As Arab regimes are shaken allies and foes ponder the future/ Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

The Arab political coma is over. The spirit of Tunisia is in the Arab psyche. The knees of Arab despots are shaking in North Africa, West Asia and the Gulf states.

It is not only Arabs that are reviewing their priorities and thinking of the future. Israel, having for too long taken advantage of fratricidal regional politics, is now perturbed about Arab awakening. Israel should know that a reforming Arab world would ask for better terms in return for lasting peace.

Claiming to be neutral to Arab revolts, Washington is on the defensive. The White House gives pastoral advice to dictators, while it ignores its complicity in building intimate alliances with the most objectionable of regimes in the region.

Three contagious forms of change are at play today in the Arab world: a grassroots movement targeting oppressive rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan; a latent electoral shift in Lebanon and an authorized, electoral initiative to partition Sudan.

For the past five days, an unprecedented uprising has been taking place on the streets of Egypt. Egyptians call for the departure of their last Pharaoh, President Hosni Mubarak. This North African country is the center of the Arab world, a close ally of the US and a frustrated mediator of Arab-Israeli peace.

Mubarak will have to step down as his determined people demand. So far, his army has been friendly to the demonstrators. As the media exposes the scandals of this regime, it is anyone’s guess how long he can retain his post. However, if this revolution is infiltrated by elements paid to loot and spread chaos, the army might intervene and delay the departure of an expired rule.

Washington is hoping for Mubarak staying power. Obama calls on Mubarak to put “meaning into words” by introducing “concrete reform”. The White House should have gone further and stated that the people want real regime change rather than cosmetics. Obama looked so professorial in his televised message to Mubarak. The US president would do well to give “meaning” to his Middle East foreign policy by offering “concrete” steps to a derailed Arab-Israeli peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that Arabs will gain power as they reform. Israel now spins the argument that the only alternative to Arab secular autocrats is Islamic theocrats. Are we to assume from this strange logic that Arabs do not learn from the past?

Muslims ideologues are gradually learning that the Koran must not be used as a political handbook or an encyclopedia; that religion does not mix well with politics. The problems of Islamist politics are on display in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. It is too early to tell for sure, but the spreading revolts appear to be essentially secular and non-ideological.

The course of revolutions is unpredictable; there is always a chance that political Islam will be dominant in some countries. There is no reason to assume that the less Islamic the regime, the better it is. Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are Islamic states that allow ample distance between political and religious authority. Each society will learn from its own experience how to integrate religion with governance.

Indeed, if the West does not cooperate with and support emerging reform movements, extreme theocrats may have a better chance of wrenching power from secular parties, especially when state infrastructure is weak, the middle class is thin and civic organization is timid. In any case, people are entitled to shape their own political reform.

Washington is not showing the same neutrality in dealing with Lebanon and Sudan as with Egypt. When the Lebanese government collapsed last week, Washington was eager to dictate policy preferences in the management of a local crisis. Contrary to the US agenda, a populist opposition has already assumed leadership in the forming of the new government. The new cabinet is expected to distance itself from a US- backed, UN-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon. This Tribunal is about to issue an indictment implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The majority of the Lebanese consider the indictment of Hezbollah procedurally compromised and a threat to national stability. Some believe that Washington’s close attention to a six-year old assassination is politically motivated. Many consider Hezbollah’s militia a national defense force. A just solution to the Palestinian problem is a priority for Lebanon; the Lebanese shelter 400,000 Palestinians refugees.

If Egypt is about dethroning a tyrant, and Lebanon is about an ideological shift from the right to the center, Sudan is about the breakup of a country after a long process of ethnic polarization. The US has dominated Sudanese affairs for years through foreign aid.

A referendum has recently authorized the southern region of Sudan to secede from the North. For decades, a tyrannical theocratic regime has hijacked Islam by ruling irresponsibly. For 22 years, the mainly Christian and animist people of the South fought a bloody civil war against the forces of Khartoum. A peace treaty ended the civil war in 2005. The agreement gave the people of the South the right to determine their future. In early January, a referendum revealed an overwhelming desire of the people of the South to secede from the North. If the two sides of Sudan can learn to cooperate as separate entities, they could immensely improve the fate of their peoples. If they continue to work against each other, they will perpetuate agony.

As Arab systems evolve, lessons emerge.

Genuine foreign aid should focus on responding to deserving people rather than sustaining compliant regimes.

The ascendance of Hezbollah in Lebanon indicates that the smallest of the Arab countries can sow fear in Israel. The best way for Israel to deal with a political resistance which cannot be eliminated by force is by addressing its legitimate concerns.

Middle Eastern states with ethnic and religious divisions - such as Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Cyprus- point to a sobering phenomenon: prolonged unjust rule generates irreversible secession movements.

Political reforms will eventually empower the people of the Middle East. But reform will progress at varying rates and not without setbacks.

It is in Israel’s best interest, to embrace such inevitable reforms rather than opposing them. The Zionist state cannot count on perpetual Arab despair and disunity. In a new context of political reform, Israel will have to offer realistic terms for peace with Arabs.

A new order of global politics has just started.

* Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is an Arab American commentator. The writer is a former Middle East representative at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.



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