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Contested narratives and security implications as protests continue across the Arab world

Oliver Scanlan
11 February 2011

US government turns up heat on Mubarak regime while commentators remain divided

In his strongest statement yet on the unfolding leadership crisis in Egypt, US President Obama expressed his concern that the Cairo regime had to yet to put forward a ‘credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy’ and his support for the protesters as representing ‘the greatness of the Egyptian people.’ He also called for any reforms to be ‘irreversible’, interpreted by some commentators to suggest scepticism at Mubarak’s handing over of power to his vice-president, Omar Suleiman. The statement comes one day after both the US president and his CIA director, Leon Panetta, made optimistic suggestions that the Egyptian president would step down on Friday and were subsequently humiliated by Mubarak’s continuing intransigence.

The US administration’s tough stance ends days of equivocation. Commentary from the US and the UK is still heavily divided. ‘Traditional’ conservative discussion on both sides of the Atlantic continues to focus on the potential threat posed by the election of an Egyptian government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Neoconservative authorities have called for Mubarak to go and have gone so far as to view the events in Tunisia and Tahrir square as a direct result of former President George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, a delayed blooming of democracy in the middle east and a belated vindication of the ‘freedom agenda’. Critics on the left have been predictably sceptical of such an argument, with John Pilger characterising the current crisis as being a result of long-standing UK and US neocolonialism in the region, highlighting Vice-President Suleiman’s previous role as overseer of US rendition flights to Egypt.

Iran and Hizbollah welcome Egyptian protests as Hamas and PA clamp down

On Friday, in a speech to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad gave his support to the Egyptian protest movement, saying that the Egyptian people ‘have the right to live in freedom and choose their own government’. He went on to state that the protests mark the emergence of a new middle east, free of US and Israeli interference. His comments come less than a day after state security forces placed opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi under house arrest because of his call for a rally in support of the Tahrir square protesters. Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, hailed the ‘Islamic uprisings’ in Tunisia and Egypt, saying that, if successful, they would lead to the defeat of US policies in the region.

Earlier in the week, the general secretary of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, characterised the protesters as fighting ‘for Arab dignity’. Lambasting the US as ‘backing the worst dictatorships in the Middle East’, he compared the events in Tunisia and Egypt with the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel, saying that regimes tied to the US and Israel ‘cannot stand long against the will of the people’. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have, in contrast, clamped down on solidarity rallies backing the protests, according to Human Rights Watch, in a manner similar to other Arab regimes across the middle east. The clampdown has been accompanied by arbitrary arrests, beatings and intimidation. This apparently represents a hardening of Hamas policy, as the Islamist group permitted such a rally, which included over 1,000 participants, on 4 February.

Domestic turmoil and international pressure leaves Israeli security policy in flux

At this crucial point in Arab affairs, Israeli security policy has been left dangerously uncertain by a combination of fresh foreign pressure and domestic uncertainty. On Wednesday, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in view of the ‘new dynamic in the region’. On the same day, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that the peace process could become lost in the upheavals in the region, and called for Israel to avoid ‘belligerent rhetoric’.

Domestically, Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s feud with IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Askhenazi has divided the military, politicised the relationship between defence minister and generals and has led to a new ‘acting chief of staff’, Yair Naveh, taking charge for a period of two months. The result is paralysis and anger at the very highest levels of the Israeli military. In political terms, the Netanyahu administration is becoming progressively isolated. The Labour Party’s split in January and Ehud Barak’s formation of the new ‘Independence’ party in order to remain in the administration has provided a precarious stop gap, if only because Barak is increasingly unpopular due to the Ashkenazi affair. The result is Netanyahu’s even further dependence on Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu party if his coalition is to survive.

The openSecurity verdict: As events continue to unfold, disparate actors attempt to impose their own narratives, as if by the act of labelling what is happening a vindication of the neocon ‘freedom agenda’ or an ‘Islamist Renaissance’ they will make it so. The yawning gap between rhetoric and policy casts doubt on all such proclamations. Despite Obama’s strong statement on Friday, there remains the question of how the US would react if the next Egyptian administration includes the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite words of solidarity from the Iranian leadership, Iran’s state security apparatus has been diligent to limit public gatherings in support of the Tahrir Square protest. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has remained ominously silent, even as he subsidises food prices. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas are both worried, for different reasons. Hamas is acutely aware of its proximity to the events in Egypt and that unrest could easily spread to its Gaza enclave. The PA’s nightmare is that, if the Muslim Brotherhood does come to power in Cairo, it will represent a turning point in its own ongoing conflict with Hamas.

Israeli security policy is in pieces, with the military high command in disarray and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s daily concern being the maintenance of a parliamentary majority. Israeli commentators point out that this leaves Avigdor Lieberman arguably the most influential decision-maker in Israeli politics. In view of his oratorical record regarding both Iran and the Palestinians, this is not a comforting thought. But as policy across the globe towards the Egyptian crisis continues in a cautious and vacillatory vein, the world’s most powerful decision-makers wait on events in Tahrir square and the hundreds of thousands of protesters who are the driving force of change in the region.

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