Monday, 31 January 2011

Even pharaohs have bad days

The powerful have many tools, but they don’t control the weather. The episode that started in Tunisia and has now spiraled out of control throughout the Middle East is one of those rare but regular historical events that remind us how fragile their grip can be.

Looking back at the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1990, we can now see how those ruined economies and hollowed-out societies led by a discredited ruling elite made the region ripe for a series of quick shoves over the precipice once people lost their fear. But who at the time would have predicted that stable regimes led by brutish crews versed in repression and accustomed to crushing dissent would simply collapse?

If Tunisia was the region’s Poland, Egypt is its USSR. Alarm bordering on panic is now easily detected from Morocco to the Gulf Emirates, and no wonder: if Mubarak can be brought down by an inflamed populace, who among us is safe?

Democracy in the Arab world is like Christian brotherhood: to be praised in theory and promptly postponed for later. Although Obama’s team have been fairly decent so far in responding to the Egyptian uprising, it would be a mistake to think that the US is deeply enamored of the idea that the Arab masses suddenly should have more to say about their affairs than the pro-western elites who have been deciding for them.

Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor who enraged the Israeli lobby by writing a book about its excessive influence here, writes, ‘The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard’.

Israelis and their backers are fond of pointing to the Jewish state as the only democracy in the region in comparison with the autocratic rulers in states surrounding them. But not surprisingly, Israeli commentators play a different tune when democracy actually threatens to appear elsewhere. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz says its government is urging others to soften criticism of Mubarak and quotes an anonymous senior official: ‘The Americans and the Europeans . . . have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications’.

A columnist in the Jerusalem Post said it’s not a matter of ‘Egypt sneezing and Israel catching a cold—rather, this is a matter of Egypt having a heart attack’. Another called the Egyptian events ‘the worst disaster since Iran’s revolution’.

The paper said the prospect of revolutions throughout the region will make Israel even less likely to agree to peace terms and strengthen its conservative and reactionary tendencies. They could be describing Russia’s last Leninists, insisting that the system will still work, perhaps with some adjustments here and there.

Meanwhile, rain—hopefully not including frogs—is predicted.

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