February 9, 2011

Mideast revolutions, one at a time

Visiting Romania in the 1970s and '80s, it was impossible to understand how one sector of the population could completely stifle all dissent and resistance. But it was equally inconceivable that someday the people would rise up, and the dictator would be subject to their swift justice. Then suddenly, one day it happened.

Recent events across the Middle East defy easy explanation. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, no single empire or coordinated ideology is holding back Arab and Middle East nations -- not Ottomans, French, British, Communists, mullahs. Each country has its own unique set of circumstances and personalities, its own culture and identity. There is no unified tsunami of freedom sweeping the region, but there was obvious inspiration from Tunisia, reinforced by widespread solidarity with Egyptians. The stronger, indirect impact of events is already being felt in the Mideast peace process, between the rival Palestinian factions, and among leaders in the region.

Last year's post-election demonstrations in Iran clearly had some influence on Tunisians, and perhaps some of the Wikileaks cables did as well. There was no way to predict when (or even if) the Ben-Ali regime would fall, precisely because it appears to have been spontaneous -- the right martyr, at the right time, with the right combination of popular forces. Many Egyptians were already anticipating a showdown next September, when Mubarak was expected to let his son succeed him through the usual fixed election, and then Tunisia happened.

Beyond Egypt, the Hashemites in Jordan have survived far worse than last week's demonstrations, and King Abdullah retains the loyalty of the military and key tribes -- and without 50 million hungry mouths to feed. In Yemen, President Saleh hastened to announce his retirement in another two years -- anyway, Yemen has already been suffering from an insurgency and civil war, so revolution will have to take a number. The Gulf states are too wealthy, with too few people, to invite much "revolution", and palace coups happen on their own timetable. 

Lebanon, where the ascendant Hezbollah recently formalized its hold on the national government by replacing the Prime Minister, is too divided geographically, ethnically and religiously for any popular uprising to have much chance of clear victory -- and most Lebanese know it. Syria is always ripe for overthrow at the top, but a popular uprising is hard to imagine. Libya would be interesting, but why now?

Iran seems ripe for a popular overthrow of the ruling clique, if not necessarily a full-fledged counter-revolution -- though Egypt is a potent warning for the Khameneis and Ahmadinejads, an example for the Moussavis and Karoubis. While the spectacle of Iran as a possible target -- rather than instigator -- of international revolution is fun to watch, Iran's best chance was probably last year. But it's enough of a possibility to keep the insiders looking over" their shoulders.

Palestinians get to vote (which in the case of Hamas-dominated Gaza offers a cautionary lesson), so they shouldn't need to "rise up". A civil war between Hamas and Fatah is more likely, and hardly unprecedented. Palestinian Authority President Abbas has just called elections for later this year, and Hamas has already announced they won't go along, so the voting might be limited to the West Bank. Was Abbas acting in response to the protests in Egypt and scattered solidarity rallies among Palestinians? He may be more worried that reconciliation with Hamas is unlikely without Mubarak's firm mediation, and that Israelis will feel especially cautious about peace negotiations while Egypt's disposition is in doubt and Washington is no longer in a mood to give a push.

It is difficult to predict when popular revolutions coalesce, and nearly as difficult to predict their success. Focus groups and cabbie interviews are of little value beyond gauging "the mood". The Egyptian people may yet overcome the regime's will and the international community's prudence. We get to watch from a safe distance, but the stakes are real, for them and for the rest of us.

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