If you’re not paying attention to the news from Tunisia and Egypt, you should be. The nature of America’s engagement in the Middle East, and the future of our allies there, may be changing before our eyes.
Whether for good or ill, we can’t yet know.
The uprising in Tunisia began in December and culminated two weeks ago with Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years, and his family fleeing for exile. Remnants of the ruling cadre and some opposition leaders have since cobbled together an interim government to run the country until elections within a few months, as endorsed by the military.
The country’s future is in obvious flux, but its so-called Jasmine Revolution is already remarkable.
When I visited the capital city of Tunis on a reporting trip five years ago, I found many of the hallmarks of a dictatorship: huge, ubiquitous posters and billboards bearing Ben Ali’s image; uniformed and plainclothes state police who would quickly descend upon a Western journalist trying to interview locals on the sidewalk.
At the same time, Tunisian women had far more rights than is typical for Arab countries, and they were as likely to wear tight jeans and a tank top in public as to wear a burqa. (As my wife observed, however, women became much more scarce in public places as dusk approached.)
The people endured such contradictions — freedom in this part of life, but not that part — largely because the North African regime kept employment up and food prices down. When global conditions derailed that arrangement, the people derailed the regime.
Their example apparently has spread eastward to Egypt, which for decades was just as heavy on the state security apparatus but afforded people fewer civil rights.
Egypt under Hosni Mubarak may have been more prone to simmering popular unrest than was Ben Ali’s Tunisia. But that only led Mubarak to keep his boot firmly planted on Egyptians’ collective throat during his nearly 30-year reign. American financial support, it must be said, helped prop him up.
Egyptians also were upset about their economic plight and, perhaps sensing an opening as Mubarak prepares to transfer power to his son, they have clashed violently this week with police, Tunisian and Egyptian flags in hand.
But experts see less chance of a successful democratic revolt in Egypt — and more risk, should people power somehow win, of a takeover by Islamic extremists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak’s most significant opposition.
That last bit is very worrisome. While the events in Tunisia are notable, what happens in Egypt could alter Mideast geopolitics dramatically.
Egypt’s stable relationship with Israel since the Camp David Accords has allowed the Israelis to focus on other threats. And when Israel tried to snuff out a growing threat from Hamas in the Gaza Strip two years ago, Egypt had an interest in Israeli success: Hamas is a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
An Islamist Egypt would change calculations in Israel. After all, Syria has just consolidated its de facto takeover of Lebanon via its militant, Iranian-supported proxy, Hezbollah — further endangering Israel.
An Islamist Egypt also would have no small effect on America’s other Sunni-majority allies (at least in name), Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The same goes for the Iraqis and the Turks.
And, so, it also would affect us.
It was in Cairo that Barack Obama made his initial overture to the Muslim world as president. What happens there now may commandeer the attention and energy not only of his presidency, but that of his successors for years to come.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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Note: This column for the AJC’s print edition draws on some material from one of my earlier blog posts.