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Protest in Egypt Photo: AP
Protest in Egypt Photo: AP
 
Riots in Tunisia Photo: Reuters
Riots in Tunisia Photo: Reuters
 
Rally in Yemen Photo: AP
Rally in Yemen Photo: AP
 
 

How the Mideast was lost

Op-ed: Events in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen a blow to Western world, pro-American camp

Roee Nahmias
Published: 02.06.11, 11:13 / Israel Opinion

Iran wasn’t involved, al-Qaeda did not carry out a terror attack or publish a video, and Hezbollah did not take center stage either. Nonetheless, after about a month of upheaval in our region, it turns out that the pro-American camp in the Middle East sustained a harsh blow. One should always be careful about Mideast predictions, yet the interim summary shows that within a few days we saw the fall of several rulers who maintained very good ties with the White House.

 

The first to be toppled was Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who maintained a good relationship with the Americans, hosted the Israeli foreign minister’s delegation, and brought secularization and education to his country. However, the frustration and anger of his citizens prompted his downfall and escape from Tunisia.

 

The next in line was Hosni Mubarak, who appears poised to quit within months, at most. The Egyptian president has never turned his back to the US (despite years of unstable relations with George W. Bush) and even sent his troops to fight alongside the Americans in the First Gulf War. Throughout his rule he upheld the peace treaty with Israel, despite the wars and clashes in our region.

The next leader to pay the price was Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who made the choice to pay it even before facing a genuine uprising. The Yemeni leader, who has been ruling his country for some 32 years, announced that he has no intention to run for another term in the elections scheduled for two years. He did it against the backdrop of the difficult struggle he’s been engaged in against Shiite tribes and al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen. His rivals charged that he’s cooperating with the US, and when on top of this we see protests similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia, we get an unhealthy recipe for a presidency.

 

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‘Collaborators’ go home

And so, within less than a month, three rulers with good ties with Washington ended their terms, more or less officially. The protestors in each of the countries in question made sure to note that the rulers were “collaborating” with America and/or with Israel. Regardless of the regime that will succeed them, the situation does not bode well, with the dominant tone in the Mideast today coming from Khamenei’s and Ahmadinejad’s Iran, or from Erdogan’s Ankara.

 

The pendulum, which swung in America’s favor in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is now shifting in the other direction, with the West watching from the sidelines and showing an inability and lack of desire to get involved.

 

Most eyes are now on the next possible revolution target, Jordan, which is ruled by a king who maintains good ties with the West. Saudi Arabia and Syria are also garnering attention. Unbelievably so, in the current state of affairs quite a few observers see the Syrian president as the lesser of evils. Will the Kings Abdullah and Bashar Assad manage to curb the wave of fury in the region? Will they be able to contend with the popular “sense of success” in toppling presidents?

 

Struggle of succession  

Yet before we lament the expected developments, we must keep in mind that a grim fate had not yet been sealed. While three presidents are ending their terms, nobody replaced them yet. The real struggle is for the successor’s character. In Egypt, we are seeing a true battle for the regime’s identity: Will the replacement come from within the ranks of the ruling party in Egypt, or from within the Muslim Brotherhood?

 

Mubarak of course prefers the new deputy president, Omar Suleiman, yet we cannot discount one of the two other possibilities: A weak, compromise candidate, or a Muslim Brothers’ member. Both options, to a different extent of course, would signal significant distancing from Israel, to the point of hostility. In Tunisia it’s still unclear who would succeed Ben Ali, with his past comrades clinging to power for the time being. Meanwhile, the Yemeni president has two years to prepare a successor.

 

So where is the new Mideast going? Much will be determined by the result of President Mubarak’s battle and the reaction from Washington. Should the Egyptian ruler be able to survive in office for a few months, he may be able to succeed in his mission - handing over power to Suleiman, or another member endorsed by the ruling party.

 

In a broader context, it appears that the so-called moderate camp sustained a harsh blow. This is attested to by the fact that Iranian officials had trouble hiding their smiles this past week, as they counted the days to the departure of Mubarak, who openly challenged them. The West’s interim summary in the Middle East is not looking good, yet we must stress that for now it’s merely an interim report. The leaders in Amman, Riyadh and Damascus are hoping that the final tally won’t be worse, while in Egypt Mubarak still believes that the outcome isn’t final yet.

 

 

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