The altered aura of the Arab state

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The World

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When feeling nostalgic and prideful, Cairenes note that their beloved city has long been called “Uum Ad Duniya,” or “Mother to the World.”

This week, they can also boast that the ancient Egyptian capital is giving birth to a new Middle East.

Whether Egyptians’ unprecedented popular revolt — which has electrified Arabs from Muscat to Morocco — leads to genuine democratic reforms or not, the uprising and other exceptional developments in recent weeks have suddenly catapulted the Arab world into a period of perilous uncertainty and turbulent change.

The fallout from this transitional period will be significant not only for Arabs and their undemocratic governments, but also for the United States, whose interests run deep and wide in this volatile region.

“It’s clear that the aura of the [Arab] state has been punctured” by recent street protests in Egypt and Tunisia, said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

“It doesn’t matter if a government is overthrown or not,” he added. Arab governments “are going to have to adjust the way they deal with the public. It may be by more repression, or it may be by more opening. But there’s no way they are going on the [same] way they have been.”

Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political scientist at United Arab Emirates University in Dubai, sees “something very historical” occurring.

“The Arab world before Tunis is different from the Arab world after Tunis,” he added. “It might last. It might not last. But we have 10 million Arabs [in Tunisia] who feel the freedoms that 300 million others do not feel. That’s not a mean accomplishment.”

There’s no question, analysts say, that the Arab status quo is trembling badly, jolted by several developments that have made January 2011 a remarkable month for the region.

In Lebanon, the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, an armed militant Shiite movement, was able to unseat a prime minister backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, opening the door for profound shifts in that country’s political scene likely to benefit Hezbollahs’ two main patrons.

The Palestinian Authority’s credibility was then dealt a perhaps lethal blow by the leaking of documents to Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel, showing how much ground the Palestinian leadership was willing to yield to the Israelis in negotiations while getting nothing in return.

Meanwhile, Arab states, mindful of their own internal ethnic tensions, are deeply disturbed by the impending division of Sudan. And as Sunni majority states, most remain alienated from the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, which they see as too friendly to Iran. The near-paralysis of Iraq’s political system for months after last year’s elections, along with a recent surge in bombings targeting civilians, are also deeply troubling, especially in light of the continuing drawdown of U.S. troops.

Against this unnerving background, Tunisia’s street protests erupted, culminating in the Jan. 14 flight of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, marking the first time in recent memory that an Arab leader was toppled by a popular, unorganized and unarmed rebellion.

The uprising sent shock waves through the Arab world and inspired similar, though shorter-lived, protests in Jordan and Yemen. Both countries have close ties to the United States. But Yemen is a special concern of Washington because of the presence in remote, tribal areas of a robust affiliate of Al Qaeda. Yemen’s President Abdullah Ali Saleh, in power for more than 30 years, has received millions in U.S. aid to fight Al Qaeda.

It is Egypt, however, whose future arouses the most anxiety in Washington. A trend-setter in the region for centuries, and most populous Arab nation with 80 million people, Egypt also has been the “anchor of a political order that the United States has relied on since the 1970s,” said Telhami. “What happens in Egypt is so hugely consequential — in ways I don’t think people have begun to think about.”

Largely because it was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt has been the largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and U.S.-Egyptian bilateral cooperation has extended to military affairs, counter-terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This “broad and deep cooperation” is why what happens in Egypt “deeply affects U.S. interests,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In my analysis,” added Alterman, “any future government of Egypt, whether it’s a continuation of the current military rule, or some sort of blend, or some sort of opposition group, is going to be less compliant with the United States than the Mubarak government has been for 30 years.”

Long-time analysts of the Arab world urge caution when it comes to predicting how the events Tunisia and Egypt will turn out. Mindful of recent history, “the lid could easily be put back on by the regimes,” said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University London.

Alterman agrees that the eventual outcome remains unclear. “Neither in Egypt nor Tunis do you have a well-organized opposition movement … [so] it’s hard to see how this is going to lead to a different future when you’re transitioning to an uncertain political order that has no clear agenda.”

Still, observers note that this round of Arab unrest has seen the emergence of new faces and forces that are giving a modern new shape to political action in the Arab world.

In both Cairo and Tunis, for example, the street unrest “happened unexpectedly, rapidly and most critically, without apparent deep organization and infrastructure,” Telhami said.

Traditional opposition parties — both Islamist and secular — were absent as far as sponsoring the events. And the crowds included people of all ages and backgrounds, but especially media-savvy youth.

Second, the internet in general and its progeny — new media such as Twitter and Facebook — played a big role in sparking and sustaining the protests.

Finally, recent events have spawned a new attitude towards Arab governments and their security forces that is notable for its lack of fear. “People have started to realize that we have to speak up,” said Saudi university professor Mohammad Al Khazim. “We have to be brave, and feel free. The internet, Facebook and Twitter makes it easy for people [to do this].”

That is why people in power, said another university professor, “should pay attention to this little bird.”

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