The Arab rebellion: perspectives of power

The Arab popular awakening is provoking serious concern among state and security elites across the west. But Israel’s stance is the most self-defeating of all.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 February 2011

The Arab world is in ferment. The popular upheavals that removed presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, the intensifying protests from Bahrain to Algeria and Morocco, and the revolt in Libya - all testify to the arrival of new generations, voices, and aspirations onto the region’s social and political stage.

These mobilisations, whatever their outcome as a whole and in each case, have already succeeded in placing the demand for change on the agenda of the powerful. But how will power-holders respond?

The Iranian gift

The coincidence that two elite events, long in the planning though they were, took place in the midst of the Arab revolt offers an opportunity to throw light on the question. The International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX 2011) in Abu Dhabi is a major fixture in the global arms-sales calendar; the eleventh Herzliya conference in Israel is a prestigious annual gathering of politicians and security analysts.

Abu Dhabi's IDEX series started in 1993 and has grown into the region's largest arms fair, with delegates from fifty countries; the latest event, held on 20-24 February 2011, culminates in a gala dinner earlier for over 2,000 guests. Many of the exhibits aim at enticing wealthy states in the western Gulf that are wary of Iran. Just before the conference started, the Iranians kindly helped things along by sending (with permission from Egypt) two warships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria.

This is the first time Iran had deployed warships through the canal since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The incident provoked Israel to put its navy on a high state of alert as the ships transited north outside Israeli territorial waters. 

There is curious connection between IDEX 2011 and the Iranian manoeuvre, in that both ships were constructed in British yards after being commissioned by the Shah who was to be overthrown in 1979. The 1,540-ton light frigate Alvand was built by Vosper Thornycraft and launched in 1968; the 11,000-ton Kharg replenishment auxiliary was built at Swan Hunter's shipyard at Wallsend and launched in 1977.

A further twist here is that the publicity surrounding the voyage to Syria’s Latakia base can only have improved prospects for arms sales directed against Iran, with anti-aircraft and missile defences much in demand. Equally relevant to the current political moment, however, is that IDEX 2011 displayed a wide range of equipment available for dealing with insurgencies and rebellions, as well as more straightforward public-order control.

Some was on sale from perhaps unexpected sources. In the apartheid era, South Africa forged ahead in the development of a range of light-patrol vehicles designed to help maintain control, especially in urban areas. Now, almost two decades later, South African arms companies are still in there and looking to use their past experience in the townships to help open up new markets. The Paramount Group, for example, is pushing hard its Paramount Low Profile Vehicle (PLPV); it aims both to sell the product - geared primarily for counterinsurgency - and establish local manufacturing centres in the middle east, perhaps in the United Arab Emirates (see "IDEX 2011: Paramount teams with IGG for Middle East drive", Shephard Group, 21 February 2011).

Much of the focus at IDEX 2011 was concerned with public-order control. France’s state-owned training company Défense Conseil International (DCI) reported - with an exquisite sense of timing, given the killing of protesters in Manama days earlier - that its crowd-control specialists had just started to advise Bahrain’s army on “non-lethal crowd control” (see Pierre Tran, “IDEX: DCI Crowd-Control Specialists Work With Bahraini Army”, Defense News, 22 February 2011).

DCI also announced that it had sent a team of specialists to Libya “aimed at bringing the Libyan air force's Mirage F1 fighters back into active service”; though there was no indication of how they might then be used.

The view from the summit

IDEX 2011's five-day programme closely followed the Herzliya conference on 6-9 February 2011, held under the auspices of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) in Israel. The agenda of this  eleventh such gathering was set well in advance of the popular revolts across the Arab middle east, but analysis of the implications of the current tumultuous events - including for Israel - was central to the deliberations. 

A striking feature of such events, again evident at Herzliya, is the range of influential actors that are nervous at the prospect of more democratic governance. Four such groups are worthy of note.

First, many western statesmen who voice welcome for the changes, for example, have also long built close links with “stable” autocracies in the Arab world. Their unspoken though sometimes half-revealed concern is that democracy would be messy and discomforting.

Second, elite groups within the region are very worried that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt will extend to their own states. The leaderships in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria are all trying to find a mix of concessions and reform plausible enough to defuse protest; the House of Saud’s sudden largesse towards its citizens indicates the depth of its own concern, not least as it observes events in Bahrain (see Michael Birnbaum, "16 miles away, Saudi Arabia's watchful eye looms over Bahrain's unrest", Washington Post, 24 February 2011); and Iran's power-structure is fearful that the domestic opposition will revive in the wake of the Arab protests (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's resilient rebellion", 18 February 2011)

Third, al-Qaida is discomforted by the fact that the popular insurgencies - something the movement might be expected to welcome - do not find inspiration in its version of Islamist revolution (see “The SWISH Report (18)”, 17 February 2011). The process of change in its early stages, and al-Qaida may yet benefit if new forms of governance fail to deliver in the face of entrenched economic problems; but in the short-term, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brainchild faces the most difficult circumstance imaginable - irrelevance.

Fourth, there is Israel, whose most immediate fear is that a reformed government in Cairo will respond to public pressure and end the embargo of Gaza. That substantial change would likely require Israel’s army to reoccupy the southern part of Gaza and isolate the Philadelphi corridor, in turn making clear that Israel alone was treating Gaza as an open prison.

But Israel's concerns go far wider. They were discussed at Herzliya by key international figures who included the Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Britain’s defence minister, Liam Fox, and the former head of the US’s national-security council General James Jones.

Democracy vs fixity

Israel’s dominant perspective is that the United States is losing its potency across the region, in great part through its readiness to abandon presumed guarantors of stability such as Hosni Mubarak. More broadly, Washington seems willing to countenance unpredictable political change that (in the Israeli view) carries the risk of “the street carrying the day” and of protesters unrepresentative of the majority being propelled to power.

Israel's conclusion from these two perceptions - the decline in Washington's power and regional uncertainty - could be to seek to strengthen its links with influential states (such as China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil and even Azerbaijan). There is little if any sign that Israel will upgrade its efforts to seek a just peace with the Palestinians it still has a chance to do so (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “Hedging Against America”, Defense News, 14 February 2011).

A significant exchange at the Herzliya conference highlights the core issue at stake in the relationship of the Arab awakening to the security of states in the region. James Jones both rejected the notion that US influence was in retreat and stressed the need for Israel to seize the opportunity to negotiate: “Failure to act could ignite a repetition of Egypt on streets in neighbouring countries. Will extremists win the hearts and minds of the young Arab street? Or will moderate voices prevail for a two-state solution? This could be the most important national security question for our time, and if we fail, history will not forgive us.”

The response of Amos Gilad, director of political-military affairs at Israel’s defence ministry, was revealing. “Democracy and stability”, he said, “cannot coexist in the Arab middle east”, as free elections would only bring extremists to power.

This view does seem to be shared across most of the Israeli political establishment, including the government of Binyamin Netanyahu and its coalition partners. Many progressive Israelis reject it, but they have little influence in an atmosphere dominated by the right. This powerful consensus suggests little prospect of immediate change, even as the wider region is undergoing a transformation. So for now at least, the arms companies represented at IDEX 2011 - sanctioned by their political masters and partners - will do their best to sell the means to maintain order and control.

Israel has over decades become used to dealing with rigid autocracies in the Arab world. Now it is faced with unsettling change, to which - in a stance shared only by the most recalcitrant Arab dictators - it seems able to respond only by reaffirming the certainties of an earlier age. The United States and its European allies may be perplexed at the pace of events. But Israel, for the first time in very many years, is quite out of its depth. 

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