Thursday, January 27, 2011

As Egypt and Yemen Erupt, and Tunisia Reorganizes, Baghdad Explodes . . . and Israel Worries

It is, of course, much too early to claim that a new era has begun among the "Arab moderate" autocracies, but a look at today's happenings suggests that a lot of people in a lot of Foreign Ministries (and the US DoS) are doing a lot of re-thinking.  Protests are continuing into a third day in Egypt, where young people who'd seemingly been content to talk the revolution talk over the internet are now organizing and coming onto the streets.  Thousands are marching on the streets of Sana in Yemen, demanding that the repressive regime of gerontocrat President Saleh step down.  Meanwhile, in Tunisia, violence on the streets has subsided (which likely explains why the major newspapers report little from there today), but the government is engaged in a reshuffling that will likely entail major consequences for the future of democracy there - and the extent to which Islamist parties there will be enbraced or excluded.

But Egypt is getting a huge percentage of the attention, for good reason.  It is the most populous of the Arab countries; it has been (with Iraq) one of the two traditional political and cultural capitals of the Middle East; it has been widely regarded as perhaps the most important of the US's "moderate" Arab allies, for which it has received billions of US $$; and it is one of only two Arab countries (along with Jordan, another "moderate" autocracy) to have concluded a peace treaty with Israel - something to which both Israel and the US have pointed with pride for more than 30 years.

But the great fear now is that that may be in jeopardy.  Though officially at peace, Israel-Egypt relations have been mostly cold.  The treaty Sadat signed 30+ years ago has never been warmly embraced by most of Egypt's people (although it did get the Sinai back for Egypt), in part because it has helped give political cover to the Mubarak regime's collusion with Israel to keep undermine Hamas in Gaza. (Hamas, remember, is a Palestinian affiliate of the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood, the single most popular organized - and outlawed - opposition group that threatens Mubarak's regime.)  If Mubarak tumbles (which is the oft-expressed wish and intention of the protesters), the treaty with Israel may be put back on the table by a new government.  As the NYT reported a couple of days ago, Israel is worried, but can't do much about it except look on from the sidelines, and hope that Mubarak crushes the protesters and restores (here's that word again) "stability."  The US wants that stability restored at least as much as the Israelis do.  The WaPo today is slapping Obama and Clinton on the back for, in their spin, coming out in favor of the protesters.  But what Hillary wants is more engagement between Mubarak's regime and the pro-democracy forces; the pro-democracy forces want Mubarak and his cronies - and his hyper-repressive security forces - out.  There's a real disconnect there.  As Egyptian democracy advocate Muhammad el-Baradei noted yesterday, Obama-Clinton seem more concerned about "stability" than anything else:
 “ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word . . . . Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”
And don't look now, but it may be getting very much later in the day for Mr. al-Maliki in Iraq.  Another car bomb went off at a Shiite funeral in Baghdad today, with at least 48 killed and 120+ wounded.  Even more ominously for al-Maliki's fledgling new regime government, the massacre occurred in an area of Baghdad that is a stronghold of popular support for Muqtada al-Sadr, who only days ago - in his triumphal, though abbreviated, return to Iraq - publicly proclaimed what amounted to very conditional support for Maliki.  (He declared, "We're watching.")  As the WaPO report also notes, the area also happens to have recently fallen under the influence of a radical and violent breakaway Shiite group, Asaib al-Haq.  The AP (via NPR) reported:
 Associated Press Television News footage showed broken plastic chairs overturned inside the tent, while broken tea cups and other debris covered the patterned rugs on the floor. A mourner held up a torn, blood-soaked dishdasha, traditional dress worn by Iraqi men. . . .
Young men furious over the lack of security began pelting Iraqi security forces at the scene with stones. Anger was still high three hours later, and Iraqi troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd of residents gathering elsewhere in the neighborhood for a demonstration against the failure to prevent the bombings. Police said some in the crowd fired back as Iraqi helicopters buzzed overhead.
A witness who identified himself as Abu Ahmed al-Saiedi said mourners had been allowed to park near the funeral tent because most people in the neighborhood knew each other.  "I blame the neighborhood security officials for letting this car bomb enter the area without being checked," said al-Saiedi, who was hit in the arm with shrapnel. "When I saw people hurling stones at security men, I said to myself, 'They deserve that.'"
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