Middle East politics: End of an era by The Economist Intelligence Unit

January 28, 2011 10:36 AM | Anonymous
The Mubarak regime appears doomed, faced with the unambiguous demands of a broad swathe of the Egyptian population for the president to stand aside and for any notion that his son might succeed him to be abandoned. The longevity of the Egyptian regimeundefinedand of many of its Arab peersundefinedhad given a false impression of its strength. A stubborn refusal to countenance meaningful political reforms that could provide legitimate channels for the expression of grievances and for the advancement of new ideas has left the Mubarak regime vulnerable to the charge that it has forfeited its legitimacy. Egypt's historic position at the heart of the Arab world means that these dramatic developments will have a powerful resonance across the region.

The ingredients for a popular revolt have been available in Egypt and in most other Arab countries for some time. Governments have largely recognised this, but have managed to preserve stability by a mixture of repression and subsidies, while carrying out market-based economic reforms designed to stimulate sufficient growth to raise collective living standards. The formula has worked inasmuch as it has enabled regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak and his erstwhile fellow autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to stay serenely in power, year after year, decade after decade.

Running out of excuses

The Middle East autocrats came under some pressure domestically and from the West to embrace democratic reforms after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. However, they managed to resist these pressures largely through invoking the excuse of security. One of the most potent arguments was that over-hasty democratisation would lead to a takeover by Islamists who, once they were in power, would reject democracy and install repressive regimes dedicated to rooting out liberal Western values. Mr Mubarak often used precisely this argument, citing the example of Algeria, where political liberalisation after the food price riots of 1988 set off a disastrous chain of events culminating in a vicious civil war after the army intervened in January 1992 to stop the Front islamique du salut from sealing a general election victory. Mr Mubarak had his own battle with armed Islamists during the 1990s, and many Arab regimes, including Egypt, have had to contend with al-Qaida in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Bush administration sought to use the removal of Saddam Hussein as a means to persuade other Arab dictators of the virtues of democracy, but the moral force of these arguments was undermined by the bloody chaos of post-invasion Iraq.

However, in the past two years the threat of al-Qaida has receded in most parts of the Arab world (with the significant exception of Yemen), and the democratic institutions set up in Iraq after 2003 have survived, after a fashion. In the absence of a credible Islamist threat and with Iraq showing that an adversarial political culture can survive in the Arab world, even in the most unpromising circumstances, the excuses used by the autocrats to postpone reform are wearing thin.

What's the point of you?

Mr Mubarak and his ilk are the inheritors of an anti-colonialist Arab nationalism that has served as an anchor for their regimes. Another critical element has been the struggle against Israel. Mr Mubarak himself served with credit as commander of the Egyptian air force in the October 1973 war. However, these higher purposes no longer apply since Egypt forged a strategic alliance with the US and signed a peace treaty with Israel. Mr Mubarak has sought to develop a new narrative based on the statistics of Egypt's economic development, but to all too many Egyptians the purpose of his regime has been reduced to ensuring its own survival, and even its reproduction in the person of Gamal Mubarak, and enriching a privileged business elite. He is seen by some as effectively collaborating with Israel in the denial of Palestinian rights. Mr Mubarak has delivered some economic advancement, but not enough to make a difference to the millions of Egyptians scraping by on a handful of dollars a month, and his legitimacy has been constantly undermined by the fraudulence of the electoral process and the brutality of the police.

Who's next?

Much of this can be applied to other Western-allied Arab leaders, notably including the departed Mr Ben Ali. The Arab monarchies of the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco are insulated to some extent by the overtness of their hereditary principle. The Gulf Arab leaders also have the benefit of huge oil export surpluses and relatively small populations. Libya, by contrast, could be vulnerable owing to its proximity to Egypt and Tunisia and the risk of popular and tribal disaffection with the jockeying for power between the offspring of Colonel Qadhafi.

Some Arab leaders can still count on the security excuse. Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been compromised by revelations that he has invited the US to conduct supposedly covert anti-terrorist operations in his country, but he can also still derive some legitimacy from his fight to preserve Yemen's unity in the face of sectarian and secessionist threats and an active al-Qaida presence. The Algerian regime can deploy a similar defence, although al-Qaida is a much less potent threat there than in Yemen.

Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, was the prototype for republican Arab dynastic succession, which could yet come back to haunt him. Syria shares many of the features of Tunisia and Egyptundefinedmoderately successful economic performance, a large underclass living in poverty, a crony business elite and stifling one-party domination. However, Mr Assad has retained a higher purpose for himself in the concept of resistance, tapping into a populist vein through associating himself with the rousing anti-Israeli exploits of Hizbullah and Iran. At the same time, he has been careful to limit the scope for subversive debate over the Internet: Syria outlaws Facebook, and there were reports that the web had been closed down in Syria on January 28 as Egypt's protest movement launched its final push to unseat Mr Mubarak.

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Reprinted from the Economist Intelligence Unit - ViewsWire, January 28, 2011. To view, go tohttp://viewswire.eiu.com/index.asp?layout=VWArticleVW3&article_id=937770678&VWNL=true&rf=0 
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