A ‘day of rage’ in the Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine
A new, but anticipated type of instability began sweeping through the usually-unstable Middle East on Tuesday. Mass protests across Egypt followed the inspirational people’s uprising in Tunisia, Lebanese Sunnis protested a Hizbullah power grab across their country, and anger built in the Palestinian territories as details of what the Palestinian Authority was willing to concede in negotiations with Israel were released in the “Palestine Papers.” Even if the civil unrest does not continue on Wednesday, the day’s events were anything but inconsequential both in the Arab world and to the West and Israel.
In Egypt, the people have long been dissatisfied with their quality of life and lack of freedom under the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Inspired by uprising in Tunisia, previously unheard of in the Arab world, and years-long speculation that the 82-year-old Mubarak’s health is deteriorating, Egyptians are sensing that this might be their moment for change. The rest of the world too knows that Mubarak will not be in power much longer, but what will the region look like if his son Gamal doesn’t succeed him?
Ideologically speaking, the West would love nothing more than for democracy to take root in Umm al-Dunya (Mother of the World, as Egypt likes to call itself). In the world of realpolitik, however, the likelihood of a regime taking root that is as stable, friendly to Western interests and supportive of peace with Israel is slim at best. Nobody really knows how much support the suppressed Muslim Brotherhood enjoys in Egypt, but polls have long shown that support for American policy in the region and peace with Israel is pretty much non-existent. Any incoming regime would be forced to acquiesce to these popular positions in order to enjoy any legitimacy. While internal economic and democratic factors are currently driving the protests, foreign relations and relationships with the West will play a huge role in defining the succeeding leadership.
For Israel, regime change in Egypt that deteriorates the relationship between the two countries would necessitate a fundamental change in the country’s military and security realities. The incredible calm and relatively normal relations that have prevailed since the peace treaty was signed some 30 years ago (combined with the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty) has given Israel the luxury of ignoring its southern border militarily. There is no substantial troop presence in the South, but more importantly, the significance of Egypt’s cooperation in sealing the Gaza border and pressuring Hamas cannot be overstated. The loss of its partner in isolating and weakening Hamas and the military resources it would be forced to place on its southern border would be devastating to Israel, both financially and strategically.
Sectarian turmoil in Lebanon
Although scenes on the streets of Lebanon Tuesday looked similar to those in Egypt, few comparisons can be made in earnest. The tensions emerging from the “Paris of the Middle East” are neither new nor unexpected. An honest analysis of Lebanon’s current (potential) unrest cannot ignore the fact that the country’s decades-long civil war never truly ended, although it moved from the streets into its parliament in recent years.
The unrest seen in the streets of Lebanon Tuesday was not, like in Egypt, a popular uprising against an oppressive dictatorship; Lebanon is actually the only functioning Arab democracy in the world. It is, however, a sign that the country’s delicate ethnic political balance is in trouble. The Sunni population is outraged that a pro-Syria, Hizbullah-backed (Sunni) politician is presiding over a government devoid of Saad Hariri and his supporters, who ousted Syria from the country five years ago. While the protests in Lebanon could be more accurately described as legitimate democratic protest turned violent than an uprising against the ruling regime, the consequences are just as serious.
At a time when the West, the Sunni Arab world and Israel are desperately trying to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East, a strengthened Hizbullah moves that effort several steps backwards in an effort that had only recently seen a miniscule amount of hard-fought-for progress. Failure to curb Iranian influence in order to help apply more pressure against its feared nuclear program is only one aspect of the developments in Lebanon. Now in a position of power in the Lebanese government, Hizbullah may become an even more potent danger on Israel’s northern border.
“The Resistance,” as Hizbullah is fond of calling itself, is now the government. UN Resolution 1701 (that ended the Second Lebanon War) is in serious danger. With the Western-backed Hariri government no longer a political force, the UNIFIL peacekeeping force – charged with enforcing a mostly-failed mission to oversee the demilitarization of southern Lebanon – may find itself with no one to even lodge complaints with. The Lebanese Army now essentially takes orders from a government largely controlled by Hizbullah.
Although Israel has not in any way ignored its northern border since the Second Lebanon War, the new situation is precarious at best. The two sides can be expected to exercise extreme caution in order to not create any provocations that would lead to another war, but if violence does once again break out, its magnitude will be devastatingly greater than ever seen before. Hizbullah is much stronger than it was in 2006 and has more powerful means of striking at the heart of Israel. On the southern side of the border, Israel can be expected to hit Lebanon harder than ever. Having felt constrained in the last war because it was fighting an organization largely detached from Lebanon’s government, Israel would not hesitate to declare war on Lebanon itself, no longer limiting the fighting to Hizbullah strongholds and offensive positions.
While the Sunni unrest in Lebanon is not likely to restart civil war in the country, it is indicative of larger dangers posed by the political shakeup in Beirut. That, of course, could change depending on the outcome of the UN Tribunal, whose indictments are expected to be unsealed in the coming weeks.
A veil lifted from Palestinian eyes
Rage has been growing among Palestinians in the past few days over leaked details of negotiations with Israel over the past decade. People are genuinely outraged by evidence that the Palestinian Authority leadership has offered to cede portions of Jerusalem, made massive concessions on the return of refugees and collaborated with Israel to violently suppress Hamas and other groups seen as legitimate resistance organizations, all the while, receiving little in return from Israel. Very little of the information released by Al-Jazeera and The Guardian as part of the “Palestine Papers,” however, is news to those closely following the conflict.
On the Palestinian street (both in Palestine and in the Diaspora), the “betrayal” committed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his team of negotiators confirms long-held fears that the government does not represent their true interests. Despite the fact that most of the (newly-confirmed) concessions made and positions taken by Abbas conform to those outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative, there is shock that the Palestinian leadership was/is willing to cross so many of Palestinian society’s sanctified red lines.
Combined with the already-present illegitimacy of Abbas and his government (for democratic, constitutional and other reasons, chiefly its favored status in the West and Israel) among Palestinians, the “Palestine Papers” pose a serious danger to his continued rule and ability to claim that he represents the Palestinian people. However, it is peace process, already on life support, that will be most damaged by the WikiLeaks-style documents rocking the Palestinian world.
Despite the outrage at Abbas’ Fatah party and its old guard that occupies the Mukata (the PA government’s seat in Ramallah), Hamas is not a likely victor. The terrorist/political movement has largely been declawed in the West Bank by the IDF and Abbas’ American-trained security forces, and has lost much of its popularity due to its Islamist rule and failed attempts at improving life in Gaza. Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have endorsed non-violence as the preferred method of ending the occupation and attaining statehood. The probable successors to Abbas, should he be forced to vacate the Mukata, will merely be fresh faces representing the same institutions and policies, albeit with new shackles preventing them from making the concessions necessary to ever reach a negotiated peace deal with Israel.
Lacking the backing of its constituents, it will become harder and harder to find Palestinian leaders willing to make the concessions Abbas proposed, as revealed in the “Palestine Papers.” It is unlikely that many Palestinians were truly shocked by what Al-Jazeera told them this week, but they were willing to ignore their leaders negotiating away their narrative of the Palestinian birthright as long as it was done behind closed doors. It is impossible to predict if Abbas would have been able to sell those concessions to his people should he have reached a peace deal, but that job will be exponentially more difficult now that the details have been prematurely exposed.
Times are changing
Despite the significant events taking place in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon this week, change in the region is unlikely to occur overnight. Egypt’s government may very well fall at some point in the near future, but the establishment in that country is much wider than Mubarak. If/when it does, the West will probably lose one of its strongest Arab allies in the Middle East and Israel will be faced with strategic insecurity, the likes of which, it is not prepared for.
Lebanon may see intensified sectarian violence following the release of the UN’s Hariri Tribunal indictments. Additionally, a government essentially run by Hizbullah may pose a much greater threat to Israel and Iran will have won a significant victory in its slow effort to expand its sphere of influence in the Muslim world. However, the effects of the changes in that country are unlikely to result in war in the short term – although if/when war does break out, it will be far more intense than those that preceded it.
The “Palestine Papers” will more likely than not result in the end of Mahmoud Abbas’ rule as leader of the Palestinian people, a role that has been chipped away at for years. This will certainly be damaging to the peace process and the influence of moderate world powers and the Palestinian Authority. But the chances of it resulting in an actual upheaval resembling the events in Tunisia are almost non-existent. Abbas’ sliver of legitimacy is being snatched away from him by the minute, but the fact of the matter is that Palestinians’ lives have been improving in recent years. The uprising in Tunisia (and in Egypt) was almost entirely motivated by economic factors. The peace process on the other hand, is becoming less and less likely from reaching fruition, although Palestinian efforts encouraging the international community to impose its own solution will be strengthened.
The immediate timing of the events in these three Middle Eastern societies is mostly coincidental, but they are also not unexpected. Civil unrest in Egypt is part of a bottom-up demand for democracy and accountability in the Arab world that is only likely to grow in the days, months and years to come. The leaks from the Palestinians are reflective of a growing frustration by all sides that the peace process is dead and can never satisfy the desires of either the Israeli or Palestinian peoples. Events in Lebanon are symbolic of growing Iranian-Shiite influence in the region and its resulting tensions. If there is one conclusion to be made from the day’s events, it is: Times are changing.