Special Reports



Alessandro Bruno:
Middle East & North Africa Analyst


There was a moment when it seemed that all would stay the same in the Middle East after all. That the demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo would surrender even as they expressed their anger, after their beleaguered president stubbornly appeared not to have any intention of giving up power. It seemed as if the process that started with the collapse of the Tunisian regime, would end in Cairo. However, Egyptians would wake up the next day to discover that they had won in their effort to end Mubarak’s 31-year long rule. In doing so, perhaps the path is set for the people to similarly revolt in other parts of the Middle East, where, apart from Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, all countries are governed by one form or another of dictatorship, or absolute monarchy. Had Mubarak stayed on as president, the Arab world (except for Tunisia, where the people forced a corrupt regime to come to an effective end) would have suffered many more years of political stagnation, curbing the momentum for change for years to come.

Had President Hosni Mubarak’s strategy of entrenchment and stalemate worked, other Arab leaders would have been reassured that even an unprecedented and leaderless revolt, could succeed in helping to maintain the status quo. However, the dethroning of the ‘last Pharaoh’ Mubarak and ousting of president Ben Ali of Tunisia a few weeks earlier are probably leaving many of the Arab leaders right now feeling rather underdressed, if not outright naked. The collapse of the Mubarak regime effectively marks the end of the system of autocratic rule established by Colonel Gamal Nasser and General Naguib in 1952 when the army overthrew the monarchy. While the army remains in charge and will likely continue to be one of the main pillars of Egyptian society, even the Arab rulers with petrodollars at their disposal must be feeling poorer as Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab country, embarks on a new course. Until recently the promise of funds to subsidize basic goods and services served as the principal source of legitimacy with the population in the oil economies. This may be about to change if we give credit to speculation that what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt may have a ‘domino’ effect in breaking the autocracy of the armed forces.

The Arab regimes are also politically stale; they have no suggestions for quelling the anger of the street; this is because the governments had misread the revolts, which were not motivated exclusively or even mostly by hunger and economic pain (prompting the typical hasty increases to food subsidies). Arab governments across the region announced price cuts and increased benefits. In what must have been quite a fit of enthusiasm, the Ruler of Bahrain granted his citizens the equivalent of USD 2,650 per Bahraini family. Nonetheless, the revolts seen in Egypt and Tunisia were only partially motivated by economic reasons. In a very meaningful way, protesters have been demanding actual political changes, which cannot be satisfied with the mere window dressing of increased subsidies. Other governments have opted to quell antigovernment protests though more repression and military action, such as has been seen in Algeria and Yemen, while others like Syria have yet to erupt. Interestingly, on the eve of Mubarak’s ousting, Syria’s president, el-Bashir announced that Facebook and Twitter websites would be allowed to function, after having been obscured for the past few years. Whether or not the dominos will continue to fall and regardless of the speed and challenges of change, there is no doubt that a new wind is blowing in the region. How that wind will lead to meaningful changes and, perhaps, some form of real pluralism, will depend, of course, on the internal situation in each individual country. In Jordan, the secret police, the mukhabarat, allowed some protesters (Bedouins) to denounce Queen Rania for corruption. Until very recently it was forbidden to criticize the monarchy. However, each Arab state from the Maghreb to Iraq has unique characteristics and while Tunisia and Egypt have opened the path, the pressure for change will have to be nurtured by external powers as well. The West would be well advised to help Egypt and Tunisia rebuild their institutions through a kind of ‘Marshall Plan’, a package of aid aimed at sustaining and nurturing the democratic seed. More than ever, in addition, the West should push for meaningful progress now, in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Efforts in this direction would help to reduce the impetus for the rise of radical Islamist or nationalist movements in the freer political space emerging in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Cases of Egypt and Tunisia – Templates for Change?
For the past 30 years, Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt through a combination of oppression and false promises of reform. The principal institution, the army, was allowed to swell, also thanks to the annual USD 1.2 billion in aid that has enabled this institution to stretch its influence within the very fabric of Egyptian society, running businesses from services to manufacturing. Nevertheless, the Army, as an institution, has been the single biggest contributor to the success of the revolt. The armed forces have played the ‘good cop’ role to the security and police’s ‘bad cop’; the army has not taken part in any repressive action and the tanks in the streets of Cairo helped to ‘guide’ protesters, who maintained their respect for the institution. The army now holds the balance of power; it was ultimately responsible for deciding whether to allow Hosni Mubarak to stay until the next elections (September) or whether he will be replaced by the military led caretaker government, that is being installed now. In one very clear way, Hosni Mubarak had lost the confidence of the armed forces before the uprising in Tahrir Square began. Speculation over the past few years that Mubarak’s son, Gamal al-Mubarak, would be named as the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate to run (and presumably win) the 2011 presidential election, was seen as a challenge to the primary role of the armed forces in Egyptian society. Mubarak and the armed forces were already heading for a showdown long before the uprising began.

The Egyptian army, the most powerful in the Arab world, considered Gamal unsuitable and inexperienced. Speculation over Egypt’s post military political future (if such a thing can be achieved), is now directed toward Amr Moussa, the current head of the Arab League; and the internationally respected former IAEA secretary Mohammed el-Baradei. Both names continue to be proposed as potential leaders of a caretaker government. The only organized Egyptian opposition party, which in parliament used to be represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, has far more power on ‘the street’ than in parliament (notwithstanding which it was not they who initiated this massive street uprising). While their validity and fairness will be one of the things that the new government will have to consider, the Brotherhood lost almost all its seats during the 2010 legislative elections, suggesting that the movement has failed to translate their strength at the community level into political strength. Nonetheless, the crackdown on communications in the days before those elections, while the ban on voting observers enforced by security forces – who arrested hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood- contributed to the people’s and the army’s objection to President Mubarak, even ahead of the spark from Tunisia.

The popular uprising sparked by a street vendor who in his despair set himself on fire after being humiliated by the security services, saw President Ben Ali, in power since 1987, nominate a very unpopular interim government, enabling the corrupt Ben Ali family to find a new residence. Tunisians added pressure, demanding that the old guard be completely purged and replaced by technocrats with little or no links to the collapsing regime. Prime minister Ghannouci and two from among the less visible ministers of the Ben Ali era helped to provide this form of continuity. Meanwhile, even as many interim government members are independent, many are also from the Rally for Constitutional Change (RCD), the very same party that has controlled Tunisia for the past few decades, including the appointed provincial governors. Less than a month after being established, Tunisians are still ironing out the details of the new administration, but daily life has resumed. The economic problems remain and they are intimidating; some estimates suggest that youth unemployment may be 50%, even if the 40% tourism drop would recover promptly as the country appears to have stabilized. Nonetheless, some European MP’s have started to talk about launching a kind of 'Marshall Plan’ to help those Arab countries that undertake a path to democracy. The UN would coordinate the effort and the Gulf Cooperation Countries, would participate – though to what extent would Saudi Arabia help finance democracy in the Middle East is a questionable prospect. The main goal of the proposed ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Arab world would be to tackle youth unemployment.

In Egypt, if the military establishment follows through on its promise to lead the country to elections, the political process will be focused on finding neutral figures, without ties to the old regime, to integrate within the parliamentary and party system. Mubarak’s NPD now in tatters leaves the Muslim Brotherhood as the main and best organized opposition party, even though it was much more of a follower than a leader in the revolt. Much was made of former IAEA secretary, Mohamed Al Baradei, but he is not well politically connected in Egypt, and considered by some to be too close to the upper-class elite although his role in recent events was assuredly that of leadership; there is speculation that he may yet serve in the role of foreign affairs minister or some sort of diplomatic appointment. A more suitable candidate as a political ‘pro’ might be the secretary of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. Although he served as minister of foreign affairs under Mubarak during the 1980’s, Amr Moussa is not tainted by the excesses of the Mubarak regime and could play a technocratic role of driving a post military government. Neither el-Baradei nor Amr Moussa is registered in a formally recognized party, and the period between now and the elections should see considerable activity in this area. It is probable that the US government will look for some say in this given the size of the subsidy it annually provides. They took a sensible line during the upheaval making it clear to Mubarak and his remaining supporters in the military, that his time was up.

The Minor Role of Islamists: A New ‘Paradigm’?
Islamists have played a remarkably minor role in the revolts both in Tunisia and in Egypt. Indeed, their lack of influence has been surprising, contradicting the many fears that political change in the Arab world would necessarily take an Islamic character. This is even more surprising since the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has always had far more street power than parliamentary power. President Mubarak is considered to have been very soft on Israel, seeing as Egypt has largely complied to Israeli demands to seal the border with Gaza at Rafah to control infiltration of people and goods in violation of the Israeli imposed embargo. The continued Palestinian crisis, beyond hopeless, in spite of the US administration’s recent efforts to revive peace talks and initial irritation with the Netanyahu government, will represent a tough test for any Egyptian government, regardless of who takes over from Mubarak. The Egyptian street, however was largely silent about the Palestinian issue even though, the Brotherhood could have exploited the fact that the Egyptian military, concerned to maintain the flow of 1.2 billion dollars in aid from the United States (something which the military establishment is especially eager not to lose) has, in the people’s eyes, held an excessive pro-Israeli stance. However, the upheaval was about Egypt not Gaza, nor yet Israel. In Tunisia, the Islamist leader Rachid al-Ghannouci returned from a 20-year long exile in London to revive the fortunes of the banned Islamist party, ‘al-Nahda’; it is only one of many parties that are taking shape and by no means the most influential.

There is a fascinating aspect that emerges. Islamist currents, the very same the West and Arab populations were taught to fear, actually do not really have much political currency. The Islamists were minor players in these Tunisian and Egyptian revolts; indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood played a far more essential role against the monarchy and the British in 1952. This may signal the start of a new political ‘paradigm’ in the Arab world after the nationalism of the 1950’s and 60’s and the fundamentalism of the 1970’s and 1990’s. The Arab world may be seeing the rise of a true democratizing force, deprived of ideological underpinnings, which signals the very failure of political Islam, especially in its more radical and extreme forms. It seems as several observers have recognized that a new savvy and entirely rational web generation, owing nothing at all to the islamists, very successfully using the internet to co-ordinate their actions, have been the inspiration of these peaceful uprisings.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolts were indeed very peaceful when all that could have gone awry (but did not), is considered. All the bombings and murders by radical Islamists which Arab TV stations have faithfully reported to these Arab communities, haven’t managed to achieve anything close to this in the region. Perhaps, Islam is seen other than by fanatics as no longer the answer and those dictatorial governments that still hang on to large security organizations, emergency laws may now face a more difficult challenge in justifying repressive measures in the name of saving the country from radicals.