OK, now things are finally starting to get interesting in the Middle East. Tunisia was noteworthy, but not critical. Egypt has been very dramatic, though wildly misinterpreted by most observers in the United States. Jordan is still more or less stable, but is in fact more portentous a stake in some ways than Egypt. But with Libya, Yemen and Bahrain in bloody flames, we’ve got a real story here.
To me, the story is double-sided: There is what is going on in the region, and there is what American non-expert (whatever they claim) commentators are saying about it. The latter is almost as pulse-raising as what’s going on in the region.
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Tunisia has long been anomalous even by regional standards. Thanks to Habib Bourguiba, it is the only Arab country where women wearing the veil has long been illegal. It is in many ways both a city-state, Tunis being the major point of reference for everything, and a trading state from way back when—back when, in Hamuda Bey’s time, Tunis imported wool from Europe to make its renowned shashiyas for export. (A shashiya, for you non-Middle East experts out there, is the deep-red fez cap, with a tassle, obligatory for men of a certain class in Ottoman times, and which, in old Tunisian children’s stories are carried away in baskets by monkeys… but never mind.) So this is and has been a cosmopolitan and, in recent times, very French-speaking place—hardly typical for an Arab country. Combine this history with suddenly very high food prices, an educated and young population denied opportunity, and an old regime no longer with the verve to defend its plundering of the country, and you get a revolution. Very nice; and not a real strain on the old noggin.
Tunisia under Ben Ali did cooperate with the U.S. government in counterterrorism policy, but reports that it was a classical “friendly tyrant” was quite wrong. The U.S. relationship with Tunisia was very marginal; it was really on the French and EU watch, and watch it they did, though not in the way we or they had hoped. The French Foreign Minister was vacationing there when the ball went up; she could not be bothered to notice what with the beautiful beach and the mojitos and all. We did supply tear-gas to the police and so, note to selves: Stop printing “Made in the United States” on the canisters. Considering that we knew the by-far most likely use for these things… talk about dog-shit dumb.
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But somehow, astonishingly, in the mostly empty but fevered minds of American pundits and bloggers, Tunisia became a model for Egypt. In this the Middle-Easternly untutored made three slackjawing errors in their observations. The first was to conflate Hosni Mubarak the man with Egypt the military-bureaucratic regime, as if getting rid of the former would be tantamount to getting rid of the latter. They got rid of a sick 82-year old way past his sell date, and by so doing they got rid of a dynasty in the making. But they have not yet got rid of the regime, and, in my view, they are not likely to either. A person really has to know approximately nothing about Egypt to make such a mistake, but there you go.
The second error was to conflate a political ooze on the streets of Cairo with a “democracy movement.” Young disgruntled Egyptians had lots of reasons to be pissed off and take to the streets, but a yearning for liberal democracy was not foremost (or probably even hindmost) among them. They felt stifled, humiliated, dishonored, more than occasionally abused and just generally “had” by the state. They claimed they wanted Mubarak to go, but beyond that they could not agree on “what next.” I read as many signs unfurled in Tahrir Square as I could: I did not see a single one in Arabic script with the loan word “democracia” on it. (I also loved how Arabic-ignorant commentators referred to “Tahrir Liberation Square”, which is like saying “Mount Fujiyama”, since tahrir means liberation and yama means mountain. You’d think these people would be at least retrospectively embarrassed. There’s no sign of that so far.) For some, the model for Egypt was the Philippines’ people power uprising against Ferdinand Marcos and his wife’s shoe collection. I could not stop laughing for almost ten minutes. I can think of no event less like the Egyptian uprising than that in the Philippines, where democratic traditions were widespread, if a little shallow, where no significant strategic stake existed for the United States at the time, and which used to be a colony of the United States.
And from the first and the second errors you get the resultant conclusion that with the deposing of Mubarak the thing is for all practical purposes over. The cameras move on to Manama and San’a. Wrong again. The real pushing and shoving is just beginning in Egypt. On the one side are Omar Suleiman, Hussein Tantawi, Ahmed Shafiq, Sami Enan and an army now vastly stronger than before with the routing of Gamal Mubarak and his USA-MBA buddies, who had reformed the state party and put an impressive charge into the Egyptian economy. Now that these slicksters have been shown the door, the army is counting its money, licking its lips, and taking aim at striking workers. On the other side are, frankly, a lot of enthusiastic but completely inexperienced amateurs who are divided among themselves (oh, I forgot Mohamed ElBaradei, but I may be forgiven, I think, because almost no Egyptians take him remotely seriously. For the American press, however, ElBaradei is the only non-regime Egyptian they’ve ever heard of, so he suddenly becomes important….) Some among the opposition have seen the inside of an Egyptian jail, and so they know who and what they are up against. But few of these good-hearted twittering souls could manage their way out of the back of a mini-mart. Which side would you bet on to prevail in the end?
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Nonetheless, out have come the models for the Egyptian democratic revolution, which is maybe akin to counting chicks before they hatch, maybe akin to counting them before the rooster has even entered the barnyard—we’ll see which is which in due course, I guess. Some unrepentant neocons have claimed that Iraq, via the Bush “forward strategy for freedom,” is the model that Egyptians looked to for their democratic revolution. There is essentially no evidence for this claim, although, as Fouad Ajami said back in the spring of 2003, it is hard to know how underground rumbles roll. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt did break the chains of political tradition, though it took a long time for it to become manifest in some places—so who knows what will be in five or ten or twenty years? But it would be nice to have evidence for this, and there is none besides the one or two reported (invented?) remarks some reporters have been able to coax, in English, from the mouths of impressionable young protestors. Most Egyptians do not want to replicate the experience of Iraq, and do not think of it as a model for anything positive. Besides, what explains a lot of what has happened in Iraq hinges on its sectarian and ethnographic heterogeneity, a condition that does not apply to Egypt.
Others recently have trotted out the Turkish model, namely, that of an Islamic democracy. This is silly. In Turkey democracy came way before the rise of the current wave of political Islam. It came because there was a strong secular-minded leader who knew what he wanted, at a time when the rest of the world supported secularism as political orthodoxy. That’s hardly Egypt’s situation today, an Egypt in which a man like Yusef al-Qaradawi returns home and becomes an instant political force.
Besides, Arabs as a rule do not take Turkey, their former colonial overlord for four centuries, as guide for their own conduct. What some Turks may think is another matter. In a slightly different way, what a lot of American academics think is, too. For them, thinking about Turkey as a model for Egypt is a pleasant diversion from worrying that Islamic Turkey may succeed in putting an end to Turkish democracy altogether. That prospect, in truth, is far more likely than Turkey’s ever being taken seriously in Egypt as a model for anything.
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Ah, but if you like models, here’s another that is much more plausible, one that no one, as far as I know, has raised yet… but surely many will in due course. It’s the Iraq-as-Shi`a-revolution model.
The first prospective application of this model is obviously Bahrain, where extremely pissed-off Shi`a outnumber Sunnis and their monarchy. If they overthrow the monarchy—and it’s still not clear that this will happen or that it’s even what most of the protestors want—then the same “model” may well pop up in al-Hasa province in Saudi Arabia. There are lots of Shi`a in al-Hasa, right there with all that oil. I am sure the Al-Saud is already having laundry problems over what is going on right across the causeway in Bahrain.
Yes, folks, the real Iraq model may well end up not being that of a beacon of democracy for the autocracies of that poor benighted region, but the one that propels radical Shi`a to destroy the Al-Khalifa dynasty, summarily expel the U.S. 5th Fleet from its base there, threaten Saudi control over their oil, and veritably invite the mullahs of Tehran to turn Bahrain into another regional ally, with the causeway reshaped as a dagger pointed toward the heart of Riyadh. Now wouldn’t that be just like the world-historical political irony we have come to know and love so well?
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Just one last point, about Saudia. The Saudis are not only in deep dudgeon about now—thanks to an “ally” that, as they see it, pushed Hosni Mubarak into the pit of doom and has failed to reinforce the backbone of the monarchy on Bahrain—but they are also very likely calculating the pros and cons of switching sides. I mean by switching sides trading in one proven feckless protector for another that, while lacking lots of assets the United States still possesses, may have a keener sense of what being in the great-power protection business is really all about. I am speaking, of course, of China.
The Chinese don’t have the power projection capabilities of the United States, to be sure—but what good are those capabilities if their possessor won’t use them? They don’t own Aramco or lead in oil-industry technologies either. But they are allies with Pakistan, which is in turn Saudi Arabia’s go-to nuclear weapons connection in duress. They will never lecture Saudis about reform or democracy. They will never put limits on military purchases, and they don’t have a Congress to complicate relations. The two governments have done security business before—East Wind missiles, remember those?—and the Saudis probably believe the hype about America’s decline and China’s rise.
No one here really knows for sure what the Saudi princes discuss among themselves. But I’d be prepared to wager that these thoughts have already at least flitted through their minds. Have they flitted through the minds of people in Langley, and in the Old Executive Office Building? I used to think I knew the answer to that question. These days I’m not so sure.