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Political Unrest in the Middle East/North Africa

Posted by: Annie Voy | January 31, 2011 | 8 Comments |

As you’ve probably heard, there’s a lot of upheaval in the Middle East/North Africa (most notably in Tunisia and Egypt). Here is a timeline of recent events from the Wall Street Journal.

To stay afloat on the situation in the region click here for Egypt and here for Tunisia.

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Responses -

I have heard Egypt is one of our allies but was not really sure how Egypt was an ally.

After reading the news about Egypt, some parts of the protests have mirrored something I keep reading about for my topic for the research project due in a few months.

As for the sense of no leadership for the flash demonstrations, it sounds like people living in Egypt are as adept at using social networking to their advantage as Americans.

However, I am surprised at the “anti-mob” mentality being displayed with the Egyptian Army. “On Jan. 31, the Egyptian Army announced for the first time that it would not fire on protesters, even as tens of thousands of people gathered in central Tahir Square for a seventh day.” It seems the Egyptian Army understands the need not to fire into the demonstrators and need the aid we give Egypt.

As for Tunisia, it is a country elementary, middle, and high school students do not usually hear about (due to Egypt being closer and more famous thanks to pyramids).

Relating to the timeline, there are a few parallels that run through most of the countries that I find interesting.

The first is that they are all happening in close proximity, where the boldness of one country can inspire others in neighboring countries to act in the same way. A similar effect occurred in Africa, with many countries gaining independence from colonial powers around the same time.

Also, the United States is mentioned in relation to the unrest in Palestinian territories, Yemen, and Lebanon. In Palestine the leader is accused of making concessions to the U.S. and Israel, resulting in unrest. In Yemen the people are looking to overthrow their U.S.-backed government. In Lebanon, militant action is undermining U.S. influence. While the U.S. is susceptible to being targeted as a rallying point for militant groups, these examples show how delicate and unpredictable the situations are in the Middle East, and how careful U.S. policy must be.

I don’t know if anyone saw the interview a news station did with Milton Friedman a few days ago. He said, “the Middle East has been on vacation from history for 50 years.”

If one visits or studies the Middle East, they will quickly discover nothing could be truer. The Middle East lags behind the developed world in nearly development indicator. Much of the region has been under the thumb of autocrats like Mubarak, Gadhafi and King Abdullah of Jordan for decades. Economic growth and opportunity lags nearly everywhere, except for those connected to ruling parties and monarchs. Who can blame Egyptians for rioting? Quite frankly, the average Egyptians’ life sucks in comparison with more developed nations. Corrupt regimes cannot hide from their people the rest of the developed world lives a higher standard of material living and has more political freedoms. I suppose the question is: Why weren’t they rioting sooner?

Mubarak remained in power for decades longer because the US supported him. He received billions in American aid per year to build an extensive security apparatus and modern military Why? He is secular, did not tolerate Muslim extremists and his regime provided stability in an unstable region.

The situation in the Middle East is a very delicate one that Americans should pay close attention to. I am torn over these uprisings. On the one hand, I cannot blame the people of these poor nations for being upset at their living conditions. Seeing the picture of the young man who lit himself on fire because he could not sell his fruit in the road really opened my eyes. He had a university education but still could find no work, and was prohibited from trying to earn enough money to sustain himself because he did not have a permit. This true story probably reflects the lives of many of the protesters. Who can blame them for wanting to overthrow their governments, then? However, on the other hand, the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen were supported by the US for cooperating with our government. As the poor classes of these countries become more and more upset, the more extreme they are becoming, and that could lead to bad outcomes for US relations with these nations.

I also found an interesting article from Financial Times, that indicated the President of Yemen, although promising to not run for reelection in 2013, may in fact break that promise. The article pointed out that the geography of the nation makes it extremely hard to for the poor people to have a successful uprising. I found this interesting as we have been talking in class about how the geography of a nation impacts its economy to a major extent. It appears that the geography of a nation also affects its politics, which in turn affects the economy. The people of these nations want political change in order to see their economies grow so they can experience a better way of life. However, the geography of Yemen may keep its citizens from seeing any political/economic change for awhile.

The news of the riots taking place in Tunisia struck me as a situation that could be deemed, “opening up a can of worms.” Once the Tunisian people began to speak out to their government and demand control, I foresaw the surrounding nations following in Tunisia’s footsteps. During my time spent studying abroad I saw my fair share of protests and riots in the European countries. However, never did I see a protest that resembled that of the Egyptian citizens. After scrolling through all 115 photos, the riots became more real to me than simply reading about what was going on. I tried to imagine myself there and just what I would do. Over 100 hundred protestors died on the first day of protests. I would be scared out of my mind; however, these people want a better life for themselves and at this point in time getting Mr. Mubarak to resign seemed like the best way to achieve a new lifestyle.
Before this article, I had been unaware that the United States supplies Egypt with “billions of dollars.” In my opinion, the pressure from Obama had an impact on Mr. Mubarak’s decision to not run for another Presidential term. It worries me that because the government is not taking the protestors seriously because the government is continuing to fight back against the protestors. I believe that Mr. Mubarak still plans to fix the elections and to have his son become the next president. It is difficult for a nation to transform from an autocratic government. I am interested to see what happens over the next few days. A new time for Egypt is beginning and I hope that it is a positive time.

A lot of the previous posts spoke of unease and concern that the chaos of the countries in the Middle East and parts of Africa will continue and spread with no end in sight. I wonder what future involvement of the United States will look like. The media focus has shifted from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to the political changes happening in Tunisia, Egypt etc. Both President Obama and Hillary Clinton have said that the United States is prepared to help these countries make the political transitions that they desire. This is not only vague but unhelpful, because different people are looking for different transitions. Also, it seems unlikely that United States would give strong support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although many of these changes seem to be long overdue, while there is a potential for positive change, there is an equal chance for potential for civil wars/ the United States assuming military responsibility in very dangerous, political situations.

I know that it is important to look at the facts that these countries are experience a movement towards political freedom and I support them on their journey. However as mentioned in the Katie’s post, the movement is creating mob mentalities that could lead to more extreme gestures by the protesters or even future governments.
We have discussed the implications of the movements these countries and how they will impact the United States, but I feel that there is another future problem with Israel. Now if you look on the map on this website:

You can see that Israel is surrounded by countries all going through political turmoil and unrest. Many of these countries have or had quarrels with Israel in the past and now most maintain peaceful relations. With new governments and revolts happening in these neighboring countries, there could be loss of those peaceful relations and cause a conflict.
Now this is where we get pulled back into the picture. Israel is one of our original Non-NATO allies and we have very strong relationships with their government and people. If there were to be a conflict between Israel and the other middle eastern countries, we would be asked to support them. And support them we will according to Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg when he mentioned “United States’ unwavering support for Israel.”
Is this a foreseeable problem that will undoubtedly put more US troops in or back into the middle east?

I thought it was interesting that the Egyptian government was backed by the United States and that they did not care that Mubarak was corrupt and oppressive. If the United States has no qualms about supporting an oppressive leader in Egypt, what do they care about the government in Iraq and Afghanistan?