It took the opposition in Tunisia only a month to get rid of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country two weeks ago after twenty-three years of control. Inspired and emboldened by that success, Egyptian opposition forces have amassed a fierce popular uprising against their own strongman, Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981. The fires of discontent in the region continue to grow: today is expected to be the worst day of Egyptian protests since they began and now, Yemen has succumbed to the wave of unrest that is slowly sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East.
We thus appear to be entering a very disconcerting phase in the development of the Muslim world. If dissidents are successful in effecting regime change in key nations, the West should be very concerned about whoever fills the vacuums of power thus created. Indeed, it could be Iran 1979 all over again – and the Muslim Brotherhood is on the march.
Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdallah Salih in Yemen are hardly ideal American friends, but they have at least done their part to keep their countries’ aggressive Islamist factions at bay in an area where options are very much limited in this regard.
Islamist forces in Yemen and Egypt are waiting in the wings as we speak, eager to capitalize on escalating protests which have so far not been principally motivated by Islamic radicalism. A coalition of left-leaning organizations and youth groups, long-opposed to the Mubarak regime, joined together to orchestrate protests in Egypt. These included Kifaya (Enough), the youth-based 6th of April Movement, Karama, The Popular Democratic Movement for Change (HASHD), the National Association for Change, the Justice and Freedom Youth movement, and the Revolutionary Socialists. Free lance journalist Yasmine El Rashidi was in Cairo for the protests and blogged extensively on events for the New York Review of Books. She reports that the movement is largely youth-based and non-sectarian:
To lobby support, the activists used Twitter and Facebook, targeting above all the 60 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people who are under the age of 25. …In Shubra, we joined a marching procession of about one hundred people, mainly Muslims, who were moving slowly through narrow, muddy streets, led by activists chanting into a speaker: “Christian or Muslim it’s not important, similar poverty similar concerns! Hosni Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak, the plane is waiting, the plane is waiting. Saudi Arabia is not far!
Protests in Yemen seem to have been well-organized as well. The “Joint Meeting Parties” is an umbrella group representing a number of groups who oppose Salih’s rule. As the situation in Tunisia was heating up, the Joint Meeting Parties decided that their time had come. Thus far the protests, by all reports, have been peaceful and the response of the government restrained. Yet, the Joint Meeting Parties say that they will continue to ramp up the pressure on Salih’s regime, although the organization promises to utilize only non-violent means of protest.
What is interesting, and frightening, about the situations in Egypt and Yemen is how different those nations are economically. Egypt, like Tunisia, is relatively prosperous in North African/Middle Eastern terms. The unemployment rate in Egypt is less than ten per cent and “only” about twenty per cent of the populace lives below the poverty line. On the other hand, the unemployment rate in Yemen is over thirty five per cent and almost half of the nation lives in conditions of poverty. Thus, if we are looking for a common thread connecting discontent in these nations, we can’t rely on economic conditions. There has to be something else. Among the ideas that undoubtedly contribute to all the protests are these: the universal desire for self-determination, the freedom to exchange information and ideas in the modern world, and the belief that no one is entitled to virtual hereditary rule, measured in decades, in the modern world. And so we find ourselves faced with nascent revolutions in two very different countries, both of which may represent very different, but very real, threats to American and our allies if those revolutions are successful.
Up until now, the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak’s most powerful opponent in Egypt, has stayed out of recent protests. But as of today, the radical Islamic supremacist group is joining in the fray. This is very bad news for a number of reasons. Young, idealistic revolutionaries are about the worst sort of people to run the machinery of government that one can imagine. Egypt’s protests, if Rashidi is correct, represent a youth movement. If they’re successful, the “under 25” crowd won’t want to be bothered with the tedium of governing, but will rather hope that some more mature folks who say all the right things will assume that particular responsibility. The Muslim Brotherhood, which doesn’t have any qualms about completely misrepresenting itself and its aims in order to achieve its goals, is thus ideally positioned to take advantage of the chaos that would follow Mubarak’s ouster. And, because Egypt is a much more powerful nation than most Middle Eastern states thanks to years of American aid and support, if the Muslim Brotherhood grabbed control in Egypt it would be a disaster along the lines of Khomeini taking over in Iran.
On the other hand, Yemen remains a weak, impoverished nation. Yemen’s chief sources of revenue, its oil reserves, are rapidly drying up. Yet, it’s the poverty and hopelessness of Yemen that makes it especially attractive to Al Qaeda, the country that bin Laden’s terrorists use as their base of operations on the Arabian peninsula. It is thus important to western interests to keep Yemen within our sphere of influence, so that Al Qaeda can be contained and – hopefully – neutralized within its borders. Though Salih has been an uncertain ally, he has been an ally. Should the Yemeni opposition succeed in removing him from power, the same question that confronts us in Egypt remains: will the next regime remain at least outwardly friendly to western interests and values, or will the next regime be infinitely more dangerous than the one we know today?