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'New Chapter' in Middle East

Interviewee: Richard W. Murphy, Scholar, Middle East Institute
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 3, 2011

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The turmoil that resulted in the ouster of longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and has spread to Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Arab world reflects a convergence of values between those countries and the United States, says Middle East expert Richard W. Murphy. While the outcome might not be lasting change, Murphy says he is optimistic about the beginning of a "new chapter," and that the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak restored Egypt's regional preeminence for now. Murphy thinks the Egyptian example is encouraging a spirit of compromise in Jordan and Bahrain, but predicts that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi will not step down and will only be replaced if he is assassinated. He also believes repressive security forces will continue to stifle dissent in Syria and Iran. Though Israel is worried about the wave of change, particularly in Egypt, with which Israel has a "cold peace," Murphy urges the Israelis to take advantage of the changed mood in the region and redouble efforts to secure an accord with the Palestinians.

In a 2004 speech to a college audience you said, "Nothing is ever simple in the Middle East." What do you make of the current agitation throughout the region?

Well, it's been an accumulation of problems. There is the youth bulge, the sense of political depravation and frustration, and the lack of jobs. These were known and yet year after year passed and nothing ever seemed to change politically. I was at a conference in Kuwait a couple of days after Mubarak abdicated and went to Sharm el-Sheikh. The attitude of the Arabs attending that conference was one of great excitement and even exhilaration. They were saying, "You know, at the end of 2010 we looked ahead and it was very glum; nothing was going to change." It took the tragedy of the young man in Tunisia--Mohamed Bouazizi, who torched himself--and set off the events which eventually forced Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia. That in turn seemed to trigger the events in Egypt. Now it's still rolling, and Egypt--which had sunk in the estimation of much of the Arab world and had lost its leadership position--is standing up and saying, "Look, we are going to make a new start."

We have our interests. We are not going to abandon them. But it's time to look for a new balance between our interests and values.

Until the political upheavals hit Tunisia and Egypt, you would have thought the U.S. administration's Middle East policy had reached a dead end. Now there are all these opportunities or dangers ahead.

Never have our interests or our values been as close to the stated values of these groups challenging the established authorities as they are today. We have our interests. We are not going to abandon them. But it's time to look for a new balance between our interests and values.

Are you concerned that the Egyptian army, which is now in charge, may not go far enough to satisfy the millions of people who brought about the change?

That's certainly a possibility. The Egyptians have set up a constitutional commission which has made proposals for changes to the constitution that will lead to a referendum soon. These include a two-term limit on the presidency.

What about Bahrain, where the Sunni leadership and the Shiite majority have been in a standoff?

Given the frustrations, which have been there for years, it's not surprising that the Shiites of Bahrain--for their own Bahraini reasons and their own Bahraini status--have been caught up in the moment. The Shiites have never been given access to serious authority and responsibility, and they represent some 60 to 70 percent of the population. The government has made promises of liberalization and openings to them that they have not fulfilled over the years. That said, the weight of Saudi Arabia will be felt, I hope not through any military intervention, but in persuasion of the ruling Bahrain elite. The Saudis want to calm things down and avoid any contagions spreading in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where their Shiite population is. I believe the Khalifa family, headed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, will have to come up with some serious new ideas

Some groups of Saudi intellectuals and others have called for more of a constitutional monarchy, but I haven't seen any signs of any public unrest. There is a petition on Facebook calling for protests later this month.

I don't believe that it has got a major head of steam behind it yet. And although outsiders look at King Abdullah and say, "Good God, nothing ever changes," in fact there have been steps taken which have not just been to buy off elements critical of the royal family but to open up the political process slowly and steadily. They had an experiment in municipal elections, which they did not repeat, but there seems to be still a general satisfaction with the overall political structure. There certainly are elements who look at the consultative council--the majis al-shura, as it is in Arabic--and say that it's not serious, it's appointed, and it has no budget authority over the way that king operates and the funds are distributed, so it's not a serious effort to share power.

How do you think things will end up in Libya?

Muammar al-Qaddafi could cling to power, although in parts of Libya he has never been popular--such as Benghazi in the east. He is not a man who is going to resettle, and he is guarded by some fierce loyalists who know that they will be condemned along with him if the balance totally tips against him. I don't see him abdicating, and I don't see him stepping aside. I'm without any idea other than that he would be disposed of by assassination by his own people.

In Jordan, where you served as a Foreign Service officer, there have been public demonstrations. Is King Abdullah II in danger?

The king follows the path that his father, King Hussein, did--that the king does no wrong, the king does only good. Wrong-doing, incompetence, mistakes, maybe corruption may exist among those he had appointed, but now he is replacing them. There is more talk of moving to an elected prime minister than in the times of his father, who had to survive a number of threats to his life. King Hussein managed to prevail with support from the East Bank tribes [east of the Jordan River]. [He had to] deal with the criticisms of Palestinians, particularly the refugees coming in first in 1948 and 1949, who were forced or voluntarily left what is now Israel, and then again after the 1967 war, when Palestinians fled from the West Bank. These tensions were much sharper and overt in the past then they are today.

We have to take note of the remarkable fact that the Egyptian "revolution" was not anti-Israel; it was not anti-American; it was pro-Egyptian. It was a revolution to "bring our country back."

What about Syria? Why have they escaped all of this turmoil?

There is a pervasive security apparatus--but you had that in Egypt as well. In Egypt, when Mubarak became president in 1962, the army totaled 1.5 million and the security services 250,000. And by this year, that figure was just about reversed. Security services had grown; the army had shrunk and perhaps become both the popular force and an increasingly professional force that decided that enough was enough. In Syria, the security services are pervasive. Although there is less rough stuff today than in the 1970s, domestically there is still a sense that the government is watching everyone very closely. And they have been quick to get hold of the new communications. There's one nineteen-year-old woman, Tal Al-Mallouhi, who was sentenced (SAPA-AFP) to five years for treason for something she said on Facebook. The Syrian regime hasn't faced any open challenges. [But] that doesn't mean that they don't have a shelf life, as well every regime does.

Speaking of regimes with tight security, what do you see happening in Iran? The top leaders of the so-called Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are both reported imprisoned. And the security forces seem to be able to quell street demonstrations.

The Iranian regime has been boasting that the Arab world has been inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979. This is nonsense. Various public opinion polls in the Arab world have praised Iran for standing up to both Israel and the United States, and Tehran can only be pleased by the arrival to power of a Shiite Iraqi government and the growth of Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon. But the unrest leading to revolution in some of the Arab world, and confrontations in Bahrain and elsewhere, has been home-grown. Shiite Iran is not a model which Sunni Arabs seek to emulate. Domestically, my own estimate is that at this time the regime is strong enough to put down protest moves.

In Yemen, where long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a beneficiary of millions of dollars of American aid because of efforts to put down al-Qaeda, Saleh has blamed the United States and Israel for the ongoing street demonstrations, saying that Washington was directing this (AP).

When in trouble, it's always a traditional club to wave about and say, "Imperialism is at the root of all our problems." It may be disappointing to Washington, but officials certainly shouldn't have been surprised to hear those words.

I don't know whether Saleh can survive.

Well he faces a really messy situation. There has been tribal unhappiness in the southern part of Yemen since the country was united in 1990. The south has always felt that it got the short end of the stick; they felt that they really have been second-class citizens ever since. It's not an enviable position to be president of Yemen, but it's a sign of his political skills that he has remained president since 1978, although he says he will step down in 2013.

We haven't mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian situation. What can we say about that perennial problem in light of the events in Egypt and elsewhere?

We have to take note of the remarkable fact that the Egyptian "revolution" was not anti-Israel; it was not anti-American; it was pro-Egyptian. It was a revolution to "bring our country back." I know the Israelis' nervousness about that revolution. Since the peace treaty with Egypt was signed in 1979, the Israelis could count on Egyptian support to monitor the border with Gaza and not to allow free flow of arms and people to help Hamas. The Egyptians maintained the treaty even though Israelis complained that it was a "cool peace." [Mubarak never visited Israel.] But there was peace, and the treaty was maintained.

I don't think the treaty is going to be torn apart, but I do expect the Israelis to be facing a more engaged and aggressive political response from Egypt for the lack of progress in negotiations with the Palestinians and for the deep freeze that the so called "peace process" has gotten into these last several years. One of the not particularly critical Arab observers at the Kuwait conference said the Israelis had been in their defensive crouch for so long it's going to be hard for them to get out of it. But Israelis have no reason to doubt the strength of the continuing American commitment to their security. For the moment at least, the Israelis are no longer the only democracy in the Middle East. Just as we are seeing in the Egyptian young people an expression of our values, the Israelis I hope are going to appreciate these developments and find ways to finally reach some better understanding with the Palestinians, which is going to be key to the broader peace that they have been for over the years.

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