Global Agenda: Stability at stake

The question must be whether the era of stability is coming to an end and a renewed period of chronic instability looms.

Egyptprotests1 for gallery (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Egyptprotests1 for gallery
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Among the numerous ridiculous cliches that pepper media reporting on the Middle East, one of the most ridiculous is that the region is “politically unstable.” Like most cliches, this one was once a relevant and accurate description. In the 1950s and 1960s, revolutions and upheavals in Middle Eastern countries were commonplace.
Traditional monarchies and dynasties were overthrown in numerous countries across the region – to the point that one of the earlier victims of the trend, King Farouk of Egypt, dryly noted that “in the end, there will be only five kings left: four in the pack of cards and the king of England.” He proved wrong even in that respect, since shortly afterwards, the king of England went peacefully to meet his Maker – blissfully unaware that he would be the subject of an Oscarfront- runner movie 58 years later – resulting in a queen occupying the throne from then until now.
Her majesty’s long reign makes her a paragon of stability, but she, of course, has no power. Meanwhile, back in the “unstable” Middle East, a new breed of ruler emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gaddafi in Libya (40 years and counting), the Assad dynasty in Syria (much the same), Sadat-Mubarak in Egypt (in their 40th) and even the late and very unlamented Saddam Hussein (30-odd years, cut short by those nasty Americans), as well as others, showed that the new Arab republics could generate regimes with staying power, even if this required doing unto their ill-wishers what the latter would have done to them.
Farouk was wrong about Arab royalty, too: Some of these created stable regimes that developed into dynasties spanning generations. The Hashemite dynasty in Jordan is nearing a century of precarious but successful survival, while the various kings, emirs, sheikhs and assorted royalty who run family-business kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf are all long-distance runners, measuring their rule in decades and/or generations – even, in the Saudi case, centuries.
Thus the primary feature of regional politics in recent decades has been the stability of most of the regimes in most of the countries. This perspective is critical in two respects as background to the wave of unrest that first toppled the Tunisian regime (only in its third decade) and is now spreading throughout the region, most notably, of course, in Egypt.
First, in the wider regional context, the question must be whether the era of stability is coming to an end and a renewed period of chronic instability looms.
There are demographic and socioeconomic reasons to fear the latter, but at this early stage it must be considered as no more than a possible – and very undesirable – scenario.
Secondly, from a narrow Israeli viewpoint, the possibility of widespread regime change means that some of the most fundamental assumptions underpinning most aspects of life here are now under threat. Many people, especially youngsters and immigrants who arrived in the last 30 years (together, these groups alone comprise a majority of the population), are unaware of, or have forgotten, the long-term implications of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the removal of the military threat from Egypt, the largest and most powerful of the Arab countries, was the factor that made possible Israel’s move, over the last 25 years, from a backward to a developed economy and from a poor to a rich nation.
Even less thought of, but arguably even more fundamental to the security of this country – and hence to the quality of life of its citizens – is the peace with Jordan.
Although only formalized in 1994, the alliance with the Hashemites goes back to 1970 and in some respects, despite the wars of 1967 and 1948, to the early 1920s. In recent decades, the fact that the long and very porous eastern border is nailed down on the other side by a reliable and basically friendly regime has come to be taken for granted.
It should not be. On the contrary, what should be exercising the minds of our political and military leadership is the state of affairs in Egypt and the threat that may emerge there and, conversely, the potential for upheaval not only in Jordan – which would clearly be disastrous – and among our newer allies in the Gulf, but also the opportunity that could emerge if the plague spreads to Syria, as well it might.
Instead, it’s business as usual for politicians and generals, ex-generals who are now politicians and would be politicians who are now generals. But then again, ostrich-like unawareness of growing threats while immersed in business-as-usual and nest-lining are the hallmarks of a regime that is about to be swept away by that most unusual type of tsunami, the one that wells up from below.