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Will Tunisia Inspire More Popular Uprisings?

Interviewee: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR
January 20, 2011

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The ouster of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (Telegraph), who fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of often violent popular demonstrations, has led to speculation about such uprisings spreading to other autocratic Arab states in North Africa. While such contagion isn't likely, if it does occur, the armies of the various countries might refuse to take up arms against civilians, says Middle East expert Elliott Abrams. Abrams thinks the two strongest candidates for such popular dissent are Libya and Egypt, whose respective leaders, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, have been in power for decades and are considering turning over power to their sons. The Obama administration should urge Mubarak to "open the political space" and allow competition, says Abrams. He notes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech in Doha criticizing corruption in the Arab world was not as forceful as a speech she gave about China in which she spoke specifically about issues like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Do you think any other countries are prime for comparable change?

The two countries that seem to be most similar to Tunisia are Libya and Egypt. I don't think countries like Jordan or Morocco or the Gulf sheikhdoms are similar, because in most of those cases there's really a certain degree of legitimacy to the monarchy that doesn't exist for a state that's supposed to be a republic and is actually a terrible dictatorship. Algeria's different, even though it's often pointed to because it's right next door to Tunisia, but Algeria has an institutional rule by the army. It's not a personal rule with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika--and his family and his children and his wife--as was the case in Tunisia.

Why Libya and Egypt?

Libya because it's Muammar al-Qaddafi (TIME) and his sons, at least two of whom are rumored to be possible successors, and Egypt because you had one-man rule and now there's a great deal of talk about Gamal Mubarak succeeding his father (ForeignPolicy), President Hosni Mubarak. I would point out that the Egyptian pound and the Egyptian stock market have gone down significantly since Tunisia happened.

There's supposed to be a presidential election in Egypt in the fall, but we don't know whether Mubarak will run again, do we?

You're quite right. My only guess is that Mubarak will present himself again as a candidate. And that creates a very short-term stability, but medium-term instability because he's eighty-three, he's not in perfect health. That creates a significant chance that he'll become incapacitated or even die in office in his new term. The U.S. strategy for three decades since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 has been to bet on Mubarak for stability. That may have been a smart bet thirty years ago. But that cannot possibly be a smart bet for the next decade.

The army was more interested in protecting itself as an institution and its future and was not going to kill hundreds of citizens for Ben Ali and his family. It is not inconceivable that such a situation could arise in Egypt.

Will Mubarak propose that his son runs instead?

There's a lot of talk of that, but it always seems to fade away. For example, on January 18, Egypt's Shura council, which is kind of the upper house of parliament, appointed a group (Al-MasryAl-Youm) of new chief editors of Egypt's key national newspapers. They're all people who are viewed as close to and supporters of Gamal Mubarak. So that leads people to think his candidacy's back on again. No one knows for sure, and it is really going to be President Mubarak's decision. But we probably won't find out until the end of the summer.

Has Gamal Mubarak been trained as a potential leader? American officials must know him very well.

Yes, he's been through Washington many times. He lacks one trait that from President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak has been critical in Egypt, which is you have to be an army leader to be president. Gamal's lack of any military credentials is probably a real problem. He has been given important positions in the ruling party, and he has to some extent been groomed as a possible replacement for his father. But there's a question as to whether the army is willing to accept someone as president who has no institutional ties to the army itself.

Egypt has a longstanding government with a strong security force. Is it really possible to envision a Tunisian-type situation there?

It's possible, because of what happened in Tunisia, when spontaneous rioting broke out and people went out into the street. The initial reaction of the regime in Tunisia was to use the police, which were very loyal to Ben Ali, to put it down. They did start putting it down, and they shot something in the nature of seventy people. But the demonstrations continued, and then Ben Ali had to call on the army to put these demonstrations down because the police weren't strong enough, and the army said "no." The army was more interested in protecting itself as an institution and its future and was not going to kill hundreds of citizens for Ben Ali and his family. It is not inconceivable that such a situation could arise in Egypt. You'd have to bet against it; it's not likely. But if the people of Egypt were to rise up, and the orders to the army were to start shooting them by the hundreds, it's not inconceivable the army would say no.

What about Libya? I always considered Qaddafi as unshakeable there.

Qaddafi is no longer a boy, and his sons are in their thirties and are taking a role in the government. He tends to favor one and then another and bring them on and off stage. Two of them are associated with his security forces. His government does have a tribal element that is not present in a more, let's say, advanced modernized society like Tunisia. But Libya's a strange place, and it seems to me that if you started having riots, you can't really predict what the situation might be. Obviously, every dictator pays a great deal of attention to who is running the army. There's always a base right outside the capitol to protect the head of government. But, people sometimes guess wrong. Remember, this didn't start in Tunisia with the army; it started with people. In the face of a popular uprising, you just can't really tell how far the army is going to go before it sees its institutional integrity and future at risk.

What about U.S. policy? Secretary of State Clinton's Doha speech last week attracted considerable press attention because she talked about corruption in Arab countries. It was unusual for the Obama administration to be so overtly critical of Arab states. She sounded more like [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice.

I don't fully agree. In Condoleezza Rice's famous 2005 Cairo speech, she used all the terms--democracy, human rights, liberty, freedom. None of those terms were used by Secretary Clinton. She did better the following day back here in Washington when she gave a speech about China and she did use some of those terms about civil liberties. She talked about freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and that was a stronger speech.

The administration should now be talking to a number of Arab countries, with Egypt first because of their elections this year. The way to avoid a Tunisia situation is a sensible pace of reform. In the case of Egypt, they had a parliamentary election last November, and they had one in November 2005. The November 2005 election was a much better, much fairer election than November 2010. So they're actually going backward. The [Obama] administration should be saying to Mubarak that it's time to open the political space. Because if the pressure keeps building, you can never tell when it's going to explode. The policy of the government of Egypt has been to crush moderate, centrist, liberal parties for decades, much more fiercely than it has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood. So it really is true that today the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the strongest single alternative to the government. Start opening the systems, start allowing competition.

While you were in the Bush administration, did you regard Tunisia as corrupt?

Tunisia was not for the United States an important country in the way, let's say, Algeria was because of its gas, because of its size, because of its struggle against terrorism that sometimes turned bloody. Tunisia is small--just ten million, no great natural resources. But we had a very prickly relationship with the government because President Bush had his freedom agenda, and Ben Ali was doing absolutely nothing to reform and to open the political systems. So we had what I would call a crummy relationship. Unlike the French, who are having a big debate about how come the French government was so soft on Ben Ali, we don't have to have that debate.

Say a word about Saudi Arabia, which has become the refuge for Arab dictators.

And not just non-Arab. Idi Amin [of Uganda] went there too. In a certain sense, the Saudis are providing a service. The tyrants have to get out and go someplace. When Felipe Gonzalez was the Spanish prime minister, he took in these Latin American dictators who were being thrown out because he felt that it was a service to Latin American democracy to help get rid of them. There is a delicious irony here for many Tunisians that [Ben Ali's] wife and children, who enjoyed the latest fashions, now have to live in Saudi Arabia and live a very different lifestyle. That's also been mentioned in the Tunisian press. I wouldn't be too critical of the Saudis for taking him as long as they police him. This is what Felipe Gonzalez used to do. The Saudis should tell him: "You're out of Tunisian politics now. We will not have you destabilizing the government of Tunisia from a phone in Saudi Arabia."

The policy of the government of Egypt has been to crush moderate, centrist, liberal parties for decades, much more fiercely than it has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood. So it really is true that today the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the strongest single alternative to the government.

U.S. efforts on the Palestinian/Israeli front seem to have collapsed. Any ideas on what the United States should do now in the Middle East?

The one thing they should definitely be doing is making sure progress continues on the ground in the West Bank through supporting the Palestinian Authority in making economic, political, and judicial progress [and] in building a police force, which the United States has been doing for several years. There's been a lot of progress in the last five years, and whatever happens on the political side they need to make sure that continues. The administration then has to figure out a way to get [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas back to the table. It may be that the thing to do is not so much to hammer him as it is to talk to others in the Arab world to see if they would give him the political cover to return to negotiations.

The Palestinians seem eager to bring a resolution to the Security Council on the Palestinian state. That would put the United States in a difficult position.

Palestinians have two resolutions. One we're looking at now would call for a settlement construction freeze by the Israelis. The second resolution, which would come later, would endorse Palestinian statehood. The administration's trying very hard to persuade the Palestinians not to push that first resolution now, because it hasn't vetoed any resolution in two years, and I think it wanted to try to go through four years without a veto. So there's a lot of pressure on the Palestinians to pull back or rewrite the resolution in a way the administration can escape the veto.

It's ironic, because Obama supports the idea of a freeze.

That's exactly the kind of argument the administration is making to the Palestinians: You're going to corner us into a veto that we don't want [and] you don't want, and none of us is going to be helped by this.

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