February 4, 2011

A new landscape in the Middle East

Egyptians demanding the removal of Husni Mubarak

It is a troubling time for America's allies and friends in the Middle East. It had an unlikely start in Tunisia, normally not considered a hotbed of instability, with what journalists have titled "the Jasmine Revolution" in which President Zayn al-'Abidayn bin 'Ali was forced from office. Bin 'Ali had served for over 20 years and if not a staunch ally of the United States, certainly was not anti-American.

Relations between Tunisia and the United States were warm. Tunisian officers routinely attended American military training schools, and Tunis is home to the U.S. State Department's Arabic language field school. Many of my fellow military Arabists attended school there. Although there were indications of a growing Islamist movement based on high unemployment among the nation's large youth population, no one expected the intensity of the protests that brought down the bin 'Ali government. When a new president is elected, it is likely that relations with the United States will be correct, but not improved. Like in many instances, the United States is viewed as allowing autocratic rulers to remain in power as long as they resist a move toward radical Islamic governments.

At the same time as Tunisians were taking to the streets, a crisis erupted in another of America's allies in the Middle East, this time in Lebanon. The government of Rifaq al-Hariri was brought down by the resignation of 11 Hizballah and Hizballah-allied cabinet ministers.

On January 24, the alliance that brought down the government of now former Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri nominated Najib Miqati as prime minister. The nomination was confirmed by the Parliament, and Lebanese President Mishal Sulayman had no choice but to ask Hizballah-backed Miqati to form a new government. As that process develops, you can be sure that the Iranian and Syrian influenced government that emerges will have a much different outlook on relations with the United States.

Egypt, of course, with the largest population of the Arab world and arguably its cultural center, is of major concern to the United States for a host of reasons. The 32-year old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (also known as the Camp David Accords of 1978) has been one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy in the region. The Egyptian government of Husni Mubarak has become a staunch ally of the United States, growing even closer to Washington than the government of Mubarak's assassinated predecessor Anwar al-Sadat.

The relationship between Egypt and the United States is close and complex. The American Embassy in Cairo is one of the largest in the world with well over 1000 employees assigned. The 13-story building is easily seen from almost anywhere in Cairo, including the pyramids on the Giza plateau. It is a symbol of the importance of Egypt to our policy in the region, and to Egypt's importance in the Arab world in general.

Egyptian officers attend numerous military training course in the United States, and American officers routinely attend Egyptian staff colleges. Egypt receives more foreign aid than any other country except Israel, totalling up to $50 billion since 1978. Last year alone Egypt received around $1.3 billion in military aid plus $250 million in civilian assistance. The primary fighter aircraft of the Egyptian air force are 220 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and the primary main battle tank of the Egyptian army is the American-designed M1 Abrams built under license in Egypt. Should there ever be another war inthe Middle East, Egypt may well be the deciding factor. The adage among Middle East specialists has always been, "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria."

American and Egyptian armed forces have conducted large-scale exercises for decades. These exercises paved the way for Egypt to send a 35,000 man force to fight alongside American troops in the Gulf War in 1990-91, making its contribution the third largest of all countries. Ten Egyptian soldiers died in combat in Kuwait.

The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is critical to our policy in the region. It ranks up there with our relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. A serious disruption in that relationship, for example should an Islamist government emerge in Cairo, would be a serious setback. The peace process as we know it would end. The concern over the relationship is also being felt in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

There have also been demonstrations in Jordan and Yemen, both American allies. The relationship with Jordan is also long and deep, with extensive intelligence and military cooperation. King 'Abdullah appears to still have the support of the population, but there is a desire for more input into the political process, especially among younger Jordanians. The king fired the prime minister and appointed a replacement. The replacement was soundly rejected by many of those demanding change. The king will likely make accommodations, after all, that is how Jordan's ruling family has survived.

Yemen, what I call a "nominal" American ally, faces a bigger challenge. Yemen has a violent history and tradition; guns are often the means of conflict resolution. Yemen's importance has grown in recent years as the southern Arabian peninsula has become a battleground for Islamic fundamentalists, specifically al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih has already committed to not seek re-election in 2013, but this may not be enough for those calling for political reform. Yemen is home to American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi, who is complicit in the Fort Hood shootings, the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner and attempted sabotage of aircraft with bombs secreted in printer cartridges. Removal of a friendly government in Yemen will not bode well for the war on terror.

I will forgo comment on Syria, since there is no way to construe it as either an American ally or even friendly to the United States. Given Syria's track record on handling internal protest and dissent, I am doubtful that there will be meaningful demonstration-driven change in the country.

While change in Syria might actually be a good thing for American foreign policy, the other potential changes are not. Loss of Egypt as an ally could be catastrophic for our efforts in the Middle East. The loss of Tunisia, possibly Algeria, Lebanon (which I believe is already gone), Jordan and Yemen would be of great concern.

It is impossible to predict with any certainly the outcome of the current unrest in the Middle East. Anyone who attempts predictions is merely speculating. That said, the landscape when the dust finally settles will be markedly different than it was just a month ago at the end of 2010. It may not be to our liking, and we shoud be prepared for that eventuality.