Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Lessons of January

by Elliott Abrams
January 26, 2011

Anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on January 25, 2011 (Stringer Egypt/Courtesy Reuters)

Here are two quick lessons to be drawn from the events of January in the Middle East.

1. Gamal is gone: Gamal Mubarak, once almost universally regarded as Egypt’s next president, will not attain that position. The continuing demonstrations against the Mubarak regime, the complaints about thirty years of Mubarak rule, make it impossible that the son should succeed the father. Efforts to cram him into that position would give rise to public discontent far greater than we are seeing already. The succession in Egypt is wide open now.

2. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central: Arab affairs reflect the internal crises of Arab countries and regimes and are not built around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What has been happening in Tunisia and Egypt is about Tunisia and Egypt. Same for the crisis in Lebanon, recent rioting in Jordan, and other key issues throughout the Arab world (stasis in Algeria, succession in Saudi Arabia, and so on). What unites these events is their relationship to the democracy deficit and to internal social and economic problems, not to Israel.

January will not end without one more Friday, the day when large crowds gather at mosques in Egypt as throughout the Muslim world. So far the demonstrators in Egypt have appeared to be largely secular and often young. If Thursday and then Friday pass without additional large demonstrations, the regime will have staved off the immediate challenge. But if crowds emerge from Friday prayers and take to the streets, the regime could be in real trouble. No one knows that better than President Mubarak and his security chiefs, so they will be out in even greater force than we’ve yet seen. Friday will be a fateful day.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by BJPawlowski

    The question of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central or not seems rightly settled. The new important question, it seems to me, is whether the protests in Egypt and those beginning to gain steam in Yemen will bring about regimes which, while no longer held by dictators, are Islamist in nature. One need only look to Lebanon to see that, should such regimes take root, they will not be inclined to ally themselves with the United States. Additionally, a regime like the one which may prevail in Lebanon is sure to evolve into just as bad if not worse a regime than ones led by dictators. The leadership, as in the case of Mikati, will have no independence to govern as they see fit, rather, they will be little more than puppets controlled by the majority which put them in power. A new leadership in Egypt whose foundation is the Muslim Brotherhood could take the country on a track similar to Turkey, regressing where democracy is concerned.

    Is there more we can do to push out the dictatorial regimes while ushering in a more balanced democratic replacement? Judging by the SOTU’s near silence on democracy and human rights can we expect this administration to offer solutions or proffer support? I think the response has been and will continue to be tepid at best. If only the SOTU had been a bit different: “And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia” … it stands with the people of Egypt, and it shall always stand, shoulder to shoulder, with all peoples everywhere who stand for freedom and democracy. Far too often we have failed to lend our voice to those who need it. We can do this no more. As events show us, the fire that burns in people to be free cannot be snuffed out. Earlier this month millions of southern Sudanese risked their lives to vote for secession and for freedom from a dictatorial north. This week thousands marched for liberty in Tunisia. As we sit here tonight there are thousands braving riot police and tear gas in the streets of Egypt. Tomorrow the people of Lebanon will continue to battle for the future of their state. To all of those people, know that the voice of the United States is with you. Know that our voice condemns repression and violence against those who seek the light of freedom instead of the darkness of tyranny…

    The President of the United States could have been more forceful in his speech. His Secretary of State could be more forceful as well, touting the high ideals of democracy instead of displaying a sense of disconnected indifference. Things may be changing. The administration seems to be taking a bit more active role and has said it sides with the protestors. Yesterday Press Secretary Robert Gibbs walked a fine line saying that “Egypt is our ally” while not specifically referencing Mubarak as he had done earlier. Words mean things. Let’s just hope the tide of support continues to rise rather than subside. The course of change in the Middle East may depend on it.

  • Posted by youssef m. ibrahim

    totally agree on both counts. Furthermore, Tunisia and Egypt are the start of something truly historic sweeping the region. The new order may not emerge this month or even this year but it is being made as we blog and a new revolution by a new generation that goes from computer to the streets and the other way around is the order of the day. all best
    youssef ibrahim

  • Posted by Nicholas Gilani

    Elliott Abrams is right that the mass demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan are not related or fueled by the Palestine-Israel dispute, but it would be foolish to think that the Israeli state could find itself in “safe harbor” for long.

    Once governments more responsive to the public opinion of their disenfranchised public emerge, they will have to re-calibrate their policies in all aspects, starting with equitable distribution of income to more independent courses of action vis-a-vis the US and Israel. These could range from lessening ties to the US in security and intelligence matters to more overt moves in solidarity with what they perceive to be the more genuine and perhaps Islamist versions of the Palestinian narrative:- Hamas and far less the Palestinian Authority (especially in light of the damning release of files implicating the PA).

    In all this, I see one trend emerging: the power of Wikileaks and other internet-based investigative media to force a change in the socio-political landscape of the Middle East.

    This thing is not over, not by a long shot.

  • Posted by Shira Robinson

    It is both inaccurate and ideologically convenient to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays no role in the recent upheaval in Egypt.

    Egypt began receiving massive US aid contributions only after it made peace with Israel in 1979. Many Egyptians opposed that agreement because it deliberately de-linked an Egyptian-Israeli deal from the international demand that Israel withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967. PM Menachem Begin deliberately sought to de-link the two issues so as to hold on to the West Bank, and the US went along with it.

    Among other things, the $28 billion dollars that the US has given Egypt over the course of the last three decades have subsidized Egypt’s repressive security apparatus. Alongside demands by the IMF and World Bank, that aid has also helped to dismantle most of the food subsidies and social services that ordinary Egyptians relied on, thus widening the gap between rich and poor.

    Only arrogance and wishful thinking could enable an otherwise informed observer like Elliott Abrams to dismiss the decades of public criticism from Egyptian journalists, artists, and intellectuals who have consistently drawn the connection between Egypt’s democracy deficits and socio-economic divides, on one hand, and its political and military cooperation with Israel and the US, on the other.

    Since neither Egyptians nor the citizens of any Arab state have ever enjoyed a truly representative democracy, there is no way to predict whether a democratic regime would de-link these issues. What we do know is that the Egyptian public has consistently supported the national rights of the Palestinian people since the 1930s.

  • Posted by headshots Los Angeles

    The US support of Dictators has always been a problem for US policy. We want the stability they provide but at the cost of our values. Have we learned nothing from what happened in Iran in the 70’s.

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  • Posted by Salomon Chaussures

    I see one trend emerging: the power of Wikileaks and other internet-based investigative media to force a change in the socio-political landscape of the Middle East.

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