Economic Freedom and the Arab Revolts

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that successfully toppled decade-old dictatorships were largely inspired by a combination of rising food prices and persistent high unemployment among the youth, frustrating an entire educated generation that feared it had no future. The lower middle class, including small businessowners and shopkeepers, were struggling with rampant corruption meanwhile, favoring the members and allies of the ruling party at the expense of entrepreneurship and innovation.

If the lack of opportunity and economic freedom fueled these mass demonstrations, the rest of Arab world should brace for more.

The Tunisian economy is largely dependent on agriculture, including mining, as well as manufacturing and tourism.

Trade agreements with the European Union have helped the north African country create jobs but it continues to discriminate against foreign companies and investors. Foreigners cannot hold major ownership of Tunisian companies without state approval nor own agricultural land.

Bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome and inconsistent moreover while court rulings can be susceptible to political pull. Corruption is widespread and investment decisions are often subject to cronyism.

Some reforms were enacted by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the last decade, including the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the simplification of the tax code. Last year, Tunisia’s economy expanded by 3 percent but unemployment remained high at 14.7 percent, particularly among the young.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime also reformed trade and financial regulation, encouraging entrepreneurship. Egypt boasted a 4.7 percent growth rate last year but inflation exceeded 16 percent while nearly one of out ten Egyptians is out of work.

Egypt has been moving away from socialist central planning for decades but the government continues to subsidize food and fuel. It can be difficult to set up a business in the country because of excessive licensing requirements. People have often to bribe civil servants to file their necessary paperwork while in many sectors of the economy, military ownership of companies and corruption are pervasive.

In Jordan, where people also took to the streets last week and the king sacked his cabinet, economic freedom is high overall compared to the rest of the region but hampered by corruption and the judicial system’s vulnerability to political influence.

Jordan is open to international trade and taxes are low. Labor regulations are flexible but unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent.

Across the region, Bahrain is leading in economic freedom. The tiny Persian Gulf state’s openness to international commerce has produced a 5.9 percent five year compound annual growth rate and its economy isn’t much smaller than Jordan’s in terms of GDP. The government is still working with the private sector to streamline regulations but business is booming.

Bahrain has no income tax and except for oil companies, no corporate tax either. Corruption is significant however and it affects the judicial protection of property rights as well as the management of scarce water resources.

A constitutional monarchy since 2002, Bahrain has endeavored to improve public-sector transparency and reduce its dependence on oil by diversifying the economy. Unemployment has nevertheless remained high at 15 percent.

As in Yemen, the turmoil in Bahrain has more to do with politics than economics, reflective of a Sunni-Shiite divide and the dominance of the royal family in national politics. Nearly all cabinet members are related to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who is otherwise regarded as a modernist and a reformer.

The opening of politics in recent years has seen Islamist parties enter parliament to push a more traditionalist social agenda. Liberals, in the minority in the lower chamber, have criticized them for curtailing the personal and economic freedoms recently gained. The upper house, wholly appointed by the king, is composed of more moderate, though mostly Sunni members by contrast and includes women.

Demonstrations in Bahrain continued peacefully on Wednesday after two people were killed in clashes with security forces earlier in the week. The king publicly apologized for the deaths on television and vowed that the authorities would investigate the incidents. As some 3,000 gathered to commemorate the death of one protester in the capital of Manama, police where nowhere to be seen.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry has stated that the country’s “constitution and laws guarantee the freedom of expression through peaceful means,” noting that “citizens can ask for rights and reforms through available legitimate channels.”

The country is a critical American ally in the region as it hosts the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

In Yemen, Many Protests, One Villain

It was only sheer chance or serendipity perhaps that southern Yemen’s “Day of Rage” was scheduled for Friday, earning the #Feb11 hashtag on Twitter. The Southern Uprising Facebook page drew nearly 2,000 members since its founding two weeks ago in a nation with 2 percent Internet penetration. The group’s goal is the liberation of southern Yemen from occupation — by the northern forces of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of southerners have been demonstrating nearly weekly since 2007, but Friday’s appears to be the first organized on Facebook.

However, in the capital Sana’a, it was precisely the victory of the Egyptian people over their dictator that brought Yemenis streaming into their own Tahrir Square in jubilation. And it didn’t take long for chants to change to, “Go, go Ali!” Equally predictable has been the state’s response to both sets of protests.

Human Rights Watch estimates that “hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks and assault rifles attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, as Yemeni security forces stood by.” The organization witnessed at least ten army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Tahrir Square where a crowd of around a thousand Yemenis had been demonstrating.

Around the south, there were mixed results from the state. Demonstrators in Dali’ chanted secessionist slogans and waved the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which merged with the northern Yemeni Arab Republic in 1990. In Abyan protesters wore white shrouds to signify their willingness to die for democracy. The protest was led by former jihaddist and former regime ally, Tariq al Fadhli. Unlike in dozens of prior instances, the security forces did not assault the demonstrators.

The port city of Aden was another story. Days earlier, police used tear gas and live rounds to disburse a protest and wounded four, including one woman. Thursday saw the arrival of military reinforcements. Friday’s protest saw many injuries and arrests and figures remain inexact. One wounded man was seized in hospital by police. At midnight, reports continued that crowds of youths were burning tires and blocking roads, inflamed by the earlier injuries, as police shot live rounds over their head.

Since 2007 when the movement began, absent Western media, police in the southern provinces have used tear gas, batons, water cannons, arbitrary arrests and live fire to put down hundreds of peaceful protests. Well over one hundred citizens were killed, many hundreds injured and thousands arrested including children, journalists and political party leaders. Women, lawyers, professors and former ambassadors “disappeared” and teenage protesters shot dead on the street. A state imposed media blackout means that many outside the affected area have no real sense of the scale of the atrocities. When calls for equal rights were met by bullets and tanks, positions hardened and now nearly 70 percent of southerners support dissolving 1990’s unity agreement with northern Yemen.

The southern movement’s leaders uniformly advocate an internationally supervised referendum on secession as recently occurred in the Sudan. But that’s about all they agree on. As in the north, the southern movement’s political leadership is fragmented, jealous, aged and not computer literate. Historical figures dominate the political landscape along with tribal leaders whose revered status is based on lineage not accomplishment. Activists, journalists and bloggers in both the north and south carry the weight of a scattered, youthful and largely illiterate and poverty stricken populace But if anyone can find a common ground among disparate demands on the state, it would be the younger generation.

The Pink Protest in Sana’a

The unprecedented abdication of Tunisian President Ben Ali in January sent a shockwave across the Middle East. Masses in Egypt took to the street challenging the legitimacy of one of the Unites States’ most trusted allies, and one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

For a day, attention focused on Yemen and its “Day of Rage,” which was tagged #Feb3 on Twitter. When the protest and counter protests in the capital Sana’a passed without violence, Western attention shifted back to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Even Yemenis were slightly bored. Pre-protest maneuvers by both the opposition parties and President Saleh unfolded like a chess game, neutralizing the impact of the day. Online activists and youth groups accused Yemen’s political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of hijacking their movement.[ii]

The opposition parties include the Yemeni Socialist Party, which formerly ruled south Yemen, as well as the Islah party, an Islamist reform platform that ranges from hardline Islamists to hardliner democrats and a strong tribal wing. Others in the grouping include a small Zaidi (Shiite) party, Ba’athists and a Nasserite party, explaining the otherwise bewildering small protest where marchers held pictures of Gamal Nasser aloft. Individually their ideologies are stale but the JMP’s unified platform since its inception in 2002 calls for social reform, corruption controls and the establishment of a proportional voting as well as a parliamentary system.

With momentum building and scenes of state violence in Egypt broadcast to the world, the Yemeni opposition announced that the purpose of the planned February 3 rally was not to demand the ouster of long ruling President Saleh. Instead they demanded electoral reforms which were agreed to in 2006. Another demand was the withdrawal of constitutional amendments unilaterally advanced by the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), that revoked term limits on the presidency. As Faisel bin Shamlan the JMP’s candidate for president in 2006 had said after the election, “The Mountain was in labor and brought forth a mouse.”

It’s not just the United States and Western nations that choose stability over progress and stagnation over reform — even in the face of deplorable governance and widespread public discontent. In Yemen, many are fearful of change including the Joint Meeting Parties who have a vested stake in the continuation of the status quo. The JMP’s failure to reach out to disenfranchised southerners and their willingness to engage the regime before the people was considered a sellout and defined the grouping as not fully within the opposition. With the high incidence of arms in Yemen, and the Saleh’s regimes history of brutal violence against it citizen, the JMP chose pink as the protest’s color to signify their nonviolence intent.

Yemen’s opposition parties failed to capitalize on political opportunities before. The 2005 fuel riots began as spontaneous public protests at a hike in fuel costs and, leaderless, spiraled out of control. The JMP condemned the protesters and wholly failed to address the underlying national issues of corruption, poverty and mismanagement. Following the 2006 election, opposition voters were poised to take to the streets to protest fraudulent votes counts, but the JMP accepted the vote totals in exchange for the electoral reforms they were promised again last week. The 2009 parliamentary elections were postponed to 2011, not only because the state reneged on the reform agreement, but also because of the laziness of the JMP to put in the required work.

Promises, promises

The every wily President Saleh preempted the momentum of the #Feb3 protest by agreeing to all the JMP’s demands, leaving them little to chant about. And he went further and pledged a raise in military salaries of around $30 a month. There are an approximate 600,000 on the military payroll, and an average of ten dependents each, meaning about a quarter of Yemenis will directly or indirectly benefit from the raise, if it is in fact implemented. Other civil servants were granted raises as well. And promising pay raises is a tactic that has worked before in Yemen to defuse social tension.

In response to the 2005 fuel riots, President Saleh enacted the revised Wages Strategy which purported to offset higher fuel costs with salary increases for civil servants. Designed with a multistaged rollout, the failure to fully implement the second phase of the strategy later triggered strikes, notably by the teachers union. In negotiations, the union demanded the salary increases should be retroactive to the date they became law.

Saleh’s current promise to increase wages is being framed by the regime, correctly, as implementation of the third phase of the 2005 Wages Strategy. In the weeks prior to the 2006 presidential election, Saleh promised a bonus to civil servants, payable after the election. However, here in 2011, Yemen is teetering on bankruptcy and there is little to no cash in the state’s coffers.

Another regular tactic in response to anti-government protests is the counter pro-regime protest, and like clockwork, Saleh bussed in loyalist tribesmen to camp out in Yemen’s Tahrir Square, forcing the JMP to move the February 3 rally to the campus of Sana’a University.

Arrests, arbitrary violence and suppression of the media are other characteristic tactics of the regime, deployed against southern protesters and civilians in areas of the northern Houthi rebellion. These tactics invariably swelled the ranks of the southern and Houthi opposition movements, and if implemented again in Sana’a, they will have the same effect on the newborn northern protest movement.

To run or not to run

In advance of the #Feb3 rally, Saleh made what for Westerners was a grand concession. Saleh announced he would not run for reelection in 2013. It was promise he has made before. “The door of candidacy is open not for Ali Abdullah Saleh but for everyone who likes to run for president’s position,” Saleh said on July 5, 1999. “I’m not a candidate, and I don’t accept candidacy because I know what the power is,” he added. Four days later, the ruling party announced Saleh as its candidate. The opposition Islah party also nominated Saleh and he won handily in September’s election. Yemenis say he made the same announcement, only to renege, several times since 1985.

On July 17, 2005, Saleh announced that he wouldn’t run in the 2006 election, saying, “We want to establish a model for peaceful handover of power.” Saleh urged political parties to, “nominate for this post young leaders capable of bearing responsibility based on clear programs to manage the country.” However, as the fuel riots were raging against the regime, on July 21st adoring GPC crowds had convinced him to change his mind and the formal announcement came in November at the party conference.

Despite a history of broken promises, Saleh’s announcement in February 2011 was hailed by authorities in the Unites States and the United Kingdom and others around the world. Few can imagine he’ll stay. Yemenis can’t imagine he’ll go.

Egyptian President Resigns After Weeks of Protest

(FEB 11) President Hosni Mubarak resigned today, transferring power to a military council that will lead Egypt through its period of transition.

Mubarak’s recently appointed vice president and former spymaster, Omar Suleiman, broke the news of the president’s resignation on state television Friday afternoon. Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in the city of Alexandria, numbering hundreds of thousands, cheered “Egypt is free!” and “God is great,” knowing that after thirty years of single party dictatorship, their country might finally have a chance at democracy.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is now in control of Egypt, promised “to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people” and achieve a “peaceful transition all through a democratic society aspired by the people.”

The military takeover technically amounts to a coup. constitutionally, the speaker of Egypt’s parliament should have assumed the presidency but it seems unlikely that the demonstrators could have accepted this ruling party official who is known to be corrupt. There is no clearly defined role for Vice President Suleiman in the months to come. Read more “Egyptian President Resigns After Weeks of Protest”

Egypt’s Lame Attempt at Reconciliation

After more than two straight weeks of angst in the capital, newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman is finally starting to get to work on a transition. In a sign that he takes the demands of the protesters seriously, Suleiman met with multiple representatives of the political opposition on Sunday. As expected, the results of the meeting depend on whom you ask: Suleiman and the Egyptian government are clamoring that all sides reached a consensus on a number of issues while the Muslim Brotherhood is downplaying the event as nothing more than theater.

Regardless of where one stands, no one can doubt the fact that an official dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood is unprecedented in modern Egypt. Ever since the Brotherhood was formed in 1928, its members have been repressed, arrested, detained without trial and in some cases killed by Egyptian forces loyal to the state. The party is still technically banned from running in elections although Brotherhood politicians have found a loophole over the past decade by running as independents (and in some cases, actually winning their races). So the fact that two weeks of demonstrations have brought two adversaries together in the same room after nearly a century of fighting is quite an accomplishment to begin with.

But in hindsight, symbolism doesn’t matter: actual results do. Discussions between Mubarak’s regime and the Brothers may hold a large amount of symbolic significance, but the one thing that actually counts is the written product. Liberal parties will also have to sign onto any prospective agreement, for their participation is essential for a transition that is inclusive, broad based and sustainable.

As to the actual meeting last Sunday, Vice President Sulieman released a statement from his office outlining some of the things that everyone decided to endorse:

  • An independent study of the Egyptian constitution by a panel of experts and judges;
  • The release of political prisoners;
  • The “liberalization” of the media;
  • Anti-corruption measures;
  • An end to the state of emergency when “threats to the security of society” have ended.

On paper, these are all noteworthy objectives. Investigating corruption, opening up the media space and releasing political dissidents from jail are difficult to oppose, which is probably why all three made their way into the vice president’s official statement.

But there are still quite a few problems that need to be addressed if Suleiman is sincere in mending fences with the opposition.

For starters, it will be very hard to implement all of these agreements in time before presidential elections in September. Will the government launch corruption investigations against leading Egyptian public officials, or will those cases be restricted to lame-duck ministers that can be replaced relatively quickly? Will Al Jazeera, the BBC and CNN be allowed to broadcast without fearing detainment? Is it possible for constitutional amendments to be ratified without the ruling party obstructing the process? And what about the fate of Hosni Mubarak, whose name was completely absent from the list?

The second problem is whether this initial round of negotiations will be enough to placate the tens of thousands of Egyptians on the street. Although some of the protesters want to get back to their normal lives, tens of thousands are still vowing to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo until their number one demand is met — the complete eradication of Mubarak and his regime.

In reality, there is a huge divide between the men and women who have braved the regime for the past two weeks and the negotiators who are trying to ring concessions from Mubarak’s second in command. The people want a complete break from the old regime-opposition dynamic, rightly viewing the arrangement as an inadequate formula. The old guard opposition leaders, on the other hand, desperately want to use the protests as their own personal opportunity, either to settle scores or win power for themselves.

The vice president’s statement is a step in the right direction. But if any governing transition is to work, Suleiman and the other men across his table need to arrive at a detailed understanding of how the “consensus” is going to be executed.

Don’t Forget About Jordan, Yemen

With news focused on the exciting (yet increasingly deadly) political upheaval in the center of Cairo, it’s easy to forget that other states in the Arab world are experiencing protests of their own. The popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are certainly the most visible and ecstatic but dissent often takes a subtle form. In contrast to the clashes that have come to categorize the Egyptian demonstrations, other anti-government protests are starting to gain momentum, many of which have been peaceful and orderly.

While Egypt is often referred to as the most strategically vital state for Washington’s interests in the Middle East, two other pro-American governments are starting to feel the heat from their own populations: Yemen and Jordan.

Protests in the former should be assessed with a small dose of caution, not least because the Yemeni government is already dealing with internal conflicts, population growth and unemployment, along with water and oil shortages. Jordan, on the other hand, is strong, stable and wealthy enough to absorb demonstrations with a relative amount of success.

The last thing that Yemen’s autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, needed was another thorn in the side of his regime. The country is faced with a multitude of problems — a Houthi rebellion near the Saudi border, a secessionist movement in its southern provinces, declining oil reserves and a steady stream of young people entering the poor jobs market. Indeed, this is why thousands of Yemenis in the capital are protesting to begin with. Tired of an unhopeful future and an economy running well behind its oil-rich Persian Gulf neighbors, the Yemeni poor (running in the millions) are demanding that their government get serious about reform.

Yet when asked what reforms they would like to see, many in the demonstrations don’t exactly give reporters and journalists detailed answers. “We need freedom,” most say, but freedom encompasses a broad range of measures that a weak central government may not be able to take without jeopardizing its own position.

Saleh and his band of military loyalists have been in power longer than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — a success that most autocrats around the world can only dream of accomplishing. Without a strong push from the protesters, it’s hard to fathom that Saleh would respond in a way that the protesters could find suitable.

The good news is that President Saleh understands he needs to take action. Addressing the nation, he announced that he will not run as a candidate during the 2013 presidential election; a concession that is eerily reminiscent of Mubarak’s pledge not to run this September. Saleh has also decided to increase the salaries of the military in an attempt to maintain their loyalty. Will the promise not to stand for election be good enough?

Jordan is another matter. While Jordanians are gathering in the cities to complain against high prices and poor education, few that live in or know Jordan believe that this will amount to anything resembling the Tunisian or Egyptian uprisings.

Contrary to other governments that hold a minimal amount of credibility or respect with their people, the Hashemite kingdom led by King Abdullah II is widely accepted by a large sector of Jordanian society. The monarchy rarely gets criticized harshly; the appointed government and parliament take on that role. This is visibly evident throughout the current discord inside the kingdom, with Jordanians directing their anger at the prime minister even though it is the King who dictates what goes on.

King Abdullah has already responded by dismissing Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai and replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, a former prime minister and monarchy loyalist. Similar to Saleh’s preemptive actions in Yemen, Abdullah has increased subsidies and lowered the price of fuel, hoping that these measures will help quell the protests before they manage to attain a mass following. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, refused to endorse Bakhit’s appointment though, arguing that the entire system of royal appointments needs to be revised.

That demand, however revolutionary, will most likely be cast aside by the monarchy as too radical a proposal. The king has the authority to appoint the prime minister, a tradition that will be difficult to change after sixty years of entrenched Hashemite rule  But it is yet another indication of opposition forces and ordinary citizens in the Middle East starting to challenge the way things are run.

Washington need not worry about Jordan — the country is the most secure in the region and the political order is largely ingrained within Jordanian society. Yemen too, despite its instability, is not a major concern at this time. The protests have been peaceful and violence is confined to hotbeds of the anti-Saleh south.

Much depends on how Egypt evolves. If the demands of the protesters are marginalized by the regime, those participating in the Jordanian and Yemeni demonstrations may pack up their things and go home. But if Mubarak leaves or gives up authority, then both of these countries could be forced to grant more concessions in the face of an emboldened protest movement.

Hosni Mubarak’s Clever Ploy

In a sign of the protesters’ collective strength in Cairo, a visibly tired and shaken Hosni Mubarak stepped in front of the cameras for the second time to announce that he will no longer be the president after his term expires in September. For the longtime Egyptian opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd Party, this announcement is the greatest gift they could have received after being subjected to the shadows for the last thirty years. But for the protesters who had risked their lives over the past week, shouting for Mubarak’s immediate ouster, this speech was much harder to take.

Seven months may not be enough time, but it does give Mubarak and his National Democratic Party a slight chance to divide the current protests.

As demonstrations continues in Egypt’s major cities, it may be easy to forget that Egyptians have only taken to the streets for slightly over a week. They have managed to succeed in the herculean task of forcing an entrenched autocrat to relinquish the throne — something that would have been impossible to imagine months ago. But seven days is not seven months. With the exception of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, rebellions rarely sustain their strength over an extended period of time. People have to be extremely dedicated to their cause to come out, in full force, every single day. Egyptians have passed this test so far, but you have to question whether the chants of “down with Mubarak” could remain as strong and potent for another 210 days.

By announcing his departure in September, Mubarak may be hoping that the cohesiveness of the protest movement will gradually fade. Some advisors close to the Egyptian military were expecting him to relinquish control anyway. If this is indeed the case, then some demonstrators may be wondering what it was all for.

While unsubstantiated, Mubarak may be trying to reclaim whatever legacy he has left by taking charge of the transition process, thereby ushering Egypt into a brand new era of pluralist politics. (Although it will probably take a little more time than seven months.) Few Egyptians would give him credit for such a transition, but the United States and other countries just may.

What will happen in the next seven months is still unclear. One can draw up a number of scenarios that could occur as the year goes by. If Mubarak reneges on his promise, tens of thousands may simply take to the streets once again. If democratic elections are scheduled on time and Egyptians see them as legitimate, then all is well with the world. But if the Egyptian Armed Forces somehow tweak the electoral proceedings in the hopes of maintaining their hold on the regime (Omar Soleiman, the new vice president, will probably be the establishment’s man), the world and more importantly the Egyptian people will begin to question the very essence of their political system. Up to now, a stubborn and power hungry Mubarak is considered the problem. Absent credible elections after Mubarak is long gone, Egyptians just may turn against the backbone of society itself — the military.

Hopefully it won’t come to that but it is a possibility. The armed forces have received an enormous amount of resources, wealth and prestige since the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Don’t expect them to give all of that away without pondering the implications.

United States Hedging Rhetoric on Egypt Protests

My television has been tuned to CNN for the past 24 hours, and the footage that the network has been broadcasting (thanks to Al Jazeera and those brave Egyptians with cell phones) is nothing short of extraordinary. Young and middle aged Egyptian citizens from all walks of life are holding hands and shouting in unison, “down down with Mubarak.” The Egyptian government has issued a citywide curfew for Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in an attempt to regain some hold over the situation. Yet the protesters have thus far been undeterred.

As is expected, the situation inside Egypt is very fluid, a term that was used by the American State Department two nights ago during a press conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, through the Sunday talk show circuit, has urged the Egyptian government and the protesters to refrain from further violence, a standard neutral response from an administration that isn’t exactly sure how to proceed. Read more “United States Hedging Rhetoric on Egypt Protests”

United States Cautious to Support Egypt Protests

As tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Egypt’s major cities again on Sunday, the United States are wondering what impact the unrest and possible regime change could have on American foreign policy in the region. For thirty years, Egypt has been a factor of stability in the Middle East and it continues to play an instrumental role in both advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and containing Iran.

President Barack Obama responded to the demonstrations after speaking with his Egyptian counterpart by phone on Friday night. He said that the Egyptian people are entitled to determine their own destiny and he denounced the violence. “Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people,” he said. Read more “United States Cautious to Support Egypt Protests”

A Week of Turmoil in the Middle East

There is so much happening in the Middle East right now that it’s difficult to know where to start. The entire Arab world seems to be on the verge of a calamitous path toward confrontation, evident in Tunisia’s struggle to form an interim government. Protests continue in Algeria over economic conditions and the rise of food prices, while Jordan — one of the most stable countries in the region — is experiencing its own demonstrations.

But these are all marginal events compared to what is happening right now elsewhere in the region. Here is a brief summary what has happened over the past week in the Middle East and which of these events are likely to continue in full force in the month ahead.

Hezbollah takes over Lebanon

To the dismay of Europe and the United States, Hezbollah has been able to muster enough support in the Lebanese parliament to appoint the next prime minister, effectively kicking the American backed Saad Hariri out of power.

The new prime minister is a man named Najib Miqati, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister who served immediately after Rafiq Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005. This whole story began when Hezbollah pulled out of the government over Saad Hariri’s refusal to stop cooperating with a United Nations tribunal investigating his father’s death.

In addition to ending the reign of a coalition that was supported in the West, Hezbollah’s takeover signals what analysts in the region have long suspected: that the Shia militant group is Lebanon’s most powerful military and political force.

Washington hasn’t responded significantly yet other than expressing concern with Hezbollah’s rise. But there really isn’t anything the United States can do about it. As Hezbollah gains in strength, American-Lebanese ties are likely to be weakened.

Protests in Egypt

Egyptians who are tired with the iron fisted rule of Hosni Mubarak have taken the time to mimic their Tunisian counterparts by demonstrating against their government. Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy puts the number of protesters at 100,000, a small number compared to Egypt’s total population of eighty million. And evidently, Al Jazeera television is not concentrating as much on the Egyptian protests as those in Tunisia. But they are protests nonetheless and how the Egyptian security forces decide to fend them off will determine whether the ranks of the opposition grow or fade.

Iran talks collapse

The P5+1 decided to give talks with Iran another chance last weekend. Unfortunately, the discussions didn’t even start. Iranian nuclear negotiators demanded that the UN stop all economic sanctions against their country before the nuclear program could be addressed. Of course, the permanent members of the Security Council refused (as they should have), and the meetings collapsed after two days. An enrichment-for-inspection deal may be the only diplomatic option left to the United States to solve the problem short of war.