The tumultuous events currently unfolding in the Middle East continue to dominate the reportage of the major news providers around the globe. Indeed, contemporary advances in technology concerned with the dissemination of information between and among people across vast distances have elevated the mass media above the status of passive purveyors of information. Recent events in Egypt and Libya, for example, have illustrated the role that advanced media technology can play in mobilizing people, a factor that proved decisive in bringing an end to the regimes in the Middle-East.
The conventional heavyweights of the international mass media, particularly the major US-based television channels and newspapers with global reach and influence have themselves been preoccupied with the sudden, altogether unexpected collapse of the long-standing regimes first, in Tunisia then in Egypt, (then in Libya of course) the threatened domino impact of those developments in at least another four states in the region and the implications of those events for US foreign policy. The behaviour of those media houses reflects the pre-eminence of what is commonly referred to as “America’s vital interests” in the western news reporting culture.
If this perspective of the behaviour of the international mass media may appear somewhat clichéd, one only has to view and read the news reports and analyses that have attended the unfolding “revolution” in the Middle East.
Those events, according to a Washington-based Middle East analyst, reflect a “tectonic shift” in international relations, comparable in recent times only to the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the subsequent end of the Cold War. This time around, it is a succession of US allies that are threatened with widespread regime change. Tunisia and, more significantly, Egypt and Libya together with two (2) more other neighbouring countries, (Syria and Iran) that are on top of the agendas by the US and its’ allies. Such, may as well be the tip of an enormous iceberg that could profoundly affect the stability of a number of other states which, collectively, help protect US interests in the region.
Perhaps the most important difference between the collapse of the communist bloc and the events now unfolding in the Middle East is the swiftness of the latter set of events. The eventual demise of regimes in Eastern Europe was preceded by both a protracted crumbling of their state-driven economies and an inexorable rise in the tide of popular resentment. In Moscow, itself, the very epidemic centre of the communist bloc, the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet President was attended by public shifts in Soviet foreign policy that sent clear signals that the communist bloc was readying itself for some measure of reform. Not so in the Middle East. CIA claims that Washington had been forewarned about the rising tide of popular restlessness in that region cannot gainsay the fact that the US appeared to have been caught off guard by the speed and suddenness of events.
If the US State Department would long have been contemplating the implications of the absence of democratic government in the Middle East for the longer-term stability of its allies in that region, it surely did not predicted to say that about a year ago, when the Mubarak regime, its most vital ally in the region, next to Israel, would have been removed from office by way of a popular uprising in eighteen days! In its final days, as the Mubarak regime of more than three decades swayed and stumbled its way towards extinction, President Obama’s call for “democratic reforms” appeared hopelessly out of step with the position that had already been taken by the millions of demonstrators in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt that there could be no reforms that kept Mubarak in power. He simply had to go.
Indeed, in those final days before the departure of the 82-year-old former Egyptian Air Force Commander there was a distinct sense of hollowness and hesitancy to Washington’s public pronouncements which studiously avoided any unequivocal demand that he steps down. The equivocation, of course, was entirely understandable.
America’s foreign policy, in the Middle East and elsewhere, remains vulnerable to charges of double standards, selective as it has been in its admonition of undemocratic behavior among its allies, on the one hand, and its foes, on the other. Egypt, for example, has been ruled by a succession of military dictators since 1954, two of whom (Anwar Sadat 1970-1981 and Hosni Mubarak 1981-2011) were kept in office courtesy of massive US economic and military support. In the year of 2010 alone, US aid to Egypt totaled US$1.3 billion.
The US foreign policy gurus in the State Department and the various other think-tanks in Washington could never bring themselves to dismiss Egypt as a pariah state or Mubarak (and Sadat, before him) as tin-pot dictators. Those labels were invented for regimes of lesser strategic importance to the United States, regimes in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in Africa. It is this that has always been the gaping inconsistency in US foreign policy. Given what the United States perceives to be its economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, the current events in the region provide an interesting foreign policy conundrum.
Washington can be under no illusions that its undemocratic allies can any longer guarantee the stability in the region that protects its interests. Its foreign policy calculations must now take account of the will and wishes of the people of the region. Ironically, what may now concern Washington much more than the desirability of democratic change in the region are the myriad tribal, sectarian and other complexities that attend the politics and culture of the Middle East and whether, in that context, the new political forces that are bound to seek to assert themselves in the wake of the popular uprisings, will prove to be reliable allies.
In Egypt, the US-trained and financed military may, at least in the interim, serve to protect American interests as much as it will, its own historically privileged position. The military, however, has been set a worryingly brief time-frame for social and political reforms and sooner rather than later it will be faced with a choice between meeting popular expectations or imposing a post-Mubarak dictatorship of its own.
The latter pursuit will not, at least in the medium to long term, do much to protect US interests. Even assuming that reforms in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East lead to the formation of political parties and a broader societal framework for the eventual emergence of western-style democracies, the road ahead is bound to be fraught with internal differences that might lead to violent internecine upheavals. Indeed, the emergence of basic freedoms in societies where social and political behaviour have long been constrained by dictatorial rule, is bound to result in some measure of sectarian assertiveness as tribal, religious and other groups seek to secure their separate stakes in a new political process.
Israel too, given its perpetual paranoia over its own security in what it has traditionally regarded as a hostile region, will be eyeing the unfolding events in the region with interest. America, meanwhile, is now compelled to view the Middle East through different lenses. With the assumptions of a stable region that has long assured the protection of its interests now having been stripped away, Washington may well be compelled to undertake a fundamental reassessment of its relations with the Middle East. It is the price that it must pay for a fundamentally flawed foreign policy.
*Rev. Surujlall Motilall lives in Roosendaal, the Netherlands. His email: S.Motilall@telfort.nl