled from the streets of Cairo about "sheer size of the turnout, which was larger
than anything I've seen in 13 years of covering Egyptian protests." From
Washington, I pushed back against skeptics who doubted that Tunisia's
revolution would spread to Egypt, as I noted that, "the images and
stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy
and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian
protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world."
Over the following 18 days, the Middle East Channel published a remarkable range of analysis and commentary about the unfolding Egyptian revolution. It featured not only outstanding reporting from the ground but also incisive analysis from the Middle East Studies academic community -- who stepped up in a big way to help inform public debate at a critical time. Nathan Brown, Shadi Hamid, Sherif Mansour, Emad Shahin and Daniel Brumberg assessed Washington's response. Vickie Langhor called on the Obama administration to side with Egyptian democracy, as did Tarek Masoud, Ellen Lust and Amaney Jamal. Geneive Abdo pushed back against those who saw echoes of Tehran 1979. Helena Cobban talked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ellis Goldberg checked in with the business community, while MEC co-editor Daniel Levy surveyed the implications for Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Nathan Brown laid out the Egyptian constitution's rulebook for change, while Tamir Moustafa asked whether Egypt needed a new constitution to have a revolution. Michael Hanna laid out the reasons to doubt Mubarak's intentions. Sheila Carapico shrewdly observed how al-Jazeera's relentless focus on Tahrir framed understandings of the revolution. In one of Foreign Policy's most widely read, and arguably prescient, early contributions, Robert Springborg warned that the military's role in the transition meant that by February 2 the chance for democracy in Egypt had already been lost. Ambassador David Mack warned observers to curb their enthusiasm. I offered a stream of commentary from Washington. And all of this is only a small part of what appeared on Foreign Policy over those critical weeks.
This week, the Middle East Channel is proud to offer a wide range of commentary looking at an Egypt one year after the outbreak of the revolution. Among the highlights, including a few from last month for perspective:
More is coming over the course of the day, and I'll update the post as those pieces go live.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
For months, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one's interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region. Their enduring pursuit of maximalist demands may sabotage what chance still exists for a negotiated transition.
The regime's vision consists in cracking down decisively against residual pockets of foreign-backed trouble-makers, then opening up politically within sensible boundaries -- similar to Jordan's or Bahrain's promise of limited reforms. Outside players currently bent on its demise, it wagers, ultimately will realize it cannot be destroyed; already hesitant for lack of good options and fear of ensuing chaos, they will grudgingly move to softer forms of pressure and, in time, even resume engagement. The regime's sympathizers and allies are all too keen to believe that it is strong, that the reach of the protest movement is wildly exaggerated by hostile media, that the foreign conspiracy is both all-encompassing and impotent, and that Syrian society is so disease-ridden -- a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, thugs, and third party proxies -- that it cannot but deserve the security services' tough medicine.
After over 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi's Jamahiriya -- a by design stateless society of purported direct rule by the popular masses -- Libya's political transition was always going to be sui generis. Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most cases at least the motions of representative democracy existed. This was not the case in Libya, where the law organizing the country's first elections is scheduled for publication this weekend. As Othman El-Mugirhy, the chair of the committee that drafted the law eloquently put it, "Libya has no institutions, it is a state of ashes."
One legacy of the almost perpetual administrative flux that Qaddafi's unique governing model engendered is that individuals rather than political parties will likely contest Libya's forthcoming elections. This has all sorts of unusual consequences, not least of which is potentially turning on its head the widespread belief in the region that early elections favor the Muslim Brotherhood.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Women are at a crossroads in the Middle East and North Africa. This is widely reflected in the current battles over the adoption of quotas aimed at improving women's chances of being elected into parliaments. Although women's quotas were introduced as early as 1979 in Egypt, there are new efforts underway in the Middle East to implement them. Last year, Tunisia adopted a law requiring that party lists alternate between men and women. In a more restrained manner, Libya recently drafted an election law that gives women only 10 percent of the seats. However, the struggle for quotas has also met with resistance as in Egypt, which abandoned a 2010 quota law altogether that would have ensured the presence of 64 women in the parliament.
Quotas are not only being adopted in the legislative arena in the Middle East, they are being entertained in government as well. Recently, the Iraqi cabinet approved a quota system that requires women to make up half of all hires in the ministries of health and education and to account for 30 percent of hires at all other ministries.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Giggling over a
communal pot of couscous, the girls swap stories and take turns pushing each
other across the room on wheely chairs. Douha Rihi, 20, a German language
major, wants to study abroad in Berlin. Sana Brahim, 23, is pursuing a master's
degree in Microbiology. They don't look like the kind of young women you'd
expect to find at the center of a major ideological controversy, but here they
are -- all ten of them -- perched on the second level of the university
administration building, fighting for their right to wear the full Muslim face
veil, called niqab, inside classrooms and during exams.
Along with a group of scraggly-bearded young Salafi men, these girls have been occupying the University of Manouba College of Arts and Humanities administration building since November 28 of last year. Their protest has resulted in the continued closure of one of Tunisia's largest campuses since December 6 and has kept an estimated 13,000 students from attending their classes.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
Assiut feels far away from the famed epicenter of Tahrir Square. The oft-neglected peripheral region of Upper Egypt (the cultivated valley of the Nile from Cairo in the north to Aswan, 535 miles south) has been plagued by institutional apathy for years, long dismissed as a dead-end, from where one travels to the capital for work and never returns. When Egypt's contentious de-facto leaders, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), speak of a silent but loyal majority, or "liberals," fret about the backward religious and violence-prone rural areas, they have cities like Assiut in mind. But the reality is far more complicated. Assiut and Tahrir are bound together by personal connections and shared concerns -- inextricable ties that suggest a far more nuanced emerging Egypt than is generally felt from the central nerve of Cairo.
Lauren E. Bonn
The results of the first round of polling in Egypt have released an uproar, which has overwhelmed the media and startled the public sphere. But the victory of Islamist parties is overrated. Given Islamists' entrenched presence in the Arab societies, politically, economically, and socially, let alone the abundant religious propaganda, it is more striking that thus far none of the Islamists parties have obtained an absolute majority in recent elections. Islamists in Tunis, Morocco, and Egypt cannot claim superiority over other political forces. The seeming triumph of Islamist forces will soon be revealed as an illusion.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
On October 23 Tunisians went to the polls to participate in the first elections since the Arab Spring. The elections were widely considered free and fair, representing a significant triumph in a region long beset by authoritarianism. With a turnout rate of just over 50 percent, the plurality of Tunisians -- around 40 percent -- cast their votes for Ennadha, or the Renaissance Party, a moderate Islamist party. Despite a clear victory over its nearest competitors, a number of more secularly minded parties won a similar percentage of the vote implying that this was not an absolute victory for the Islamist camp. Given the repression of political parties and the relatively short period between the Jasmine Revolution and the election, it is not entirely apparent what these election results mean about the preferences of ordinary citizens.
Shortly before the election, between September 30 and October 11, the second wave of the Arab Barometer -- an eleven-country public opinion poll -- was conducted in Tunisia. The survey's findings demonstrate that Ennahda's victory was not a clear call for a more religious political system. The survey also provides insight into the broader political concerns of ordinary citizens, their attitudes toward the Jasmine Revolution and Tunisia's ongoing political transition, as well as their preferences about the type of political system that should be utilized to govern their country.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
The performance of the Islamist party Ennahda in the October 23 Tunisian elections, in which it won 41.5 percent of the seats, has refocused attention on the upcoming Egyptian elections scheduled to begin on November 28. Some analysts have minimized the Muslim Brotherhood's prospects for success by pointing to polls suggesting that the group -- the largest and best organized in Egypt -- hovers between 15 to 30 percent approval. It may be true that the Brotherhood isn't as popular as we might think. But elections aren't popularity contests. In fact, as the campaign unfolds, it appears likely that Egypt's Islamists will do even better than expected, just like their Tunisian counterparts.
Seven months into the uprisings, the Syrian opposition has yet to develop a united voice and platform. Unless these disparate groups unite and present a credible and viable alternative to the Assad regime, both Syria's fearful majority and the international community will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Damascus.
CHRISTINE OLSSON/AFP/Getty Images
A few months back I had a quick exchange with President Obama about the U.S. standing in the Arab World. When I mentioned that we would be conducting a poll to assess Arab attitudes two years after his Cairo speech, he responded that he expected that the ratings would be quite low and would remain low until the U.S. could help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Well, the results are in, and the President was right. In our survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), we found that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had declined sharply since our last poll (which had been conducted in 2009 after Obama's first 100 days in office).
Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new President would bring needed change to the U.S.-Arab relationship and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and U.S. favorability ratings, in most Arab countries, have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes toward the United States went from 26 percent in 2008 to a high 55 percent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 percent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where the U.S. rating went from 9 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2009, but has now plummeted to 5 percent in this year's survey.
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
While most of the Middle East region has been risking life and limb for the sake of a democratic future, in Iran, different factions in the regime have been busy debating the virtues of the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great. Neither side brings any new historical insight, but it hasn't been an exercise in mere navel-gazing -- in Iran, debates on ancient history have been a high-stakes affair. Today, the question is whether the Islamic Republic should pay closer attention to the country's pre-Islamic Iranian heritage; the answers recently offered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten the collapse of the current regime.
The dispute itself is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, the twin enigmas of Iran's identity and the nature of Islam in Iran have bedeviled Iranian scholars and politicians alike. Iranian identity is bifurcated, split between the pre-Islamic traditions of Zoroastrian and Manichean millennium before Islam, and the Islam-influenced developments of the last 1,300 years.
In 1955, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and bestselling author of A History of the Arab Peoples, published a short article called "The Vanishing Veil: A Challenge to the Old Order." Pointing out that veiling was a fast-disappearing practice in most Arab societies, Hourani gave a brief history of how it was fading from modern society -- and why it would soon become a thing of the past.
The trend to unveil, Hourani wrote, had begun in Egypt in the early 20th century, set in motion by the writer Qasim Amin. Amin had argued that "gradual and careful change in the status of women," including women's casting off their veils, was now an essential step in the advancement of Muslim societies -- and "not contrary to the principles of Islam." Although Amin's ideas had been met with great resistance, Hourani recounted how they gradually gained acceptance and spread among the "more advanced Arab countries," first in Egypt and then "Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq."
Karim Sahib/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.
One thousand "lightly armed" Saudi troops and an unspecified number of troops from the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain on the morning of March 14, in a bid to end the country's monthlong political crisis. They are reportedly heading for the town of Riffa, the stronghold of the ruling Khalifa family. The troops' task, apparently, is to protect the oil installations and basic infrastructure from the demonstrators.
The Arab intervention marks a dramatic escalation of Bahrain's political crisis, which has pitted the country's disgruntled Shiite majority against the Sunni ruling family -- and has also been exacerbated by quarrels between hard-liners and liberals within the Khalifa clan. The clashes between protesters and government forces worsened over the weekend, when the security services beat back demonstrators trying to block the highway to the capital of Manama's Financial Harbor. The protesters' disruption of the harbor, which was reportedly purchased by the conservative Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa for one dinar, was an important symbolic gesture by the opposition.
JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/AFP/Getty Images
If parliamentary elections were to be held in Egypt before summer, many argue that only the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood would be able to secure a significant number of seats. The two are viewed as the only political groupings currently organized at the national level and able to confront the challenge of an imminent election. But after weeks of popular attacks directed against NDP symbols, and several of its highest representatives facing charges in court, what really remains of the former ruling party - of its organization and its capacity to mobilize?
The NDP, target of popular anger
As soon as Egyptian protesters began taking to the streets on January 25, it became clear that the National Democratic Party (NDP) - like its Tunisian counterpart, the Democratic Constitutional Rally - would soon become one of the main targets of popular anger.
Over the past decade, the NDP had come to symbolize everything that crystallized opposition to the rule of President Mubarak: the firm grip over the political arena, illustrated by a continuous and almost complete domination of Parliament; the elaboration and implementation of neoliberal reforms and their negative impact on the social conditions of most citizens, especially the middle class; the corruption of a new business elite that has used its growing political influence for its own profit and enrichment; the grooming of Hosni Mubarak's younger son Gamal as heir.
Israelis, like most Jews, worry for a living. The dark side of Jewish history and the security challenges of their national life compel them to. And these days there's plenty to worry about. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and turbulent changes in the Arab world unleashed by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are shifting the power balance against Israel. Indeed, its position in the neighborhood -- in part as a consequence of its own policies -- is growing increasingly precarious.
But Israel, and particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also worried about something else: How will their close ally in Washington, particularly President Barack Obama, react to this tumultuous Arab Spring. Will he race to coddle and court the new Arab democrats, doing so at Israel's expense? Is a big American peace initiative coming, one designed to pre-empt further radicalization in the region that will require big concessions from Israel?
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
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.
The crackdown was brutal.
At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of Bahraini riot police surrounded the protesters sleeping in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square. The security forces then stormed the camp, launching an attack that killed at least five protesters, some of whom were reportedly shot in their sleep with shotgun rounds. Thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in the square on Feb. 15, in conscious emulation of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, to push their demands for a more representative political system and an end to official corruption.
The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain's military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital "under control."
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.
But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.
MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
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