Friday, 28 January 2011

Middle East Dominoes

There has been a lot of talk about the Middle East experiencing a ‘domino effect’; one that would topple some of the most long-standing government’s in the region.

The story goes that once Tunisia went rogue, Egypt was awakened, Yemen was inspired, and places such as Morocco and Algeria are next. There is a danger here, however, in failing to see that the Middle East is not one homogenous block. The cases of Egypt and Yemen in particular, show that although both countries may be experiencing many of the same problems, the differing internal dynamics of each mean that the ‘end result’ is far from predictable.

Let’s start with the similarities. It would be wrong to suggest that the Tunisian affair did not spark the current crisis witnessed in both Egypt and Yemen, and although the spark should not be confused with the cause; the issues of corruption, representation, unemployment and rising food prices do resonate throughout both Egypt and Yemen, and are not unfamiliar elsewhere in the region. Indeed, Yemen is commonly known as the Middle East’s poorest country, with up to 40% of the population living on less than $2 a day, and both countries have, in Presidents Saleh and Mubarak, leaders that have both been in power for thirty years.

There are some marked differences, however, that should be stressed. The involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in endorsing protests against Mubarak is a significant development within Egypt. The Brotherhood, although officially banned from elections, still represent a large number of ordinary citizens, and are an organized force that can put severe pressure on the Egyptian authorities. It will be a test of the strength of the Brotherhood to see how the group deal with the returning Mohamad El-Baradei, a leader sure to grab headlines, yet may draw his supporters from a more affluent section of Egypt’s population. It remains to be seen what kind of uprising we are witnessing- if the protests are truly grassroots, then the Brotherhood will be in pole position to challenge Mubarak directly. The harsh level of police crackdowns surrounding Friday prayers seems to suggest this may be the case.

Yemen, however, faces a different sort of challenge. The protests aimed thus far at President Saleh have been extremely less violent and confrontational than those seen in Egypt; and many commentators have indicated that the public’s anger is more at conditions rather than at Saleh himself. To be sure, corruption, justice, and fair representation are ultimately the responsibility of government authorities; yet Yemen’s internal dynamic sets a Houthi movement in the north and a Southern Movement in the south, against the backdrop of a weak government in Sanaa, and a tribal system that emanates across the whole of the country, often crossing the borders of provinces or districts. In addition, the threat of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula adds another dynamic to the domestic workings of Yemeni politics, culture and power.

So what can we draw from these two cases?

Firstly, the nature of the uprising in Yemen and especially in Egypt needs to be noted in the coming days or even weeks. If a grass roots level campaign to oust Mubarak is gaining momentum, so too will the Muslim Brotherhood, and the likelihood of their ascension into power. For Yemen, in which direction the protests spread will be key, as although the country is no stranger to Southern Movement rebellion coming out of Aden, the ability of the government to successfully control riotous elements of society will be crucial in determining how much power the Saleh regime still has.

Linked to this is the power of both the Egyptian and Yemeni armed forces. Mubarak has traditionally held great support from within his army, and in Yemen, pay was recently increased to the military in order for their continued support. If either of the two forces start to waver in their defence of the central authorities, the end of both government’s may be nigh. Indeed, one of the most preeminent reasons that Hariri’s government fell in Lebanon was that the support of the army was not significant enough to combat Hizballah forces, meaning that those who held the military power ultimately held political influence.

Finally, it is worth monitoring the actions of the both governments to see if reform has a chance. We know from Iranian history that reforming autocratic regimes can lead to revolution, and the installation of radical groups. The West will not want either Egypt or Yemen to go down that path, as both the Brotherhood’s influence within Palestine, and al-Qaeda’s in Yemen, clearly create problems for the wider region as a whole. Indeed, not only will the West be keen to maintain stability in the region, but so too will countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE; neither of which have an unblemished record in relation to political representation.

Therefore, although the ‘domino theory’ has a catchy ring to it, it will most likely be the internal dynamics that direct the outcome of both Egypt’s and Yemen’s demonstrations, rather than an overarching wave of uprising and rebellion under a regional banner of revolution. Tunisia may have started it, but local factors will determine where the protests end up.

by John Corner

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