Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Arab Uprisings' Impact

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Arab Uprisings' Impact

Article excerpt

Although the wave of mass protests spreading through the Arabic-speaking countries may have begun to recede, it has left a wide-ranging impact on the region. Three authoritarian regimes have collapsed, and the rest are experiencing varying degrees of duress.

This emerging political and strategic landscape has major implications for Israeli national security. Regional turmoil has effectively ruled out a maj or advance in ArabIsraeli diplomacy, enabled Ankara and Tehran to expand their influence, continued the decline of U.S. influence, and emboldened extremists.

A ROUGH NEIGHBORHOOD

Though economically and militarily strong for its size, Israel is a small state with modest resources, limited diplomatic clout, and few friends in its neighborhood. As such, it cannot hope to influence its environment in the Middle East. Unable to shape the world beyond its borders, Jerusalem must be prepared to meet all security threats that could potentially emerge from the surrounding Arab-Islamic world. It, therefore, fears political unrest, which brings a degree of uncertainty to the Middle East political and strategic landscape.

Israelis are no strangers to the fact that political upheaval in the Middle East can have major strategic implications. In particular, domestic changes led to sweeping foreign policy reorientation in two important regional powers that were once Israel's allies. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran replaced a pro-Western monarchy friendly to Israel with a militant Shiite theocracy. In Turkey, once a major strategic ally of Israel, successive electoral victories by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002 have moved this pivotal state into the anti-Israel camp.

DANGEROUS OUTCOMES FOR ISRAEL

Arabic-speaking countries lag well behind the rest of the international community in civil liberties, political rights, education, gender equality, and economic productivity.1 This deplorable state of affairs is the root cause of discontent and frustration fueling the recent wave of protests. Absent a liberal-democratic political culture, however, mass mobilization in pursuit of political change is unpredictable. Numerous outcomes are possible, few of which portend well for regional stability.

The most feared outcome is an Islamist takeover. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently warned of the danger that "Egypt will go in the direction of Iran."2 Radical Islamists are the most powerful and well-organized opposition force in most Arab states (due in part to the protection afforded by mosques) and the most likely beneficiaries of regime change whether it comes peacefully or violently. Revolutionary regimes everywhere tend to display warlike behavior in the immediate years after taking power;3 in the Middle East, they are almost certain to do so.

The process of democratization can also have unpredictable effects if secular, liberal political forces are weak or divided. Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution, led by pro-Western political forces, ended just four years later when the government was taken over by the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah and its allies. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose commitment to democracy is dubious at best, is the most powerful opposition force in Egypt today. Even in the event that a freely elected government comes to power, the historical record shows that states undergoing a democratic transition are more war-prone than autocratic regimes.4

Political turmoil can lead to the collapse or severe weakening of the state. In a failed state, the government is unable to control security over all its territory and has difficulty meeting the basic needs of the population in terms of health, education, and other social services.5 The harbingers of such a scenario are in Libya and Yemen. As states lose their grip over their territory, and their borders become more porous, armed groups and terrorists have greater freedom of action. …

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