What a riot: unrest in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood and why Obama just doesn’t get it

I’ve been concentrating on other endeavours over the past three-or-so weeks, however with the aeroplane-based wifi that American Airlines seems to provide, I now have time to comment on the dramatic events that seem to be changing the face of the Middle East as I type. As everyone will be aware, this began with mass popular protests in Tunisia resulting in the as yet relatively benign ousting of long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The reality here is that in the greater Arab world, Tunisia is one of the least volatile countries. As outlined by John Thorne in The National, Tunisia has an extensive recent history of forced secularisation, allowing for a minimalist Islamist presence:

Islam came to Tunisia in the 7th century with Arab armies sweeping across North Africa, and cities such as Tunis and Kairouan became centres of Islamic learning. French colonialism from 1881 injected secularist ideas into Tunisian society.

That set the stage for the policies of Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence in 1956 and believed that Islamic tradition impeded the building of a modern state.

During Bourguiba’s three-decade rule, a new family code was enacted that gave women equality with men in key areas, the hijab was restricted, and Islamic schools and courts were shut down.

The lack of extreme sentiment in Tunisia is what allowed the revolution to maintain such a positive and peaceful atmosphere (at least so far). This is VERY different from the situation in other Arab countries.

The events grabbing the most headlines, of course, are the protests in Egypt – which look likely to end the 30-year reign of dictator Hosni Mubarak. What a lot of people, particularly the Obama administration, fail to grab is that Egypt is not Tunisia. At all.

It is understandable that, after realising that Arab dictators are not absolutely invulnerable and that mass popular actions can topple autocratic regimes, the people of Egypt decided to give this a shot. Mubarak’s ailing health had been the topic of headlines anyway, and widespread speculation that he was grooming his son Gamal for office had led to a lot of discontent amongst Egypt’s masses. The problem is that Mubarak for years has been a stalwart of Western policy in the region and has led one of the two most powerful Arab countries into clamping-down on extremists and minimising conflict in the region. We may not be so lucky with his successor, who could be:

Gamal Mubarak

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Hammer did some excellent coverage last year of this year’s planned presidential elections in Egypt, which explains the different parties and their positions.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Gamal Mubarak, and the race to succeed Hosni Mubarak : The New Yorker.

Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as a symbol of nepotism and privilege. “A lot of Egyptians don’t like the perception that there is a dynastic process here,” the Western diplomat said. “This is a republic.”

Hammer goes on to explain that while a gifted economist, Gamal Mubarak’s “trickle-down” policies have led to an increasing rich-poor divide in Egypt and the view that he is only interested in furthering his own privileged class.

Mohamed ElBaradei

The other major contender is formar International Atomic Energy Agency president and Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei – who has been sending mixed signals about his candidacy. While his achievements, particularly with the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear program, are undeniable, he does look less than ideal on a number of levels. In particular, he displayed a reluctance to aggressively pursue Iran over its nuclear program; his departure last year from the IAEA allowed the US to dramatically step-up its attempts at imposing sanctions on Iran. Also, extremely worryingly, he had this to say about Israel and the Palestinian resistance:

Palestinian violence [is] the only path open to the Palestinian people, because “the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence.”

(As I have previously observed, the Palestinian resistance has a far, far superior path open – state building.)

These attitudes certainly raise certain doubts regarding ElBaradei’s foreign policy plans. Despite being a seasoned diplomat, it appears that he has a tendency to appease extremists and that he is not too friendly towards Israel. This means that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty could be in jeopardy. This treaty, formed several years after the last war between Israel and it’s more powerful neighbours, began the era of relative peace between Israel and the Arab world and continues to be possibly the single most stabilising factor in the Arab/Israeli conflict – there is apparently an Arab saying that goes “you cannot make war without Egypt”. It’s dissolution would be extremely dangerous and could lead to an unprecedented war in the region.

ElBaradei has been a little evasive on the issue, saying:

…again, the whole issue of peace in the Middle East is an issue which everybody – nobody wants to go to war, Fareed. Nobody was – not want not to have peace in the region, but as you know, the (inaudible) the credibility is not really whether you are supported by a dictator here. It’s whether you have a fair-handed policy, vis-a-vis the Palestinians. And that is really the question. The criteria is not the reaction of the Egyptians. And you’ll get the same reaction under Mubarak, under a democracy. The people feel they are unfairly treated. There is a double standard vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue, and that will continue.

But if you want to have Egypt and the rest of the Arab world have into policy as recognition of Israel, well, you need to review your policy. And however, you know, whatever, what – whatever is going to happen, you know, I am confident that dialogue, negotiation between democracies is much more effective than dialogue between dictators who are in no way representing their people.

Also, as noted here, he may not even last long as a leader as he does not seem to possess the strength that is required of Egyptian rulers, who had a habit of being assassinated before the ruthless policies of Mubarak came into effect.

Muslim Brotherhood

Speaking of these assassinations, the big elephant in this room is, of course, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. For those of you who don’t know, Egypt was the cradle of the Brotherhood – the movement that began modern Islamism as we know it. Their brand of politicised Islam eventually led to Al Qaeda and all of the other Islamic terrorist groups and individuals we know today; however, they also now exist as an arguably non-violent political group (very arguable – they did assassinate the last two Egyptian presidents) with the goal of transforming Muslim states into Islamist ones. As Hammer notes:

Parliamentary elections were also held in 2005, and one opposition group performed significantly better than expected: the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that supports Sharia law and has engendered such violent offshoots as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. (The Brotherhood renounced violence in 1970.) Although the organization has been officially banned since 1954, independent candidates who openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s positions were allowed to run for Parliament, and won eighty-eight seats—a fifth of the total. Many Brotherhood candidates portrayed the Mubarak regime as corrupt. The ruling party still controlled three hundred and eleven out of four hundred and fifty-four seats, but the strong showing of the Islamists was a shock.

This shows that the Brotherhood has a large popular support base and regardless of who takes over in Egypt, will wield considerable power. As noted here, the brotherhood, which is the parent organisation of Hamas, is already unequivocally calling for an end to the peace treaty with Israel. There is also a considerable concern for Egypt’s minority Christian group, which has been under attack in recent months.

The key question is: how much power will they have and how will this affect Egypt’s policies? Whichever way you look at it, the outcome is grim. The Muslim Brothers are a powerful force and every regime in the Middle East is struggling to contain them. If ElBaradei or anyone else takes over, it is unlikely that they will be strong enough to crush them and so will have to appease them in some way – most likely by cooling relations with Israel and America and turning the strongest Western ally in the Middle East into something a little less reliable. The problem is that by trying to nudge Mubarak out of power, Obama has guaranteed that Mubarak will not be as friendly as he once was if he does cling to power. I am very concerned for the future here…


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