Mubarak Won't Run Again: Who's Next in the Middle East?
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt announced on Tuesday that he will not run for election again in September, just two weeks after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia. The question on everyone's lips is now, “Who's next?” In the hours before Mubarak made his announcement, King Abdullah of Jordan dismissed his government, named a new prime minister, and ordered him to “correct the mistakes of the past;” President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, bracing for a national “day of rage” that the opposition has called for Thursday, summoned his rubber-stamp parliament to an emergency session at which he is expected to announce his response to rising protests; and anti-government activists in Syria called for nationwide demonstrations this weekend.
Photos: Egypt Protests
Most Jordanians respect their monarchy, but more than a million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, and they, like many other Jordanians, are intensely unhappy with what they see as King Abdullah's support for U.S. policies toward Israel. Poverty and corruption intensify this unhappiness. The king may decide that it will be easier to change foreign policy gears than curb corruption and improve Jordan's economy. If he concludes that he must make a concession to demonstrators who have poured onto Amman's streets in recent days, distancing himself from the U.S. and Israel may be his best option.
President Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, is in more danger. The U.S. backs him because, unlike most Yemenis, he supports the American “war on terror.” He was deeply compromised by a WikiLeaks cable showing that he allows the U.S. to carry out drone strikes on targets inside his country while pretending not to. “We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” he told General David Petraeus. Yemen is miserably poor and riven by regional disputes. An aide said Tuesday that Saleh would not run for re-election when his current term ends in 2013, but that promise falls into the too-little-too-late category and is unlikely to have much effect. Popular protests may not be potent enough to force Saleh out, but they could lead to the explosion of civil war that some Yemen-watchers have been uneasily predicting for several years.
In Syria, opposition figures are calling for protests to demand more political freedom and better living standards, but they have not demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. He seems likely to weather the storm, for several reasons. He is relatively young, has been in power for barely a decade, commands an intensely loyal army, and is widely seen as moderate and reform-oriented. Most important, his people do not see him as a lackey of the United States. Unlike Mubarak, who collaborates with Israel and has been rewarded with billions of dollars in American aid, he defies Israel and his government is the target of U.S. sanctions.
A profoundly changed Middle East will emerge from these extraordinary days.
In an interview published Monday in the Wall Street Journal, Assad said his regime was safe because it is “closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” What he meant was: Arabs are rebelling against regimes that embrace America's Middle East policies, but mine will survive because I reflect Arab disgust with Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
The new “Arab revolt”—this one genuinely Arab, unlike the rebellion against Ottoman power stage-managed by the British in 1916—is still spreading. Dozens of protesters in Algeria have been wounded in clashes with police, and Algerian schoolteachers have called for a nationwide protest on Feb. 12. In Sudan, police have fired tear gas at protesters, arrested hundreds, and beat students at three university campuses.
Two regimes that Washington counts on to support its comically misnamed Middle East “peace process,” the Palestinian Authority and the Saudi monarchy, have denounced Arab protests. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PA and America's favorite Palestinian, telephoned President Mubarak on Saturday and “affirmed his solidarity,” according to the official Palestinian news agency. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, another close American ally, lamented that protesters “have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability.” If these leaders turn out to have placed themselves on the wrong side of history, their regimes could be in danger. The fall of either would be a catastrophe for American policy at least as great as losing Mubarak.
While America's friends resist and condemn Arab protests, the government of Iran is welcoming and encouraging them. A government spokesman in Tehran praised Egyptian protesters and urged Mubarak to “respond to their rightful demands.” One can hardly imagine a more graphic example of why Iran's influence in the Middle East is spreading while American influence fades. Millions of Arabs admire Iran because its leaders oppose both Israel and reactionary Arab regimes. They see the US as enabling the siege of Gaza, the spread of Jewish settlements, and the eternal rule of corrupt Arab dictators—while continuing to occupy Iraq, wage war in Afghanistan, and use drone bombs to attack targets in Pakistan and other Muslim countries.
Even if no more Arab regimes fall in the coming weeks or months, a profoundly changed Middle East will emerge from these extraordinary days. Long-entrenched leaders are scrambling to address their people's demands in ways they would never before have considered. Whether this heralds the dawn of democracy in the Arab world remains to be seen, but it shatters the paradigm of authoritarian leaders who rule by decree, loot their national treasuries, and support deeply unpopular American policies.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.