For several decades, the rules most of the world’s elite took for granted in Mideast politics were pretty simple:
- Conservative dictators could be trusted to sell oil in a way that, regardless of market price, would end up putting the profits in the hands of Western corporations (oil for high prices would be offset by large purchases of expensive, unneeded arms);
- The Arab street would never mount a significant nationalist demand for liberty or justice;
- Israel would have a regional blank check to do whatever it wanted because Arab dictators, dependent on Western support, would do no more than talk about justice for Palestine;
- Anyone who seriously tried to overthrow this system would be marginalized or attacked.
Although it remains unclear what the new rules for the Mideast political system will be, it is clear that the old rules can no longer be taken for granted. All Arabs now know that an Arab population can rise up with essentially no organization and figure out in the space of a few days how to defeat an oppressive and heavily armed regime. Even the most extreme example of criminal behavior by a regime, Gaddafi’s attempt to use both the full power of his military forces plus a barbarian horde of foreign mercenaries to slaughter the Libyan protesters now seems almost certain to fail: the more extreme the efforts of Arab dictators to impose criminal rule, the more rapidly even regime officials withdraw their personal support.
Conservative dictators now know they must pay more attention to popular feelings, which will constrain the deals they cut with regimes elsewhere. Arab leaders will have a lot more reason in the future than they have had in the past to advocate policies in tune with popular opinion. Out-of-power parties will automatically have greater influence to the degree that leaders begin to feel the need to create a ruling coalition encompassing majority opinion.
These constraints on arbitrary policy-making will make it more difficult for any Arab regime to cooperate with an aggressive Israel; whether Israel’s policy changes or not, the policy of Arab states toward Israel is likely to become more critical, more demanding of Israeli responsiveness to Arab feelings because Arab leaders will simultaneously be less dependent on Washington’s largesse and more dependent on the popular mood.
Numerous milestones have occurred over the past two months, from the evaporation of the Egyptian police as a force for oppression to the decision by the Egyptian military not to murder peaceful demonstrators to the flood of Libyan officials who have had the moral courage to resign and denounce their leader. As the precedents of official organs of power failing to support a ruler at the expense of the people mount in number from one regional state to another, it becomes increasingly difficult for the next ruler to resist the popular will.
Progress toward democracy has also been notable in a wholly different dimension, as well. The learning curve of various Arab populations about how to defend human rights against the brute force of criminal regimes has been nothing short of phenomenal. Handing flowers to soldiers, sitting on tanks, using the Internet to schedule “revolutionary action” publicly have not prevented attacks by police goon squads or massacres, but they have made the point that regime terrorism can be defeated. Only the Israeli regime in Palestine and the Iranian regime have, so far, succeeded in achieving victory through violence.
Dictators, so far, are behaving with mind-numbing predictability, employing every self-defeating tactic in the traditional totalitarian handbook. Well, it still works in Tehran and perhaps in Algers, so why not? Whatever one can say about dictators, they are not known to be creative, unless the combination of foreign mercenary mobs covered by the air force—a tactical innovation from the tactical genius Gaddafi—may be deemed to count. But now that the Arab people have suddenly learned creativity, betting on the regimes of Algeria, Yemen, and Bahrain would not be advised for the risk-averse.
The outcome remains far beyond prediction. A long process of negotiation, which will vary by state, is ahead as a comfortable and security-conscious military negotiates with a broad mass of reformers. One key ingredient seems already to have been answered: this time, it seems unlikely that Washington will send troops to decide the issue. The days of Lebanon 1958 or Lebanon 1983 or Iraq 2003 seem, for the foreseeable future, to be behind us. That leaves the key to the outcome in the hands of the protesters, who include civil rights idealists, labor union activists with an eye to economic conditions, and the religiously motivated, with all three groups overlapping in unpredictable ways. So two key tactical questions are:
- Can the protesters find united positions on core issues?
- Can the protesters negotiate a compromise with the military?
Although the Arab military forces have, so far, proven to be far more humane than the People’s Liberation Army during Tiananmen, the Basij during the Green Movement protests against electoral fraud, the various warlords of Lebanon’s agonizing civil war, the military and the Islamic fundamentalists during Algeria’s equally agonizing civil war, or the IDF in Gaza (2009) or Lebanon (2006), these examples of regime security force brutality nevertheless serve as cautionary tales of what can happen to a peaceful protest* that lacks overwhelming popular support. And even in Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt—not to mention Libya, regime terrorism against citizens doing no more than what the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin are doing this week has been all too common. The protesters will serve themselves well if they keep these precedents in mind as they search for a united political platform and sit down to serious policy negotiations with their respective militaries.
As long as Arab regime attitudes were predictable and virtually all regional governments were using force against their own people (including Iran, the prime claimant to leadership of a new regional political system, and even democratic Turkey—vis-à-vis its Kurds), Israel had a certain degree of cover for its repression of Palestinians. If civil rights become the new fad in the Mideast, however, Israel will look very exposed.
Israel is not the only violence-prone Mideast regime that will look exposed if the protesters succeed in establishing democratic regimes across the Arab world. Iran will undermine its own pretenses of becoming a regional leader to the degree that it continues to commit a degree of violence against its people that has been renounced in the Arab (and Turkish) portions of the region. Iran may be relatively immune to Arab pressure, but it will weaken its political position.
The other country that may rapidly find itself isolated is Algeria, which appears very much ready to continue its long tradition of violence against those who wish to express their own political opinions. Whether Bouteflika’s resistance to popular demands will be weakened by popular victories across most of the rest of North Africa and to what degree the newly empowered societies of North Africa will be able and willing to provide assistance to an Algerian protest movement that has so far been stopped cold by regime security forces remains to be seen.
As for the U.S., it has an historic opportunity now to get on “the right side of history.” Having evidently made the decision not to intervene militarily against Arab protesters and having publicly asserted their right to freedom of expression, it faces a fundamental policy contradiction as long as it continues to serve as the last defender on earth of the Israeli right-wing ruling elite’s policy of oppressing and (in the sense of an organized society) destroying the Palestinian people. Washington would be well served if it could marshal the courage to get out in front of the situation by brokering, as a first step, an end to the collective punishment and continued incarceration in their ghetto of the 1.5 million people of Gaza. It has this opportunity today, but Egypt is quite likely very soon to take that opportunity away…by simply opening the Rafah gate, recognizing Hamas-issued passports, and allowing Gaza to trade with the world via Sinai. For Washington then to rush to concur that “of course the people of Gaza have the same right as everyone else to freedom of trade, freedom of travel, freedom of expression" will sound just a bit insincere and gain Washington little credit on the Arab street, which may by that point be selecting Arab leaders.
Perhaps the key strategic question at this point, in contrast to the tactical questions discussed above, is:
To what degree will the victory of similar popular protests demanding human rights for Arab populations result in a single pan-Arab movement?
A pan-Arab movement could turn into a crusade to keep oil profits or a crusade against Israel. It could also be hijacked by a new class of dictators – either traditional ones or of the religious variety. All of these unsettling possibilities will be made more likely by a West that proves reluctant to welcome Arab societies into the ranks of world democracies. But welcoming them will entail far more than just words. It will entail first of all a restructuring of aid away from exotic and profitable Western offensive weapons toward the type of trade and economic aid programs that will improve the lives of the people who are fighting for their liberty. It will entail reining in Israeli expansionists and defining a new regional security regime—one that this time is inclusive and positive-sum rather than being focused on Israel. It will entail developing society-to-society or at least state-to-state relationships, rather than leader-to-leader relationships, with all the implied implications for value judgments.
The Arab Revolt of 2011 is inspired by Western ideals and targets Western lackeys, but because of their governance not because they cooperate with the West. The West needs to choose which side it is on and should be happy that it has such an easy choice: if the choice becomes one between Western lackeys and a popular Arab revolt inspired by religious fundamentalism or virulent nationalism, the choice will be much more difficult for the West. The Arab Revolt of 2011 is not about foreign policy, but it is a short step from its domestic focus to a focus on how the West is treating the Arab world; one can only hope that some serious introspection is now occurring in Western policy-making circles.
The Arab world was united once, it was a leading global civilization once. Already it is apparent that Americans trying to defend their environment and their right to collective bargaining against right-wing political campaigns financed by hundreds of millions of dollars from a tiny handful of billionaires and corporations interested either in union-bashing or irresponsible new mining ventures in pristine locations (e.g., Wisconsin river valleys) might take some organizational tips from a young but well-educated Arab generation that includes both the Internet-savvy and some with a profound comprehension of the meaning of democracy. What else might the Arab world, if united by a new (for the Mideast) set of principles about the rights of man, contribute to human civilization?
*For those who wonder how I can include Gaza during Israel’s recent attack as a “peaceful protest,” recall that Hamas—which had won a democratic election to govern all of Palestine in 2006 only to be forced out of the West Bank by Israeli- and U.S-instigated violence, had agreed to halt rocket attacks on Israel the previous summer and was attempting with some effectiveness to enforce that agreement but continued to protest Israeli collective punishment, incursions, etc.