During the past week or so the whole world has watched with awe and admiration the tremendous struggle that is taking place in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. With the collapse of the Tunisian dictatorship a few weeks earlier, it seems that another repressive Arab regime may disappear from the pages of history. It is of course much too early to know how the events in Egypt, and even in Tunisia, will pan out. Democracy may take root, or another strongman may emerge. Whatever the final outcome in Egypt and Tunisia, one can already begin to identify the main winners and losers from these momentous struggles.
The main winners in all this will be the vast majority of the Egyptian and Tunisian people. A key driving force behind the current protests has been the worsening economic situation, with high and rising unemployment and high and rising prices of staple goods, particularly food. All this of course is an inevitable consequence of these countries following neo-liberal economic policies designed to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Whatever new regime emerges it will of necessity need to do something to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor. No-one pretends that either country will suddenly become lands of milk and honey, but at the very least things will be less bad than before for the poorest sections of society.
Politically the Egyptian and Tunisian people can only gain from the protests. Again there is no need to assume a full transition to democracy, though of course that may happen, and let us hope that it does. However, again out of self-interest, whatever new regimes emerge they will be need to be more democratic, more open and less repressive than the current regimes.
Moslems throughout the world, and in particular Arab Moslems, are likely to be the other beneficiaries of the protests. The rest of the world, particularly in Europe and North America is now getting a real time glimpse into who these Arab Moslems are. And they are far removed from the stereotype portrayed in the Western media. In Cairo all kinds of people have been out protesting, including women and young people. And very few of them have worn the burka or hajib. Even that apparent bogeyman of the West, the Moslem Brotherhood has not played an important role in the protests. This has been a spontaneous uprising of ordinary people, who have shown enormous persistence and have protested in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner. It has only been the pro-Mubarak thugs who have resorted to violence. These on the whole positive images can only help more and more people in the West reject the current negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
There are likely to be quite a lot of losers from these protests. Even if the protesters do not attain all their demands. In the first place of course the current repressive regimes have lost. The Tunisian regime has already fallen and Mubarak is most unlikely to survive, even if he does remain in office until September. While new authoritarian regimes may re-emerge, they are unlikely to be as dominant and narrowly based as the current ones.
Other Middle East dictators will find it very difficult to survive unscathed. The oil rich regimes can always use their oil wealth to buy off discontent. An option not available to the other regimes. The Yemeni dictator has already announced that he will retire, while the King of Jordan has been forced to form a new government. Again it is far too early to speculate about long term changes in these countries. However it is likely that all will feel obliged to introduce some kind of democratic openings and loosen their repressive security apparatus.
Neo-liberalism itself has been badly discredited in all this. It is quite clear that the current economic consensus is doing little for the poor of the world. Even more so when it is forced on people by corrupt and exploitative elites. Future governments which are more responsive to the views of its citizens are more likely to push for reforms and changes in the way the IMF works and more voices are likely to be raised against the current wave of globalisation.
The biggest loser in the long run is likely to be Israel. It is fascinating to watch how senior Israeli government officials have rushed to defend Mubarak and his repressive regime. As many people are discovering the only friends that Israel has in the region are dictators. While no Egyptian regime is likely to repudiate the peace treaty with Israel, that is the least of Israel’s worries. Any Egyptian regime which is in any way responsive to the views of its citizens can only take a more pro Palestinian stance. The Rafah border crossing from Egypt into Gaza is likely to be re-opened, perhaps without any restrictions, thus effectively breaking the illegal Israeli siege of Gaza. Egypt would almost certainly adopt a more aggressive and demanding position on Israeli positions, such as the illegal settlements and the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.
Israel thus faces the prospect of a pincer movement against her from the north and the south. Egypt is likely to ally itself with Turkey, previously a key ally, and now an articulate and aggressive critic of Israel. As Egypt is the largest and most important Arab country, if she does become more critical of Israel, this could well encourage other Arab countries to also adopt a more aggressively critical approach to Israel.
To the extent that Egypt does become a more democratic and open country, much in the way Turkey is, then it will become more and more difficult for Israel to portray itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, a claim that was always untrue anyway. If we ever reach the stage when Israel is surrounded by peaceful, democratic regimes, then it will be almost impossible for the USA to continue to bankroll the country.
This leads us to the USA. In the short run the US may well be counted as one of the losers. After all US policy in the region has been to support and often bankroll these corrupt, brutal and repressive regimes. All in the interest of stability and to protect Israel. The emergence of new, more independent minded regimes in the region will cause a few headaches for the US. However in the long run this may all work to the advantage of the US. For the first time in a very long time the US has the chance to support democracy in the Arab world without having to invade it first. A US that was prepared to help, support and work with more democratic regimes would work wonders for the image of the US, not just in the Middle East, but in the world at large. The main difficulty for the USA is that if democratic regimes emerge in the Arab world, the US may have to revise its continuing unquestioning support of Israel, whatever it does.
Who knows at this stage, but stranger things have happened. None of the Middle East experts predicted the kind of continuous protests we are seeing in Egypt. Quite the reverse, we were assured that Egypt would not succumb to protests. However the events in Egypt and Tunisia pan out, and let us pray that any changes are peaceful, it is clear that the Middle East has already profoundly changed.