At the Tipping Point in the Arab World

January 29, 2011

by Patrick W. Ryan

The throngs of Egyptians who have taken to the streets in the Arab world’s most populous country are shaking the foundations of regimes across North Africa and the Middle East with scant hope America will emerge from this new crisis with a winning hand, much less breaking even.

Egypt, like many other countries led by highly autocratic regimes, appeared to be stable and enjoyed good relations with its Western partners including the United States. The partnership evolved from a global strategic calculus that lined up clients in the Cold War on the side of the United States and the West, or the Soviet Union. It came to include, in the case of Egypt especially, support for American efforts to achieve peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

American policymakers were mindful for decades that much of the region was in desperate need of political and social reforms, the introduction of civil society including viable political opposition and democratic values. These goals took a back seat to regional security issues like peace with Israel, and in the last decade, a fear of Islamic extremism. Both cards were played very well by rulers like Egypt’s Mubarak earning him respect on the world stage and billions in U.S. aid. Meanwhile the discontent among his 80 million fellow Egyptians simmered. While it is little surprise to those who have watched developments in the Arab world over the last decades that we have arrived at the tipping point, it is still shocking to see how swiftly the current of revolution has rattled one of the most important countries in the region.

It was just last month that a Tunisian young man named Mohamed Bouaziz set himself on fire after being humiliated by police in his rural village for trying to set up his street cart, the sole source of support for his family. Bouaziz’ desperate act set off uprisings across Tunisia toppling President Ben Ali there, and subsequently lit fires across Egypt and elsewhere in the region this week.

How will this revolt play out in Egypt and what are the implications for the United States? On Friday Mubarak sacked his cabinet and defiantly pledged to stay on but most observers believe his rule is in its final days, riding on the loyalty of the Army. As the days of rage on the streets of Egypt show no sign of letting up, the leaders in the Army are likely to conclude it’s time to cut the country’s losses, and Mubarak will be gone.

With the stakes so high the Obama Administration is already laying the groundwork for its full support of change in Cairo. The White House is mindful of the blowback it will earn for failing to heed the pleas from the streets of Cairo, voiced by one protestor, “I want to send a message to America please don’t help Mubarak, because Mubarak will go.” Washington is keen to have the anti-Mubarak protests reach a soft landing to avoid damaging America’s many interests there. The short list is geo-strategic: Egypt’s balancing influence in Israel-Arab relations, as the first and most important peace treaty partner; Egypt’s strategic location and ownership of the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most critical trade chokepoints; and the potential for extremists to exploit the chaos of an extended downward spiral. The United States must also protect its interest in promoting human rights and justice, which is not far from the mind of Secretary of State Clinton who on Friday called on Egypt to “engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political, and social reforms.”

It is a tipping point for freedom and justice in the Arab world – there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle – but it is also a period of peril for American leadership as the United States simultaneously faces the challenges of the Arab-Israel peace stalemate; the likelihood of war in Lebanon; the disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan; the Iranian drive to dominate the region and build nuclear weapons; the quest for stability of world energy supplies from the Gulf; and a diminishing reserve of America’s reputation and political, military and economic power to influence events.

So while the goal of building democratic institutions across the region moves forward, as it must – whether through deliberate reforms from within, or from revolt in the streets – it will be a time of increased jeopardy for the United States. How well Washington is able to balance these objectives – security and justice – will affect America’s position in the Middle East and the wider world for generations.

Patrick W. Ryan is a retired U.S. Navy officer who has traveled widely in the Middle East for 38 years. He writes newsletters about Middle East affairs and he can be contacted through www.ThePatRyanReport.com. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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