Four Middle Eastern Upheavals

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Two facts underpin this collusion: Egypt has been ruled by the military since a 1952 coup d’état; and the so-called Free Officers who carried off that coup themselves had close ties to the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The spirit of Tahrir Square was real and may eventually prevail; but for now, it’s business as usual in Egypt, with the government continuing Mubarak’s familiar quasi-Islamist line.

Syria: Hafez al-Assad ruled the country for thirty years (1970-2000) with brutality and nonpareil cunning. Seized by monarchical pretensions, he bequeathed the presidency to his 34-year-old son, Bashar. Training to become an ophthalmologist, Bashar joined the family business under duress only after the death of his more capable brother Basil in 1994, basically maintaining his father’s megalomaniac policies, thereby extending the country’s stagnancy, repression, and poverty.

As 2011’s winds of change reached Syria, crowds yelling Suriya, hurriya (“Syria, freedom”) lost their fear of the baby dictator. Panicked, Bashar wove between violence and appeasement. If the Assad dynasty meets its demise, this will have potentially ruinous consequences for the minority Alawi community from which it derives. Sunni Islamists who have the inside track to succeed the Assads will probably withdraw Syria from the Iranian-led “resistance” bloc, meaning that a change of regime will have mixed implications for the West, and for Israel especially.

Yemen: Yemen presents the greatest likelihood of regime overthrow and the greatest chance of Islamists gaining power. However deficient an autocrat and however circumscribed his power, the wily Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, has been about as good an ally the West could hope for, notwithstanding his ties to Saddam Hussein and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to exert control over the hinterlands, limit incitement, and fight Al-Qaeda.

His incompetent handling of protests has alienated even the military leadership (from which he comes) and his own Hashid tribe, suggesting he will leave power with little control over what follows him. Given the country’s tribal structure, the widespread distribution of arms, the Sunni-Shi’i divide, the mountainous terrain, and impeding drought, an Islamist-tinged anarchy (as in Afghanistan) looms as a likely outcome.

In Libya, Syria, and Yemen – but less so in Egypt – Islamists have opportunities significantly to expand their power. How well will the former Muslim inhabiting the White House, so adamant about “mutual respect” in U.S. relations with Muslims, protect Western interests against this threat?


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