Middle East

Arab unrest: Winners and losers

A masked Omani protester flashes victory signs in Muscta, 27 Feb
Image caption The rebellions are overthrowing the whole political structure of the region

The revolutionary storm has shaken the Middle East to its very foundation, and regardless of what happens next, the region's state system will never be the same, says Professor Fawaz A Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

The people's movements are not just calling for a tinkering of the system, but to restructure the entire authoritarian system along more pluralistic and socially just lines.

The winners are the people of the Middle East who have been politically oppressed for decades. Millions of voiceless Arabs and Muslims have regained their voice.

The current intifada, or revolution, is not just about bread and butter or jobs - it is about freedom and individual liberties. For the first time in the past 40 years, the people of the Middle East are trying to own their histories and determine their futures.

The major losers are the autocratic rulers who have bled their societies dry, used blood and iron to suppress dissent, and neglected the hopes and aspirations of their citizens.

The irony is that the heads of the republics tend to be the most vulnerable, from Tunisia's Ben Ali to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Most are unlikely to survive the powerful storm.

The monarchies - such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco - have also been shaken by the social unrest. They seem less vulnerable than the republics, though the powerful tide might still overwhelm them.

Fortress Israel

Regionally, Israel is the biggest loser. It has put all its eggs into the basket of Arab dictators and autocrats, like Egypt's deposed Hosni Mubarak. Israel fought tooth and nail to support Mr Mubarak, who played a key role in tightening the siege of Gaza and the noose around Hamas's neck.

Time and again, the Israeli political class has proven to be its own worst enemy. Israel lost Iran 40 years ago because it put all its eggs in the Shah's basket. It has just lost Turkey over the killing of nine activists on board a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship.

And now Israel is likely to lose Egypt, a critical and pivotal neighbour whose Camp David peace agreement in the late 1970s consolidated Israel's superiority in the region and undermined the official Arab state system.

Regardless of what governments emerge out of the rubble of political authoritarianism in the Arab world, they will have assertive foreign policies that challenge Israel's hegemony and further colonisation of Palestinian lands.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has lost all credibility in the eyes of the people there. The leaked negotiation documents obtained by al-Jazeera - offering wide-ranging concessions to the Israeli side - were the final nail in the PA's coffin.

Resistance-based movements like Hamas and Hezbollah have gained more popularity at the expense of Abbas's Palestinian Authority; they will emerge as major winners of the social turmoil unless Israel takes concrete steps to sign a peace settlement and withdraw from occupied Arab territories.

So Israel has become a military fortress. The best way for Israel to address its security dilemma is to accept a two-state solution as suggested by the international community - including its long-time ally, the US.

US: partner in oppression?

As for the US, the loss of America's pro-Western dictators presents a major setback for Washington. For the last 60 years, the US has mostly sacrificed the rule of law and human rights on the altar of a narrowly defined concept of stability and security.

Image caption Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could see his influence in the region rapidly diminish

Washington has been slow to seize the moment, but President Barack Obama has urged his advisers to support an orderly transition to more open political systems.

The US played a key role in pressuring the Egyptian army to coax Mr Mubarak out of power. And Washington convinced the Sunni royal family in Bahrain to genuinely engage with the majority Shia opposition there. In Libya, after a slow start, the US has taken the lead in exerting pressure on Col Gaddafi and supporting the wishes and aspirations of the majority of Libyans.

But the jury is out on whether the US will exert pressure on the Arab militaries, particularly in Egypt, to relinquish power to a civilian leadership.

If the US learns the big lessons out of the turmoil in the region, it can rebuild the broken bridges of trust with Middle Eastern societies.

The US should not just be on the right side of history. America must realise that Middle Eastern dictators have not only brought ruin to their societies, they have fuelled anti-American and anti-Western sentiments there.

There is a relative consensus in the region that the US is a partner in their oppression because of its support to their ruling tormentors.


The reverberations of the social revolution are also being felt in Iran, where there is a huge vacuum of legitimate political authority. Iran is a divided country, especially since the disputed presidential election last June which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

After the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran trying to challenge the authority of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The revival of Egypt will also likely weaken Iran's role in the Arab world. One of the major reasons why Iran has been able to exert influence in Sunni-based Arab societies is because Egypt has relinquished its traditional role.

If and when Egypt is reintegrated into the Arab world, Iran will not have the space to auto-fill in the region. Most importantly, the social revolutions in the Arab world will likely deepen the crisis of legitimacy of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The dust has not settled on the battlefield yet. The transition to democracy is likely to be rocky, messy and prolonged. Democratic transformation and consolidation will take years if not decades to be realised.

But one thing is clear - a rupture has taken place in the region. Neither the Middle East, nor its international relations will ever be the same.

Fawaz A Gerges is a Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.