Bloodied Egyptian protester peace sign 58 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
Undoubtedly, we are witnessing an unusual confluence of significant events in
the Middle East and North Africa: the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the
ongoing attempt at revolution in Egypt, and the comparatively smaller
demonstrations calling for change in Algeria and Yemen, the dissolution of the
Hariri government in Lebanon, and the release of the Palestine
Superficially, these developments appear tied together by their
destabilizing effects on regional regimes, and indeed, they are often presented
as manifestations of a broader phenomenon, of “something big going
As with most attempts to lump together complex phenomena, however,
critical nuances have been overlooked in favor of psychological simplicity. The
political dynamics of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, the Palestinian
Authority and every other regional state differ meaningfully from one another,
as do the responses required to address each state’s fluid situation.
THE US in particular, how each of these crises is handled could determine the
nature of American relations with Middle Eastern peoples for years to come. It
bears repeating that al-Qaida’s rise was led by the untolerated opponents of the
Egyptian autocracy and the Saudi monarchy, both of which are widely seen as
illegitimate and propped up by American support. As to whether these phenomena
are related in any meaningful way, only time will tell.
The variety of
local circumstances and the obvious uncertainty about how things will play out
should give pause to observers. Nevertheless, conclusions have not been slow in
coming. Alas, it is a staple of psychology that people interpret ambiguous data
to conform with what they want or expect to see.
Thus the number of
confident interpretations of recent regional events should come as no surprise:
The Palestine Papers, we are told, reflect both the PA’s seriousness and lack of
seriousness in negotiations and indicate that Israel must either act to reach an
interim agreement, a final agreement, or no agreement; the demonstrations in
Tunisia and Egypt show either how Arab democracy or Islamist domination are just
around the corner; the collapse of the government in Lebanon tells us Hizbullah
is either on the ropes or about to take over the country.
commentators, few minds have been changed. For most, this new “evidence” has
simply been incorporated into long-held, often ideological arguments. With so
many contradictory, though plausible, interpretations, caution should rule the
day. Prediction is easy; accurate prediction is not. Self-assured prognosticators
should be met with skepticism.
If it seems that many of these
contradictory conclusions sound familiar, that’s because they are nearly
identical to those presented with every spasm of political instability in the
Middle East. For all the talk of “never before” regarding recent events, all are
primarily manifestations or confirmations of things already well known. Egypt’s
overpopulation and staggering unemployment, Tunisia’s middle-class discontent,
Lebanon’s shaky interfaith power-sharing agreement and the PA’s extensive
security cooperation with Israel have all been recognized for a long time.
Little wonder that some observers’ conclusions seem prefabricated.
regard to Egypt, many have wondered aloud whether a post- Mubarak government
will be democratic or Islamist (and there are of course other possibilities). At
first glance, this might appear to be a false dichotomy, but the tension between
these two outcomes is real. Of course, to alleviate this tension, the Islamist
parties would have to convince the public of their allegiance to the region’s
republican constitutions so consistently ignored until now.
public for its part would have to be truly convinced before casting their
Fears of an Islamist regime are well-founded among those who value
freedom of expression and religion and women’s and minority
Beyond the Islamist parties’ questionable commitment to
individual rights, however, the big democratic question for these movements
remains: Are free and fair elections only a means for acquiring power, or for
transferring it as well, if that is the will of the people? Ultimately, it is up
to Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to address the fears
they have aroused. This too will shape the Middle East’s relationship with the
Western states in years to come.The author is a research fellow at the
Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.