US Trapped In A Perfect Storm Of Regime Change
By CARY FRASER
The surge of popular protests in North Africa and the Middle East since early January that has spread from Tunisia through Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and Libya—with varying consequences for the regimes in these countries, including the overthrow of the pro-Western leaders Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, has caught many observers by surprise. The end of two of the most pro-Western regimes in the Arab world is a sober reminder that the complex relationship between the Western powers and the Arab world has become increasingly fraught with tensions that arise out of the American failure to deliver on the promise of the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the settlement of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The popular anger manifested in the streets of Egypt and Tunisia may have arisen from immediate resentments about the corruption and callous disregard for their own people displayed by the regimes headed by Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. However, the equation of the corruption and repression of these regimes with their “moderate” stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be discounted in the erosion of their legitimacy and eventual overthrow.
The Palestinian issue has become a metaphor for a sense of political impotence in the Islamic world and the pro-Western regimes have been acutely sensitive to the perceptions that political weakness makes them dependent upon their relationship with the United States and unable to address the needs of their populations. The Israeli intransigence on a just settlement under a succession of right-wing coalition governments combined with American facilitation of Israeli expansion into, and repression within the Occupied Territories, had grown apace under the Palestinian Authority even before the death of Yasser Arafat. The Palestine Papers, records from the Palestinian Authority recently leaked to Al Jazeera, have raised serious questions about the Palestinian Authority’s ability to effectively represent the Palestinian cause in the negotiations with Israel and the United States over the planned Palestinian state. The current hiatus in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as a result of the Israeli decision to continue plans for the expansion of Jewish control and occupation of larger areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank, has demonstrated the reality of American willingness to compromise the Palestinian cause in the interest of maintaining the security of its Israeli client. The fall of the Mubarak regime, with American efforts to usher him through the door of retirement, in the immediate aftermath of these recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be a coincidence. However, his ouster has confirmed that American policies give short shrift to Arab allies while it has been quite willing to defer to Israeli leaders of the calibre of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu whose recklessness helped to damage American credibility in the region and open the way for the rise of Hezbollah, Al-Qaida, and radical factions within Iran as vehicles of Islamic militancy and challengers to American and Israeli policies in the region.
Given Egypt’s historic role as a bellwether in the region, Mubarak’s ouster will provoke both reassessments and realignments among regional states and powers external to the region. From the ouster of the Egyptian monarchy by the military in 1952 to the present, the changes in domestic leadership in Egypt has had repercussions across the region.
The rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser after 1952 lead to the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the intensification of the Cold War in the Middle East as Egypt under Nasser helped to radicalize the region by bringing the Soviet Union in as a major player and source of military and diplomatic support against Western pressures.
Nasser’s death opened the way for Anwar Sadat to reposition Egypt to court American support in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel that was underwritten by American military assistance and other aid to Egypt. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 by Islamic militants serving in the Egyptian military was a signal of the emerging militant Islamist tendencies that would gain increasing momentum across the region in subsequent decades. The end of the Mubarak regime has already shifted the center of gravity in Egyptian politics and has opened space for the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood that had been suppressed by the Mubarak regime. In sum, the end of the Mubarak era in Egypt is a signal of a shift in the Middle East and the Islamic world that will reshape the American relationship with the region.
Beyond the future of US-Egyptian relations after Mubarak, US policy in the region is saddled with the Palestinian issue and the joint American-Israeli policies that have hitherto reduced the Occupied Territories into Israeli colonies. The Obama administration promised change but has yet to deliver any serious effort to overcome decades of American complicity in treating the Palestinians as a destitute people sacrificed at the altar of Israeli-American comity. The rise of militant Islamic tendencies across the region, the increasing weight of Iran in regional politics, and the effectiveness of Hezbollah as a politico-religious factor in Lebanon and as a threat that has exposed Israeli military vulnerability, has shifted the calculus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Israel and America are increasingly exposed as opponents of a just settlement of the Palestinian question.
In effect, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has become an albatross around the neck of the United States as it struggles to deal with the shifting sands of Arab politics that has emerged from the current unrest. This promises an era of increased self-assertion by Arab populations—including a new generation of Palestinian leaders who will move beyond the strategy of accommodation of American-Israeli pressures, given the increasing evidence that the United States and Israel have little to offer other than a commitment to violence in the maintenance of the status quo.
These changes on the ground have followed upon the willingness of both Iran and Al-Qaida to appropriate the Palestinian issue for their anti-Israeli, anti-American, and broader campaigns against the West’s role in the Middle East. The Palestinian issue has been an important factor in shaping the political consciousness of current generations of citizens in the Middle East.
However, it should also be remembered that well before the emergence of Al-Qaida and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Palestinian issue had been adopted in 1964 by the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, with the sponsorship of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a plank in his Pan-Arab strategy designed to increase the influence of Arab states in the international system. The failures since 1964 to establish a Palestinian state and the American role in facilitating the process of Israeli expansion into the Occupied Territories, in violation of United Nations resolutions and international law, have raised long-standing questions about the ability of current Arab regimes to exert leverage over the Western powers and Israel to exert the leverage required to secure a just settlement of the Palestinian question.
The Palestinian issue had been a critical factor in the ideological polarization of the region during the Cold War and the Islamic resurgence that began to reshape the region in the 1970s increasingly supplanted the superpower rivalry after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process that resulted from the Madrid Conference of 1991 has now resulted in the relatively rare consensus across the region—transcending sectional and national boundaries among the various Muslim communities – that the Palestinian issue has to be addressed in an effective manner to ensure that it does not become a factor that destabilizes the domestic legitimacy of existing regimes. The pressures have been increased by the willingness of Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria – all countries where Shia communities are dominant – to extend diplomatic support for the Palestinian cause even though the Palestinian population is predominantly Sunni. The situation has become even more complicated by the increasing willingness of Turkey under the Justice and Development Party to pursue a strategy of engagement in the region that has allowed it to emerge as a broker among the Sunni and Shia regimes. Further, Turkey’s role as a member of NATO has not prevented it from pushing Israel to accept the legitimacy of Palestinian demands and that has boosted its credibility as a non-Arab state which can serve as an effective interlocutor within both NATO and in assuming a role that conjures up memories of the era of Ottoman rule prior to 1914. It was the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after World War I that gave birth to the Palestinian question and Turkey’s engagement with the issue – after years of Western failures—has opened the ways for Islamic solidarities to be re-established around the Palestinian issue. For all the states of the region, Shia and Sunni, Arab and non-Arab, a resolution of the Palestinian issue will also underpin a strategy for undermining the appeal of Al Qaida as a voice of Islamic alienation from existing regimes and as a champion of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world.
In effect, since 1948 when Israel was established, the rise of anti-colonial and anti-Western sentiment that has accompanied the growing strategic importance of the region as the pre-eminent source of energy exports to the rest of the world has created a volatile framework of governance in both the domestic and regional political systems. Secular politics, whether of capitalist or communist orientation, Pan-Arab ideology, and competing Islamist conceptions of political order—some of pre-1945 origin and others of more recent vintage, have all contributed to the lack of consensus within the region. The efforts by the United States since 1956 to insert itself as the dominant power within the region led to Nasser’s, and later Hafez al-Asad’s, courtship of the Soviet Union to counter those American efforts. The subsequent overthrow of the American satrap, the Shah of Iran, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, and the emergence of Al Qaida, signaled the emergence of indigenous Islamic sources of opposition to American policies in the region. The justice of the Palestinian cause has provided a platform upon which the region’s leaders could give voice to concerns about the policies of external actors in the region. For other voices, the Palestinian issue has been a vehicle for the mobilization of political discontent. The return of Ayatollah Khomenei to Iran after the overthrow of the Shah was marked by the closure of the Israeli embassy in Teheran and the transfer of the premises to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was a signal of the generational shift in political sentiment in the region that continues to have repercussions for the regional order today. The Palestinian issue had become an issue that transcended the strategic concern of the Arab states and Iran’s weight has become a factor in the regional and international politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egypt’s fateful decision to accept a separate peace treaty – the Camp David Accords – with Israel undermined its regional stature as a center of Pan-Arab diplomacy and led to its expulsion from the Arab League in 1979. It became a pillar of the American efforts to establish a Pax Americana in the region – a role that it adopted in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the re-orientation of Iran’s foreign policy away from the pro-American and pro-Israeli stance that had been adopted under the Shah of Iran. It was a role that was of enormous importance to the regime of Hosni Mubarak which provided the Egyptian President the opportunity to lay the foundations of his three decades of rule. It was also a role that provided the United States with the leverage to legitimize its increasing efforts to reshape the region in the interest of its own geostrategic ambitions to remain the pre-eminent military power that could influence the future of the Eurasian landmass. The Middle East under a Pax Americana served as a pivot for the projection of American power across the two continents – an enviable position that every American administration since Carter has sought to retain.
Against this background, the collapse of the Mubarak regime under the weight of popular protest poses a serious dilemma for the United States. Following rapidly after the collapse of the Tunisian regime, and preceding the crisis within Libya that has shattered the legitimacy of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya, the continuing uncertainties that inform events in Egypt -including the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a powerful influence on any post-Mubarak regime – will have a long-term impact upon the American global strategic posture. In effect, the politics of Islamic resurgence has overtaken another American ally and, as in the case of Iran in 1979, is likely to have immediate implications for American influence in regional and wider international context.
The Obama administration has been trying to keep ahead of the currents of unrest and change that have swept the region but the American identification with these authoritarian regimes has exposed the limited leverage of American policies since 1979 in dealing with the Islamic resurgence that has shaken the region since the 1970s. The American invasion and occupation in Iraq has paradoxically bolstered Iranian influence across the region. The American pursuit of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has further eroded its strategic power and credibility as an interlocutor in the Islamic world. In real terms, the increased American military engagement since 1979 with the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and South Asia, and the efforts to impose a Pax Americana that would contain the Islamic resurgence across these regions since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Iranian Revolution, have, instead, laid the basis for a perfect storm of regime change that has trapped the United States.
For the Obama administration the central question continues to be: How will an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement provide the political space to redefine the American relationship with the Islamic world and the turmoil that was unleashed since the Camp David Accords some three decades ago?