In Ramallah on the West Bank, protests threatened the Palestinian political establishment after the leak of the “Palestine Papers” provoked outrage over revelations of generous concessions to Israel during years of futile peace talks. In Lebanon a “day of rage” challenged Hezbollah’s emerging new order. In Tunisia demonstrators continued weeks of protest, pressing for democratic and social reforms. And in cities throughout Egypt, thousands again took to the street in defiance of the three-decades-old regime of Hosni Mubarak and the threat of a brutal clampdown by security and military forces. In major cities throughout the Arab world, long-simmering resentments and aspirations for a different political order appear to have ignited almost overnight into popular uprisings against long-established autocratic regimes.
Whatever the near-term outcome of these street rebellions, said Emad Shahin of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, things in the Arab world and its relationship to the West “will never be the same. There is no going back from this.” Years of humiliation and frustration are finally boiling over throughout the Arab world, he said, inspired by a remarkable uprising in Tunisia that successfully dislodged what had appeared to be an immovable regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“The Arab world has been a black hole of democracy” with little opportunity for free expression, vast political corruption and ruthless suppression of antigovernment sentiment, said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York. It has been seething for years. “Was Tunis just ready to blow? Is Egypt ready to blow? We will know tomorrow. A lot will depend on what the security forces and the army will do.” Tunisia’s tiny but professional and traditionally apolitical army sided with the pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets and even engaged in running battles with pro-government security forces in efforts to protect protestors. “Were it not for the Tunisian army, the security forces would have suppressed this,” said Khalidi, an outcome far more likely in Egypt, where a large military is expected to support Mubarak, its patron.
Are these chaotic scenes in Cairo and Tunis a first glimpse of a political-social domino fall in the Arab world reminiscent of the Soviet collapse in 1989? “If that’s the case, then the United States and Israel have the most to be worried about,” said Khalidi. The regimes that are on the verge have all been friendly to the United States, he said, which over decades has held its nose while supporting Arab kleptocracies and autocratic regimes like Egypt’s Mubarak, favoring stability and acquiescence to Western interests over democracy. If the days of authoritarian rule are over, it will mean that new, popularly supported governments in the Arab world may not be as willing to accept U.S. policy in the region, particularly regarding Israel and the disposition of the Palestinian people.
Shahin described the U.S. response to the rapidly changing events on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia as flat-footed and conflicted. President Obama used his State of the Union address to deliver a message of support to Tunisian demonstrators and encouraged “the democratic aspirations of all people.” But that same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued yet another statement of confidence in the “stability” of the Mubarak government.
While the West may now be recognizing the short-sightedness of its preference for stability over democracy, Shahin did not believe that the upheaval in Tunis and Egypt provided a significant opening to radical Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood, he said, has been largely absent from the uprising in Egypt. For the most part, it is average working- and middle-class Egyptians, led by their Facebook-friendly young people, who are taking to the streets demanding basic democratic privileges and political and social reforms that would be completely comprehensible to America’s founding fathers. He feared, however, such aspirations are heading toward a deadly confrontation with the Mubarak regime. Referring to the Ben Ali regime, he said, “Mubarak has learned from what happened in Tunisia.... He will not back down.”