From Unrest to Revolution: Egyptian Woes and the Mideast Paradigm Shift

The world is alive with news of the social unrest sweeping across North Africa, from Tunisia to Algeria and Egypt (somehow skipping Africa’s gong-show, Muamar al-Gadaffi, who's been in power since 1969).

Tunisia's president Ben Ali left the country at the first sign of trouble and despite the upheaval, a new government replaced him that, for now, seems stable and able to appease the public’s discontent with politics. In Algeria, President Bouteflika’s chair was rattled, but he managed to stay on it without falling off, despite violent riots in the country. As a concession to the public, he is re-arranging his cabinet in the hopes of showing a reformist tendency in his government. The emphasis is on promoting people whose moral authority has not been compromised by the unrest, such as replacing current Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia with Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi.

In the Land of the Pharaohs, Egyptians have seemingly had enough of President Hosni Mubarak, who has held steadfastly to power for 30 years. As one of the most numerous and densely populated countries in Africa, social unrest spreads like a wildfire up the Nile. The main reasons people have taken to the streets and even died for the cause, are an end to low living standards and the desire for a political alternative. The government's decision to enforce a curfew and roll out the army to contain protestors stifles democratic sentiment in Egypt and adds to the moral bankruptcy of Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak no longer reflects the public interest sufficiently, so his decision to dismiss the government won’t help either. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammed ElBaradei returned to Egypt to offer himself as the alternative to Mubarak – his idealism is admirable – but now finds himself under house arrest. ElBaradei may be the catalyst Egypt needs to bring about a system of more genuine political pluralism.

What are the implications for Egypt and the Middle East? Egypt is an important regional power and a key Western ally. Inside, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is in competition with other opposition movements, alongside the new leaders who will emerge from the revolution. What is at stake, in other words, is a new vision for Egypt. Mubarak is the symbol of yesterday, and the symbol of tomorrow is what Egyptians are searching for now.

The paradigm shift in the Middle East will be a wave of democratization that seems to be beginning in North Africa and extending further into Asia. The message cannot be clearer: autocratic regimes are failing to meet the requirements of their publics. It is difficult to predict what these changes hold for the geopolitics of the region – further destabilization in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps an intensified role for Turkey to maintain order in the region while struggling with its own democratic pains. We could see typical Israeli retrenchment and another war in Palestine, or conversely, the halt to illegal settlement construction and a de jure Palestinian state; dare to dream, it could be democratic. Pressure will grow on the Iranian regime, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could face an even angrier electorate than in the presidential elections of 2009, which might realistically usher in Iranian Revolution 2.0.  

Let’s not fool ourselves: the Middle East will not become a bastion for democracy anytime soon; dictatorships might return. Yet, the paradigm shift has started. Where it will go, nobody knows, but the battle is ultimately for the future vision of Egypt and the wider Middle East.

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