Let us hope Mideast uprisings turn out like Prague 1989, not Tehran 1979

IT is too early to say we are witnessing the much-vaunted Arab Spring in the Middle East. The removal of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abadine Ben Ali from power cannot be said to symbolise victories for democracy in Egypt, at least not at this stage. Instead, what we have seen are popular coups.

Take Egypt. The Egyptian constitution does not provide for a president to hand over the reins of office to the army but that is what has happened. To date, the Egyptian people, from everything we can see, have accepted the situation in the short term but, one suspects, there are a dozen different preferred outcomes.

For now, the Egyptian army is just anxious to maintain its ties to the millions-strong crowds in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. As we know from our own history, though, soldiers can be greeted with cups of tea one day and bullets in the back very soon afterwards. And, for all their might, how representative are those crowds in a country of 80 million?

That is not to take away from the protesters’ achievement. Mubarak clung on for a few weeks — just long enough to ensure his vast funds were safely transferred offshore, some say — so when he finally relinquished office, the victory was all the sweeter. What remains to be seen is how successfully the army plots out the transition to elections and a new presidency in a country with precious little in terms of a democratic tradition.

One imagines that, like in Turkey from the 1920s until the 1990s, the army will allow free elections but on the proviso that its guiding hand over foreign policy is acknowledged. That should mean that, in the short term at least, peace is maintained with Israel: Egypt has picked — and lost — too many fights there before.

This is good news from every point of view — the 1981 peace agreement is one of the few key stabilising factors in what is otherwise a cauldron of hatreds. Whether whatever replaces the Mubarak regime will be happy to accept the foreign policy status quo is the central question going forward. Certainly, we can expect the rhetorical temperature to rise as the paranoia that pervades Egyptian society is given voice at the political level. There will be many calls for the implementation of sharia law, which is something to ponder upon. Public beheadings in town squares might take the shine off a week by the pool in Sharm el-Sheikh.

To say other Middle Eastern rulers are nervous is an understatement. At the time of writing, Colonel Gaddafi appears to be losing his formerly iron grip. Both Palestinian leaderships — Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — have every reason to fear their people because neither regime has much legitimacy. Travelling from Jordan into the West Bank earlier this week, however, it seemed remarkably quiet. Perhaps the unusually unpleasant weather is cooling tempers.

From the United States’ perspective, while opinions differ about Barack Obama’s handling of his biggest foreign policy challenge to date, there will be quiet satisfaction that people power has not had its way in Bahrain. It might be a tiny island but as the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, it is of critical importance.

So far, the Bahraini monarchy has managed to put down the protesters although if the repression becomes much more severe, Washington might have to distance itself from the regime with serious repercussions for its military position in the whole region. Effectively, the Bahrain base protects all the Gulf states from Iran but the Bahraini monarchy, being Sunni, is always vulnerable as it rules over a mainly Shia population. The French naval base in the UAE seems more secure — the Emiratis are bought off with glitzy hotels and ski slopes.

This just highlights the extent to which each country is different. The Bahrainis have exhausted their oil supplies and rely on the US and Saudi Arabia for handouts. Poverty-stricken and war-torn Yemen, in the far south of the Gulf, on the other hand, has also seen massive protests but it has no patrons except al-Qaida.

What might follow Colonel Gaddafi who must be in his final years — if not hours — in power, is the most fascinating question of all, perhaps. By the time you read this, he might have already fled. His weird regime has been in place for over 40 years, far longer than the lives of most Libyans. The wealth is shared around but his rule is absolute. His hopes of a North Korean-style transition to one of his sons appear to have been blown apart.

Other states seem more stable. There have been protests in Jordan and Algeria but relatively minor ones. Morocco is more democratic than most. Syria seems quiet but almost any change there would be a change for the better. The Saudis will put up with no dissent.

The conclusion must be, therefore, that this is not an Arab version of 1989 in Eastern Europe where one regime after another fell within months — although it’s sometimes forgotten that not everyone shared in that wonderful moment. Ask the Belorussians or the Moldovans. Even though we have not seen the outworkings of one of these revolutions as yet, some trends can be observed. The monarchies appear to be withstanding the assault rather better than the highly flawed republics. The various kingdoms, emirates and sheikhdoms have become masters of co-opting various sectional interests. The republics are now mostly so long in the tooth that, unless they can point to material progress, they find it hard to rally their populations any longer with nationalist rhetoric.

Oil and gas matter too. If you’re a Yemeni, what have you got to lose from rising up? Most Saudis, on the other hand, for all the indignities the Wahabbis force on the population, can at least keep the four-wheel drives on the road.

And some Arab countries have moved with the times — a bit. I recall as long ago as 20 years ago attending a lecture at university where it was prophesied that we would see a domino effect across North Africa and the Gulf. While an Arab democracy is almost a contradiction in terms, the Moroccans and the Kuwaitis were pro-active and created mechanisms for participation. Others feared any loosening of the grip would create expectations for democratic reform that the regimes had no intention of fulfilling. They are now paying the price.

A year from now, we might be looking at a new Middle East. At least in some cases, the fear must be that, as in Iran in 1979, a broad-based opposition to authoritarian rule is subverted by Islamic extremists. Could we be, therefore, not in a 1989 situation but an 1848 situation when democratic revolutions quickly gave way to militarism? Or are the names on the plaques outside the palaces all that are going to change?

One thing does seem certain. The biggest winner to date has been Iran, the chief rival to joint Egyptian and Saudi leadership of the Middle East. Maliciously and without irony, it lauds the uprisings while executing their own people with impunity for daring to say boo to the ayatollahs. The so-called Great Satan, the United States, must play its cards very carefully indeed.

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