Although the Libyan civil war is the current focus of most of the world’s (and certainly John McCain’s) attention, that blooldletting is a sideshow on the greater stage of the revolutionary movement that has swept across parts of the Middle East since January and which may spread even further in the upcoming months or years. The central stage of this drama is a two-act drama. The key element in that drama is the shape that post-uprising political systems in the region will take, and it is a contest widely portrayed in terms of democracy versus religious extremism (Islamism). The outcome of that contest may reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East region, and especially the critical triangular relationship between the United States, Egypt, and Israel that is a linchpin of American foreign policy in the region.
The common denominator of the Middle East revolutions has been popular uprisings against repressive, authoritarian regimes by suppressed peoples. These movements were virtually unanticipated in the West, which saw regimes like that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak as pillars of stability in the region. That they were anti-democratic conflicted with the on-again-off-again U.S. policy of democracy promotion in the region, but that policy impulse (and it is hard to think of it as much more than that) always had as its alter ego the comfort of dealing with predictable regimes who cooperated with American policy emphases such as moderating anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab populations and participating in the American war on terrorism.
American policy toward Egypt demonstrated the American ambivalence on the subject particularly clearly. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s regime was nothing to be proud of in human rights or economic matters, but he was enduring (it lasted over 30 years, after all), and Mubarak was a staunch supporter of peace with Israel and a champion of anti-terrorist activities. But there was always an irony involved: the same prisons where he jailed and even tortured his political opponents were also available for the “rendition” (i.e. torture) of suspected terrorists captured by the United States and from whom the Americans wanted to extract information that it would be embarassing for us to obtain otherwise. Good old Hosni would take care of them for us. Gee, some of us may actually miss him.
Ambivalence about what is happening is, of course, rarely put this way. Rather, the great fear is that democratic movements in the countries undergoing upheavals may somehow be highjacked by radical Islamists, who will transform their societies into Iran-like clones and even, at worst, as havens for fanatical terrorists. This is a fear that beleaguered tyrants like Muammar Gadhafi have raised with particular vehemence (his charge that westerners and Al Qaeda–strange bedfellows–are responsible for Libya’s travail), and it raises a prospect that many others, but especially Israel, feels with particularly personal urgency.
But is this fear justified? It is too early to say with absolute certainty, but the early indications are that as democratic processes emerge, the Islamic extremists will not fare especially well. Egypt, which is the largest, most populous, and most strategically located of all the countries undergoing change, is the case in point. It is, of course, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of which are active in virtually every other Arab country in the region, but all indications are that the Brotherhood will neither be the preeminent influence in a post-Mubarak political order nor will its influence be particularly radical. One can and should never say never about these prospects, but unless things change, the prospects seem manageable.
There are, however, two other possible, even probable, outcomes that are more troublesome for the West, and the United States and Israel in particular. One is that all of these movements are likely to contain fairly strong anti-American elements. In one way this is strange, since it is western inventiveness that has energized the movements (e.g. the Internet) and since the political freedom to which they aspire is distinctly western. At the same time, the peoples involved know that that west, and notably the United States, has been the primary supporter of discredited leaders like Mubarak–the source of the misery to which they have reacted. This dichotomy mainly reflects the schizophrenia of American policy that valued “stability” over our own democratic values in these places, and that it is coming home to roost is probably something we will have to endure and try to make the best of. But one thing is pretty clear, and that it that the United States will have less influence over whoever ascends to power in places like Egypt than it had before.
This recognition brings us to the other outcome, which is a more anti-Israeli stance from post-revolutionary governments. For better or worse reasons, public opinion in places like Egypt is much more pro-Palestinian and thus thus anti-Israeli than the policies of fallen leaders like Mubarak have reflected. In open and democratic settings, it will be impossible for successor governments not to reflect this opposition, and the trick for the United States will be to try to keep this sentiment from boiling over into the destruction of the Middle East peace process which, ironically, has been one of the triumphs of the American policy of supporting regional tyrants.
The Israelis, of course, are well aware of and consequently with this likely outcome of democratization. The process, however, also leaves Israel in something of a bind in terms of how to respond. One of the signal bases of Israeli appeal in the region has been that it is the only legitimate political democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it can hardly oppose the spread of democracy to its neighbors. At the same time, it is also aware of the anti-Israeli tone of democratic politics there, a sentiment largely born of Israel’s obdurate clinging to the West Bank and opposition to completing an agreement creating an independent state of Palestine. These contradictions are part of a lively political debate within Israel, but the Israelis have been very quiet internationally about how they feel. Privately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently strongly advocated muscular American actions to prop up Mubarak (coming out on the stability end of the stability-democracy argument), but that train has left the station, and the Israelis are hunkering down.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the great question that remains is what will become of the strategically triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Under Mubarak, the three were united to keep the lid on the volatile region by maintaining at least the fiction of a lively peace process leading to some kind of solution acceptable to the Palestinians, but democratic expressions in places like Egypt could undercut that fiction. It is not clear how diminished American influence will be in this situation, but it will certainly be decreased somewhat. The result will be uncomfortable for Israel, because its current policy of expanding the status quo will come under increasingly withering criticism from unconstrained democratizing places like Egypt. How Israel responds to this change will go a long way toward defining the geopolitics of the democratizing Middle East.