Argument

The New Arab World Order

Don't mistake the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt for 1978 Iran. But that doesn't mean that U.S. diplomacy in the Arab world is going to be any less complicated going forward.

The most telling aspect of the anti-regime demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world is what they are not about: They are not about the existential plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; nor are they at least overtly anti-Western or even anti-American. The demonstrators have directed their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own societies. This constitutes a sea change in modern Middle Eastern history.

Of course, such was the course of demonstrations against the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979, before that revolution was hijacked by Islamists. But in none of these Arab countries is there a charismatic Islamic radical who is the oppositional focal point, like Ayatollah Khomeini was; nor are the various Islamist organizations in the Arab world as theoretical and ideological in their anti-Americanism as was the Shiite clergy. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt functions to a significant extent as a community self-help organization and may not necessarily try to hijack the uprising to the extent as happened in Iran. And even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is not quite so identified with American interests as was the shah. The differences between 2011 in Egypt and 1978 in Iran are more profound than the similarities.

Furthermore, whatever the outcome of these uprisings, it seems clear that Arabs and their new leaders will be focused for years to come on the imperfections within their own societies -- perhaps to a greater degree than on injustices committed by Israel and the West abroad. Indeed, in Tunisia the demonstrations were partially spurred by the WikiLeaks cables that showed Washington deeply ambivalent about the regime and not likely to stand with it in a crisis. Politics may thus become normalized in the Arab world, rather than radicalized. Remember: A signal goal of al Qaeda was the toppling of such regimes as Mubarak's, which oppressed their own people and were seen as toadies to American and Israeli interests. If Mubarak goes, al Qaeda will lose a recruiting argument.

But the dangers to U.S. interests of what comes next in the Arab world are hard to exaggerate. Were demonstrations to spread in a big way to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a catastrophe could be looming. A more enlightened, pro-American regime than the one now in Jordan is hard to imagine. As for the Saudi royal family, it is probably the worst possible form of government for that country except for any other that might credibly replace it. Imagine all that weaponry the United States has sold the Saudis over the decades falling into the hands of Wahhabi radicals. Imagine Yemen were it divided once again into northern and southern parts, or with even weaker central control issuing from the capital city of Sanaa. The United States would be virtually on its own battling al Qaeda there.

Right now all these uprisings look somewhat the same, as they did in Eastern Europe in 1989. But like in Eastern Europe, each country will end up a bit differently, with politics reflecting its particular constituency and state of institutional and educational development. Poland and Hungary had relatively easy paths to capitalism and democracy; Romania and Bulgaria were sunk in abject poverty for years; Albania suffered occasional bouts of anarchy; and Yugoslavia descended into civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The Arab world is in some ways more diverse than Eastern Europe, and we should therefore heed the uniqueness of each country's political and historical situation in calibrating U.S. policy.

President Barack Obama's administration should stand up for first principles of civil society, nonviolence, and human rights everywhere; and where an autocrat appears on the way out, as happened in Tunisia and might happen in Egypt, the United States can play a constructive role in easing his removal, even as it reaches out to the new political forces at play. American diplomacy in the Arab world is about to become even more intricate. No longer will it be a matter of having one telephone number to call in each country. Henceforth, Washington will have to deal with dozens of political personalities to get the same things done as it used to with just one leader. Democracy equals complexity.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Egypt's Struggle for Freedom

Egyptians are taking to the streets to demand their rights. Shame on America if it stands in the way.

A classical Arab idiom maintains that a flood begins with a mere droplet. For freedom-aspiring citizens across the Middle East, Tunisia was akin to the first shower of rain. Two weeks ago, no one could have predicted the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's repressive regime in Tunisia. Today, the chatter of citizens and officials across the Middle East is when, not if, the "Tunisia scenario" will completely unfold in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country. Egyptians have struggled for many decades with an authoritarian regime whose rule is marred by repression, corruption, and political and economic stagnation.

The social contract that former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had with Egyptians -- to liberate Arab lands from colonial powers, subsidize food staples, and guarantee employment to all university graduates -- has been unraveling for more than three decades. Egypt unscrupulously maintains a peace treaty with Israel, despite that country's relentless occupation of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territories. The government has also pursued a policy of economic liberalization without regard to its impact on the Egyptian people. Despite its success in achieving moderate rates of economic growth, this strategy has left millions of families impoverished and unemployed.

Income inequality has reached levels not before seen in Egypt's modern history. According the United Nations Development Program, at least 23 percent of the population lives under the poverty line (earning $2 a day), and many more are just above it. By 2020, Egypt's population will reach 100 million, the majority of which will be young people under 30 years of age. This is a recipe for unrest. President Hosni Mubarak's regime, however, refuses to offer Egyptians a new social contract based on democratic representation and political freedoms. It elects to rule primarily through coercive martial law and a limited network of civilian and military patronage.

Egypt has been restless for a few years, but the uprising in Tunisia offered Egyptians living proof that, if they expected change to come, they needed to take matters into their own hands. As millions of Egyptians cheered on the Tunisian crowds ousting their dictator, some young activists called for a "day of revolt against corruption, injustice, unemployment, and torture." This Facebook-initiated protest, meant to coincide with a national holiday honoring the police, was dismissed by the government and the "official" opposition alike.

The Wafd and Tagammu parties, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and even former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, all decided not to partake in the protests. The Ministry of Interior, desperately seeking to rehabilitate its image, decided it would tolerate the marches -- expecting hundreds of activists at most. Yet, when these hundreds of activists walked down the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, tens of thousands of apolitical citizens joined in. Suddenly, the protests spread to other Egyptian cities. "Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you," many chanted, referring to Ben Ali's hasty retreat into his Saudi exile.

The chants for justice, liberty, and human dignity reveal the depth of Egyptians' discontent, and their aspiration for a democratic system. The Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, did not officially partake in the initial demonstrations (though the Brothers have announced their support for Friday's protests). Like Tunisia, Egypt is flirting with a democratic revolution, not an Islamist takeover.

The success of Egypt's (and Tunisia's) budding revolution remains to be seen. Traditionally, authoritarian regimes collapse only when the people sustain their protests over a long time and across a wide geographic territory. They also collapse when their security forces disobey orders to kill peaceful demonstrators. In Tunisia's case, 78 Tunisians were killed before the military refused to continue. In the case of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the shah's forces killed thousands before surrendering.

Historically, the role of external pressure tends to be paramount in isolating the dictators and causing divisions within their regimes. This factor should be a cause for concern among the brave protesters on Egypt's streets. The United States is heavily invested in the survival of Mubarak's dictatorship, which it views as vital to American interests in the region. So far, Washington has been timid in its requests for the regime not to shoot at protesters, even as several of them have already been murdered and tortured. Indeed, despite the lip service U.S. administrations often pay to democratization in the Middle East, they are often too myopic to see beyond their current interests. The George W. Bush administration backed off its "Freedom Agenda" in the region, for example, after the Muslim Brotherhood gained seats in Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections and Hamas scored electoral gains in Palestine in January 2006.

History, to be sure, is not linear. The current wave of protests may die down or be brutally repressed. Nevertheless, they represent the beginning of the end of Mubarak's regime. Watching events unfold from Washington, U.S. officials should keep in mind that when regime changes occur -- and they eventually do -- populations often do not forgive those who worked to prop up the old guard. The United States must now contemplate cutting off its lifelines to Egypt's autocratic regime and paying more attention to Egyptians' demands for their fundamental rights. Like Iranians before them, Egyptians may neither forget, nor forgive, those who kept them under the thumb of an oppressive ruler.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images