Beyond Egypt – The Changing Middle East
Feb 11, 2011
Update from AIJAC
February 11, 2011
Number 02/11 #04
This Update moves beyond a focus on the immediate drama continuing in Egypt to look at the changing realities across the Middle East.
First up, the alway insightful Robert Satloff – head of the Washington Insitute for Near East Policy – offers a set of new ideas for US policy based on recent events not only in Tunisia and Egypt, but also Lebanon and elsewhere. He recommends a US focus on partnerships with Israel, the Gulf states, and Jordan, while also bringing a message of support for democratising reform. He offers further realistic advice on the situation in Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran. For this full discussion, also relevant to Australian foreign policy, CLICK HERE. Some more lessons from recent Middle East events are pointed out by American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris.
Next, Ben Cohen, also of the American Jewish Committee, calls for continued attention to Iran, despite the necessary focus on events in Egypt. He uses Iran, not in 1979 but 2009, as a filter to look at events in Egypt and draws some lessons from that large but ultimately unsuccessful protest movement. In particular, he notes that Teheran has been accelerating its executions of dissidents even while describing the Egyptian protesters as “noble” and claiming that they seek an Iranian style revolution. For Cohen’s call that the fate of Iran’s protesters not be forgotten, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Prof. Asher Susser, probably Israel’s foremost academic expert on Jordan, looks at Jordan’s role in the wake of the unrest, and especially its changing relationship with Israel. Susser’s primary point is that shared worries about radical Palestinian nationalism once united Israel and Jordan, but are now driving them apart given a continuing inability to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian two-state resolution. He cites the Palestinian factor as one of a number of factors lessening the stabilty of the Jordanian monarchy. For all the insights of this top expert, CLICK HERE. Also writing of concerns about Jordan is Israel academic Ron Breiman.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Barry Rubin is pointing out that he more or less predicted that Mubarak would not resign as widely expected in his speech overnight, as he did not, which surprised many. Also making similar points about the resilience of the Egyptian military regime is Israeli academic Guy Bechor.
- The Saudis are now backing Mubarak and offering to bankroll him if the US pulls out aid.
- Iran is reportedly getting its uranium enrichment back on track after recent setbacks.
- Iran bans showing foreign recipes on television cooking shows.
- New Wikileaks and Palileaks revelations: Syria tried to block a deal to return captured Israel soldier Gilad Shalit, and the Palestinian Authority admitted and discussed considerable past Jewish land ownership in both the West Bank and Gaza.
- A UN-sponsored program to promote women’s rights and issues in the Middle East held up Dalal Mughrabi, the leader of a terror attack which killed 37 civilians, as a role model for Arab women to emulate.
Ideas for U.S. Middle East Policy in the Wake of the Egypt Crisis
By Robert Satloff
February 9, 2011
On February 9, 2011, Washington Institute executive director Robert Satloff testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a hearing titled “Recent Developments in Egypt and Lebanon: Implications for U.S. Policy and Allies in the Broader Middle East.” The following is an excerpt from his prepared remarks. Read the complete testimony online.
The winds of change that first began to blow in Tunis and turned into a tornado in Cairo will have an impact elsewhere in the region. It is a mistake, however, to view the Middle East as a series of dominoes waiting to fall. The domestic context in each country is the dominant factor determining the stability or instability of a particular regime, and each country’s situation is quite different from the next.
Apart from the intensive focus on promoting the development of a democratic Egypt that continues to view itself as a partner with the United States, the following themes should guide U.S. policy in the uncertain period ahead.
The apparent crumbling of America’s Egyptian pillar, at least for the foreseeable future, underscores the importance of strengthening our other partnerships:
* The U.S.-Israel relationship is at the top of the list, because of both the shock to Israel’s national security structure that just occurred and the critical role that U.S.-Israel relations play in the advance of U.S. security interests throughout the region. Leaders of our both countries should commence immediate consultations on ways to strengthen the strategic partnership between these two democratic allies, in substance and in perception.
* U.S.-Gulf partnerships are also critical. The United States should find various ways to project its continuing commitment to the security and stability of the Gulf and to the Arab states of the region, including Iraq. This includes — but is not limited to — projection of military power, high-level visits, and bilateral and regional discussions on security issues.
* Washington should also find ways, perhaps in concert with Arab oil producers, to strengthen the Jordanian government, which — through King Abdullah’s appointment of a new government — has renewed its commitment to the Jordanian people to advance the pace of political reform and ease the economic dislocations from which Jordan is currently suffering.
Promote sustained and substantive reform:
However courageous the people of Egypt have shown themselves to be in the face of a government that rejected repeated pleas for political reform, incremental and orderly change remains the preferred path to political change. In that regard, the Egyptian and Tunisian cases now provide Washington with a new opportunity to engage Arab leaders and Arab peoples on ways to build more democratic, representative, responsive, and legitimate political systems, free of corruption and with respect for individual political rights. High-level officials should urgently take these two messages — a desire to strengthen partnerships and a willingness to work cooperatively on reform — to regional capitals.
Especially vulnerable in this regard are several of the region’s republics, which unlike the monarchies, have actually promised democracy and failed to deliver. (The monarchies have set the bar lower in terms of political commitments and, though they fall short, can generally rely on other forms of legitimacy and authenticity than can the republics.) On the reform agenda, Washington should give high priority to both Tunisia, where it is in U.S. interests to see a model of secular democratic reform succeed, and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-ruled West Bank, where the current circumstances may make possible a local election that could be an important legitimizing tool for the current PA leadership.
Direct reform message toward repressive regimes:
The contrast between the Obama administration’s approach to the pro-democracy movements in June 2009 Iran and January 2011 Egypt is striking. As we move forward, U.S. policy should be at least as supportive of proponents of peaceful democratic change in states whose governments have adopted policies inimical to our interests as we have been in states whose governments have aligned themselves with our interests. In practice, this means the use of U.S. strategic communications, public diplomacy, and other tangible assets to assist and support the idea of democratic change in Iran and Syria and the courageous people willing to fight for that goal.
Don’t let Iran benefit from our distraction:
The simple fact that senior U.S. officials, from the president on down, were fixated on Egypt over the past two weeks meant that they were not focused on the urgent need to compel Iran to change policy on its nuclear program. When this reality is combined with statements by various U.S. and allied officials that the timeline for Iranian nuclear progress has been pushed back, Iranians might conclude that the United States is either distracted or complacent in its campaign to force a change in Iranian nuclear policy. That would be a dangerous situation. Vigilance is in order. We should not rule out the idea that Iran may misread the situation and opt to seek a speedier breakout, expand its capabilities in new and dangerous ways, or attempt to exert its influence elsewhere in the region by pursuing some new form of provocative behavior. Some in Tehran may even believe the moment is ripe for deploying fifth-columnists and political saboteurs with the goal of toppling regimes they consider weak and unstable.
Focus on government commitments and long-term objectives in Lebanon:
The appointment of a Hizballah-nominated prime minister in Lebanon is a serious blow to U.S. interests. The radical Shiite organization Hizballah — backed by Iran and Syria — has turned the tables on the coalition of moderate, pro-West forces, employing intimidation and fear as its principal weapons. On Israel’s northern border, as now on Israel’s southern border, uncertainty reigns. For the United States, near-term decisions need to be made about U.S. relations with the new government in Lebanon. The wisest route would be to allow the action or inaction of the Lebanese government to guide these decisions.
Lebanon has responsibilities to bear under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which governs the 2006 war ceasefire, as well as Resolution 1757, which governs the mandate and operations of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Failure to fulfill obligations under these and other relevant resolutions should trigger consideration by the Obama administration of punitive measures, including coordination with members of the Security Council on steps against the government of Lebanon and a review of our military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Through it all, Washington should keep its eye on the long-term goal of sustaining and developing indigenous forces that reject the foreign domination and external influence of Syria and Iran, that oppose Hizballah’s reckless policy of holding the Lebanese population hostage to its phantom “resistance” against Israel, and that want instead to build a free, democratic, and independent Lebanon.
Adopt a more sober and realistic approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace:
Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere show that
* the absence of progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace appears to have not been a factor in the popular unrest, and
* Israeli fears about the stability and security of the parties to whom it makes irrevocable concessions are neither inflated nor based on unfathomable worst-case scenarios.
In this context, the Obama administration should explore whether these two factors have changed the political calculus on the part of the PA leadership to the extent that they are now willing to engage in substantive negotiations. Ideas that may have been unacceptable to Palestinians in the past — ranging from Israeli demands for long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley to incrementalist or partial arrangements short of a full peace agreement — may today be ready for negotiation.
Even without a chance in approach by the PA leadership, the Obama administration should focus more attention on the need for substantive investment in the institution building now underway in the West Bank. This bottom-up process is the disadvantaged stepchild of the more high-profile effort to promote top-down diplomatic success. The appointment of a senior official with specific responsibility for the institution-building process would be a step in the right direction.
At the same time, U.S. officials should recognize that Israeli leaders are quite understandably shaken by the events in Cairo and are likely to await clarity on the Egyptian political scene to assess the impact of changes there on items that affect Israeli security, such as relations with Hamas, security in Sinai, Gaza border security, transit of natural gas to Israel, and cooperation on counterterrorism. Working with Israel to address these new concerns should be a top priority.
In this environment, it would be a mistake for the administration to believe that now is a propitious moment for grand peace plans or for made-in-America bridging proposals. Given the seismic change on Israel’s southern frontier, such a U.S. approach would only confirm the worst fears of Israeli leaders and Israeli public opinion about U.S. understanding of Israel’s security predicament. However, the United States would be wise to explore the possibility of progress on the Arab-Israeli front, based on the idea that the changed regional landscape may make once “unacceptable” ideas more palatable to the Palestinians, or that building the foundation of peace in a bottom-up process may eventually make the top-down diplomacy more amenable to breakthrough.
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.
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Don’t Forget Iran
Huffington Post, February 2, 2011
Watching this new video produced by the human rights NGO Iran 180, I was struck by Congressman Barney Frank’s pithy summation of what good governance involves. “No government ought to consider itself threatened by its citizens wanting to express themselves,” Frank said. “And no truly popular government need worry about that.”
Frank was addressing the Iranian people, but his remarks are applicable to Egypt too. And they stand out in marked contrast to this next item, so excruciating that a word like “hypocrisy” simply falls short as a descriptor. I refer to the specter of Ali Larijani, the sinister speaker of the Iranian parliament and one of the architects of the country’s nuclear program, waxing poetically on the upheavals whipping through the Arab world. “The revolution of the noble,” was his pronouncement on the surge of people power in Tunisia and Egypt. In similarly florid style, Larijani’s colleague, Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, chimed in that Egyptians could look forward to the “resurrection of their glory.”
The protesters in Egypt can probably do without such encomiums from the Iranians, while those citizens bravely confronting the anti-western Arab regimes — that of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, that of the Ba’athist Assad dynasty in Damascus — shouldn’t expect them to begin with. For Iran’s experience over the last three decades contains three sobering lessons for the wider region.
Firstly, that revolutions which incubate the impulses of liberal democracy alongside social and religious conservatism are easily subverted. Secondly, that successor regimes can be just as brutal as their predecessors; and as Zimbabwe under Mugabe shows, this phenomenon is not confined to the Middle East alone. Thirdly, that like their predecessors, successor regimes with no democratic legitimacy are similarly driven by the desire to remain in power at any cost.
Which brings me not to Cairo in 2011, but Tehran in 2009. After stealing an election he was widely predicted to lose, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced the wrath of the Iranian people. Using the social media tools that have defined the current wave of Arab protests, as well as a courageous willingness to confront the thuggish Revolutionary Guard, demonstrators flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities. As in Tunisia and Egypt, it quickly became clear that the fate of the regime would be decided by the sustainability of those protests.
As we now know, repression won the day, assisted by a lack of international leverage over the Iranian regime and the churlish reaction, ranging from indifference to hostility, in the surrounding Arab countries, including among opposition forces. “Noble, manly and humane,” were the words chosen by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mahdi Akif to describe Tehran’s leaders in the year of the stolen election.
Since the passing of the country’s revolutionary moment, the Iranian regime’s grip has become a stranglehold. Always a world leader in the practice of execution, since 2009, the regime has accelerated the killing process. In 2010, between 18 and 25 people were executed each month. In the first month of 2011, a staggering 66 people were executed.
Gruesomely, while Larijani was lauding the Egyptian protestors, a dual Dutch-Iranian citizen, Zahra Bahrami, was dragged to the hangman’s noose after being arrested for participating in the 2009 protests and then convicted on fabricated charges of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, those who escape the death sentence, like the journalist and human rights advocate Navid Khanjani, are being battered by heavy prison sentences and monetary penalties.
Iran, then, offers a glimpse of what might lie in store for Egypt. Abbas Milani, the highly regarded Iranian historian, revisited the broken pledges of Iran’s theocrats in an article for The New Republic: “More than once, [Ayatollah Khomeini] promised that not a single cleric would hold a position of power in the future government. But once in power, he created the current clerical despotism. And when, in June 2009, three million people took to the streets of Tehran to protest decades of oppression, they were brutally suppressed.”
There are many reasons to be skeptical that the Middle East is on the cusp of democratic transformation akin to eastern Europe in 1989. But if that is the case, it’s worth recalling that not every communist state in Europe was overturned; Belarus doggedly remains as the continent’s last dictatorship. Iranians should not share the same fate just because, as Barney Frank might put it, they are faced with a regime “threatened by its citizens wanting to express themselves.”
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The Palestinian hot potato
By ASHER SUSSER
Jerusalem Post, 02/09/2011 22:17
Jordan and Israel’s common fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinians led them to covert agreements. Today, this shared fear is driving them apart.
In the early 1960s, when Jordan’s King Hussein was dealing with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt, which was bent on exporting its revolutionary fervor, the young king published an autobiography entitled Uneasy Lies the Head. Taking his cue from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”), Hussein’s characterization of his predicament could apply today to his son and heir, King Abdullah II.
Egypt is once again the source of inspiration for revolutionary fervor. Now, however, the revolutionary spirit is being generated by the masses, who seek to overthrow the regime built by Nasser and his successors, while Abdullah braces to face the fallout from Cairo in the streets of Amman.
Emboldened by the protest movements sweeping the Arab streets from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, demonstrators led by the Muslim Brotherhood have taken to Jordan’s streets in recent days, demanding political reform and focusing on reducing the power of the monarchy. The intensity of the protests do not compare with the whirlwind that has shaken Egypt to the core, but it is surely cause for concern for Abdullah and his new government. This is especially true because of the unsavory combination of potentially destabilizing trends that have simultaneously come to fruition in recent years.
LIKE OTHER Arab states, Jordan faces structural economic difficulties, high levels of unemployment and poverty, recently exacerbated by rising food and fuel prices. What makes matters worse from the regime’s point of view is that in recent years, the original Jordanians of the East Bank – the long-standing bedrock of the regime – have expressed serious misgivings about domestic politics.
As of the 1970s, a functional split appeared whereby the original Jordanians were the unchallenged masters of political influence, while the Palestinians – about half (maybe more) of the population – dominated the economy and the private sector. When economic troubles forced the government to reduce spending, the original Jordanians generally suffered the consequences more severely than their Palestinian compatriots, who were far less dependent on government largesse and jobs.
Over the years, a militant and influential ultranationalist trend has emerged, devoted to the eradication of Palestinian influence and of real and perceived economic advantage. In the long run, it sought the emigration of as many Palestinians as possible to a future state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and to Israel proper. Efforts by the king to introduce political reforms were often stymied by the conservative East Bank elite, who feared that a more liberal regime would allow for greater integration of Palestinians into the kingdom’s politics, at its expense.
At the same time, expectations from the peace with Israel have remained largely unfulfilled. That peace was not a panacea for Jordan’s economic difficulties. But, even more disturbing for the Jordanians, Israel and the Palestinians failed in their endeavor to transform the Oslo Accords into a final agreement.
OVER THE past 25 years, the Jordanians have steadily developed an obsessive fear of the “alternative homeland conspiracy,” and a vital interest in the creation of a Palestinian state. In their opinion, if no Palestinian state comes into being in the West Bank and Gaza, a confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians would culminate in the migration or expulsion of Palestinians to Jordan. In this nightmare scenario, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, but the Jordanians would be the losers.
After the failure of the Camp David talks and the second Palestinian intifada, Jordanian fear of this nightmare scenario resurfaced as if the peace treaty had never been signed. In 2003, the US invasion of Iraq and the consequent threat of Iraqi disintegration, coupled with growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, severely compounded the Jordanians’ sense of strategic suffocation. They now found themselves between two poles of regional instability, with the chaos of Iraq to the east and the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum to the west. This was the kind of predicament they had certainly not expected after making peace with Israel, and has been made infinitely worse by the tremors shaking much of the Arab world.
One of the main reasons for the failure of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is the inability of the parties to agree on the “right of return.”
Israel’s position has been stridently condemned by the Jordanians, who again saw the specter of refugee resettlement in Jordan as the forerunner to the “alternative homeland” scenario. Not only was the Israeli position an obstacle to an agreement with the Palestinians, they believed, but it threatened to permanently saddle Jordan with a huge Palestinian population. Thus, the positions of Jordan and Israel are diametrically opposed on an issue that both sides regard as existential. It was the Jordanians and the Lebanese who were responsible for adding to the Arab Peace Initiative, in 2002 and again in 2007, the absolute “rejection of all forms of [refugee] resettlement,” which made the initiative impossible for Israel to accept.
In the past, Jordan’s and Israel’s common fear of being overwhelmed by Palestinians led them into covert strategic understandings. Today this shared fear is driving them apart. Surveying an increasingly unstable Arab world from Amman, and considering the implications any regional upheaval might have for its domestic politics, one may conclude that the Hashemite crown is “uneasy,” to say the least.
The writer is a senior fellow and former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This article was first published by bitterlemons-international.org and is reprinted with permission.Back to Top