Beyond the facade

With all the turmoil taking place in the Arab world, Israel has plenty to worry about, as the Arab Spring may not necessarily be a blessing for peaceful relations with our neighbors.

August 26, 2011 16:40
4 minute read.
Arab League in Cairo

Arab League Reuters 311. (photo credit: Reuters/ Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

For months, experts have been analyzing the numerous changes taking place in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Some dictators are desperately clinging to whatever power they now have left, announcing that the situation couldn’t be better. With all the turmoil taking place in the Arab world, Israel has plenty to worry about, as the Arab Spring may not necessarily be a blessing for peaceful relations with our neighbors.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is growing increasingly desperate as he faces a world turning its back on him in response to his murdering thousands of his own countrymen.

In Beyond the Facade: Political Reform in the Arab World, Ellen Lust-Okar, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University, writes that “Syria’s descent into international pariah status and domestic stagnation was the result of a mixture of failed regime policies and rapidly changing international circumstances.” The “Damascus Spring” and improved relations with Europe and the US that appeared to be taking shape with Assad’s rise to power in June 2000 came to an end by 2002 amid changing regional and domestic circumstances.

Since then, the situation has slowly deteriorated, and we are now witnessing the results.

Part of the problem for Israel with regard to Syria is that the opposition groups confronting Assad now may pose a threat to Israel as well.

Among these groups are local leaders with an Islamist ideology, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since its inception in 1928, the movement has officially opposed the use of violence to achieve its goals, though there are exceptions, such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to overthrow secular Ba’athist rule in Syria. 

London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat is reporting the return of once-banished Islamists to Egypt. Lust-Okar makes clear that many in Syria mistrust the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy and that the regime has made attempts to show the world that its own downfall or replacement would not necessarily mean an improvement in Syria’s domestic or foreign policies. For example, the regime allowed Islamist protests in 2006 against the publication of a cartoon caricature of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, allegedly, according to Lust-Okar, “to suggest to both domestic and international audiences that Islamists are strong and most likely to succeed should the regime fall.”

With the Brotherhood gaining power on both Israel’s northern and southern borders, we have what to be concerned about.

In contrast, Prof. Eyal Zisser, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, believes the Syrian regime’s fall would actually benefit Israel. He believes that the Syrian opposition “will eventually take over and, as in the case of Egypt, they know that their interests lie with friendship with Western countries like the United States, and not with Iran.” In his opinion, Syria’s opposition groups pose less of a threat to Israel than Assad’s regime.

ASHARQ ALAWSAT published an op-ed by businessman and columnist Hussein Shobokshi, who claimed, “Armed Palestinian troops, as everyone knows, are affiliates of Syria, and mobilizing them at this particular time is reminiscent of when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fired ‘Scud’ missiles on Israel, in a last-minute act of ‘resistance.’” I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about Syria’s influence vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but his point about dictators using their last minute in power to divert attention is true, and Israel has much to worry about as dictators fall like flies in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, NATO was worried that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi would attempt a “last stand” as rebel forces took over Tripoli.

And with each day that passes, it seems more likely that Assad will be next in line after Gaddafi. The question is, who comes after that? Which ruler’s facade of normalcy will be smashed by a discontented public? Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and a noted Egyptian political scientist, has discussed the Saudi government’s tight authoritarian grip over Saudi society and its adherence to fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology. King Abdullah appears steadfastly rooted in his position as ruler with little apparent threat to the possibility of his ouster by opposition groups, but he has introduced minor reforms over the past few years, perhaps to stave off growing dissent.

Hamzawy believes Saudi Arabia can and should introduce further steps to usher in political freedom. He suggests four steps: 1. Consolidating Shura and municipal councils to allow for fair elections.

2. The expansion of civil society to address issues such as political freedom and human rights.

3. Educational reform. This would require significant changes in the way the religious establishment operates in order to allow for the transmission of moderate teachings as well.

4. Working toward gender equality.

Hamzawy explains that “at the core of the current debate are women’s civil rights and political participation.”

These reforms appear to be far from actually taking place, but looking at other Arab societies today, Saudi Arabia’s citizens cannot be far behind in taking matters into their own hands. The Saudi government should pay close attention to what is happening to autocratic rulers in the Middle East and Lust-Okar’s assessment of Syria’s troubles.

My only hope is that Arab discontent and regime change in the Middle East does not translate into war with Israel.

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