MIDDLE EAST I: Arab turmoil to change Middle East power balance
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, February 19, 2011
The current popular revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world will have a significant effect on the balance of power in the region. What began with the suicide death of a poor street trader in Tunis has mushroomed into a protest movement across the Arab world, engulfing Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and other countries.
The mass street protests which began in Tunisia, a pro-Western nation on the Mediterranean, have spread to Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, and one of the key power centres in the Middle East.
It is significant that the collapse of the Tunisian regime and the popular uprising in Egypt was not predicted by anyone in the West or even by Israel, which monitors developments in the Arab world closely.
A revealing analysis of the Tunisian crisis was made by Marwan Muashar, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. He said: "The protests were triggered by economic grievances and rising prices, but it's a mistake to think that the crisis was solely about money - economics alone did not bring people to the streets. The unrest was as much about governance as it was about the economy.
"When you look at the slogans used in Tunisia and across the Arab world in recent weeks, few targeted high prices. Rather they accused the government of abandoning its people. There is a high degree of frustration about the lack of good governance, and this is a lesson that must be learned in Tunis and other Arab capitals."
What makes Tunisia particularly interesting, as Mr Muashar pointed out, is that Tunisia was doing relatively well economically, had a mild opposition, and a strong security establishment, so the risk of revolt was considered low.
He continued: "It wasn't supposed to happen in Tunisia and the fact that it did proves that fundamental political reforms - widening the decision-making process and combating corruption - are needed around the entire Arab world."
One common factor in the street protests across north Africa has been the surging price of food, particularly wheat, a staple throughout the Middle East. Since the middle of 2010, wheat prices have risen around 50 per cent, affecting particularly the poorest.
The cause of the sudden rise in wheat prices, and that of other grains, including corn, is the combination of poor harvests, government controls on grain production in some countries, including the US, and rising demand.
Global wheat harvests have been adversely affected by drought in Russia and the Black Sea region, which caused Russia to ban exports last year, together with heavy rains in other large exporting countries, Canada and Argentina.
Further, there is rising demand for wheat, not only as a result of rising populations, but also because of changing consumer preferences in Asia, including China, which are diverting grain into animal feed.
The supply shortage has not only pushed up prices but encouraged hoarding. Food-importing countries across the world are scrambling for supplies, putting more pressure on prices. Food prices are also pushing up inflation, causing governments to lift interest rates, and aggravating the problem for small businesses, agriculture and those who are most marginalised.
The result is an upsurge of anger against governments, particularly those characterised by endemic corruption.
Another factor which contributed to the crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt was the availability of information. As a relatively free country, Tunisia has ready access to European TV and the internet, and people were well aware of the contrast between their poverty and the relative prosperity of Europe, just across the Mediterranean.
Once the protests started in Tunisia, they were covered extensively on al Jazeera and al Arabiya, two television networks which operate freely through much of the Arab world, as well as on the internet and mobile phones. Twitter and Facebook became organising media for protesters.
Interestingly, Mubarak shut down al Jazeera in Cairo, arresting six of its journalists there, as well as shutting down the mobile phone network, Twitter and Facebook. But by that time, the horse had bolted.
As noted previously, when mass protests erupted in Egypt, they were not anticipated by the Israelis, who monitor developments there extremely closely.
When protests erupted on January 25, Israeli analysts were dismissive, saying that Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, would quickly crush the dissidents. How wrong they were.
Israel's new head of military intelligence has been hauled over the coals in the local press for his failure to foresee what happened. In his debut appearance before the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee on the very day protests began in Egypt, Major-General Aviv Kochavi's assessment was that Mubarak's regime was not under threat.
Six days later, in both Jerusalem and Washington, everything was being revised. Statements and assessments from recent months, and policies and approaches that have been in place for years, have been abandoned.
The lessons of America's about-face, from strong support for Mubarak to calling for an orderly democratic transition to a new leader, will be noticed throughout the world. America's allies will understand that whatever Washington's support is promised to a particular leader, that support is conditional, and that America's influence in that part of the world is strictly limited.
In Israel, the consternation is acute. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his government to keep quiet on the crisis, and has called on the international community to curb criticism of the Egyptian leader.
Jerusalem has observed with unease how the tune out of Washington DC has changed, from initially defending Egypt's President Mubarak as "no dictator" who should be secured in power to now officially talking about the need for transition to a new leadership.
For more than 30 years, a peace agreement has been in place between Israel and Egypt. Israelis have called it a "cold peace", at least from the Egyptian side, where Mubarak himself has helped keep alive the deeply rooted hostility towards Israel.
Despite this, the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty has worked to maintain a state of quiet along their common border even as tensions have ebbed and flowed between Israel and nations to the north, and east - Lebanon, Syria, Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Jordan, until the peace agreement with that state in 1994.
For Israel, which has had to fight a war at least once every decade, and is constantly anticipating the next one, not having to spend its strung-out military resources in the south has been a huge bonus.
More than this, the Egyptians were richly rewarded for signing that peace treaty: the United States has poured billions of dollars worth of military equipment and know-how into the country, transforming the Egyptian army into the mightiest Arab force in existence today.
The fear is that when Mubarak goes, the peace treaty will be swept away. The long-suppressed but well entrenched Muslim Brotherhood may ascend to some level of power - possibly as part of a new coalition government. And everything will change.
According to Fox News, a source "at the highest level of government in Israel" said that "they are terrified that Egypt will become another Iran on the southern border".
Israel could suddenly find itself facing an Arab version of its Persian foe, a powerfully armed (by America!) and well-trained Islamist state eager to ally with - even once again lead - Syria and Lebanon into war against Israel, and all backed by Turkey, Iraq and an about-to-go-nuclear Iran.
The transformation is happening as we speak. Israel's news media has already reported that a regime change in Cairo may force the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to boost their presence in the south.
No one seems to know how things are going to turn out. Some experts say Mubarak will manage to hold on until his term expires at the end of this year and then hand over the reins to the man he swore in as vice-president - former spy chief Omar Suleiman.
Others, knowing how volatile the Arab world can be, are bracing for the worst-case scenario described above: the immediate overthrow of the Mubarak regime and its replacement by a new alliance in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation suppressed by Mubarak, rises to the fore.
It is even possible that this could be the consequence of a democratic election process, as it was on the Gaza Strip, where a clear majority of Palestinians voted for Hamas, the avowedly Islamist organisation which is committed to the destruction of Israel.
Some Westerners have pointed to the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned to Cairo to join the protests against Mubarak, as a possible new leader of Egypt.
However impressive ElBaradei is, he has spent most of his adult life outside Egypt, working successively for Egypt's foreign missions in Geneva and New York, and for a number of years as an adjunct professor of law at New York University. He later worked for over 20 years for the International Atomic Energy Agency, retiring in 2009.
It is inconceivable that a person who had spent such a long time outside Egypt could be more than a nominal leader of the country. If ElBaradei takes the reins, the question will be: who is the real power broker?
In the meantime, many are wondering which of the many authoritarian states in the Middle East will be the next to face popular uprisings. Iraq is still a mess, years after the Allied invasion to end Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Countries such as Syria, Yemen and Jordan all look vulnerable.
But the main concern is with Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-dominated nation which has a significant Shia minority concentrated in provinces which host some of Saudi Arabia's largest oil fields.
If Saudi Arabia is destabilised, it would have immediate consequences throughout the Middle East, and threaten global oil security, at a time when oil prices are under extreme pressure. A new oil shock could push the global economy back into recession.