It's been six months since the riots erupted in Tunisia - the start of the Arab Spring. The West's reaction to Tunisia's revolt, and then Egypt's, began with great enthusiasm for the struggle for freedom and human rights. In recent weeks, the rejoicing has given way to anxiety - about the danger of violent civil wars breaking out beyond those in Libya and Syria, and possible takeovers by Islamic movements and a terrible economic crisis if the temporary governments have difficulty feeding millions of hungry mouths.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned about the rise of an Iranian-type regime in neighboring Egypt. Ministers, experts and intelligence people have competed in putting out bleak forecasts. The tendency to identify danger where others see opportunity has been depicted in the West as typical Israeli shortsightedness.
Suddenly, in Israel too, people are noticing that the developments might turn out to be beneficial, as Aluf Benn described in these pages a week ago: a weakening of the radical-Shi'ite axis if the Syrian regime is overthrown, Turkey distancing itself from Iran and Syria, and a continuation of Israel's decent relations with Egypt.
Most Israelis get the news on the Arab world as it is mediated by our Arab-affairs commentators, along with anonymous security sources or retired generals. In Europe and the United States, unofficial conferences continue to take place among academic experts, diplomats, former security people and journalists from the Arab world, the West and sometimes Israel as well, as part of what is called the "track two" channel of discussion.
Two such conferences, close to seven months apart, provided an interesting perspective on the Arab Spring - one a moment before it began and one at a critical juncture. At both conferences, many Arab experts displayed impressive analytical abilities. In retrospect, it's interesting that at the beginning of December, less than a month before the outbreak of Tunisia's riots, no experts predicted what was about to happen.
To the Israeli participants in the earlier round, it was clear the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was low on the Arab world's list of priorities. Every speaker paid lip service to the Palestinians' suffering and the need to end the occupation. They then went immediately on to talk about at least 10 more pressing issues. The reality they sketched, sometimes cautiously and sometimes only by implication - tremendous population growth, unemployment, corrupt and aging regimes, a sense of a dead end and a lack of rights - was the fuel for the revolution's fire. None of them, though, even mentioned revolution as a possibility.
At the conference last month, there were obviously many more examples of free expression, independent opinions and even emotions. Many of the speakers still sounded dizzy from the events, some of which they had witnessed up close. Most took care to stress that their predictions were only provisional and that future trends were only beginning to take shape. Under the rules of the game at conferences like this, it is permissible to cite comments but not attribute them. (Some speakers, for example, prefer not to make public that they have taken part in a conference with Israelis ).
A panel of speakers from Iran, Turkey and Israel encountered angry reactions from the audience. An Arab academic scolded the speakers: "I would fail all of you in my course." According to him, all the non-Arab regional players are deficient in that they refuse to rise above minor reservations and see the overall picture. Israel, he said excitedly, must understand that times have changed. It no longer is dealing with 22 Arab regimes, but rather with 320 million Arabs, who for the first time can be defined as citizens. If Israel wants to survive, it has to know how to talk to them, he said.
Most speakers were optimistic in their descriptions of the developments in North Africa, with the exception of Libya. Tunisia and Egypt have replaced their corrupt regimes while Morocco is cautiously choosing a path of reform. In Egypt, even partial success toward democracy would have a positive influence on the entire Arab world.
The crucial date there is September, when parliamentary elections are due. The experts say the army will take advantage of the presidential elections to be held within six months of September to balance the political situation created by the parliamentary vote. At the moment, the army's status as the guardian of the Egyptian people has still not been undermined (despite this week's demonstration ). The Muslim Brotherhood's influence is estimated at 30 percent to 50 percent of voters. Understandings are possible between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood on how to divide power. Cairo's policy on Israel will change, but Egypt will remain committed to the peace agreement regardless of who forms the government.
In Tunisia, 84 parties have been registered, of which Islamic movements are expected to be the coalition's linchpin. Some commentators predict they will take in 30 percent of the vote. These movements are perceived as less corrupt, something that will play to their benefit.
At the moment, the Arab world is not protesting strenuously against NATO's air attacks on Libya. But if the bombing continues into the month of Ramadan, which begins in August this year, the reaction could change. In any case, most people in the Arab world will oppose expansion of the NATO operation to other countries, despite Syrian President Bashar Assad's slaughter of his opponents.
The prevailing assumption among Arab experts is similar to that of their Israeli colleagues: Assad's days are numbered. In the corridors, these analysts ridicule the president. "Oppression is okay," one said. "Everyone here in this region knows how to be aggressive when necessary, but why so foolishly? Why scatter baseless promises for reforms? And who's the idiot who decided to abuse and murder teenagers under arrest?"
As they see it, the demonstrators in Syria have crossed the threshold of fear. The most reasonable scenario is that the country's conflict will worsen, spreading to the major cities and leading to the regime's fall.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia is still supporting Assad, with reservations, or at least it's not coming out against him. It doesn't want the Arab revolutions to spread to the Asian side of the Middle East. Turkey, meanwhile, is emerging as a key player, and it could determine the fate of the Alawite regime.
Lebanon is following the situation in Syria with great concern. If the Assad regime falls, Hezbollah will immediately come out with a show of force in Beirut. The Arabs don't believe that Assad will now stoke a conflict with Israel; Hezbollah too will be wary of this.
In an optimistic scenario, if a Sunni regime comes to power in Damascus, it might want to reach a peace deal with Israel. This wouldn't stem from a love of Zionism - it would highlight the return of the Golan after the Assad family lost it and never got it back. (Bashar's father, Hafez Assad, was defense minister in 1967. )
Iran is being depicted as a beneficiary of events in the short run, but the Islamic Republic is beginning to fear that the wave might turn against it as well. At first, it was regimes that were hostile to it that found themselves in trouble, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and this let it carry out its subversions unimpeded and advance its nuclear project. But actually, the revolutionary wave can be said to have begun during Iran's failed Green Revolution after the June 2009 elections. Ultimately, the wave could return to Tehran under the influence of the Arab Spring.
Many speakers said that despite the grave economic situation, the main catalyst that set off the revolts against the Arab regimes was not poverty but a struggle for political rights. Egypt is not a poor country but a nation that has been looted by its rulers, one researcher said. One of her colleagues said the regimes did not fall - the people toppled them.
An enthusiastic professor from the Persian Gulf added: "At least 100 million people in this region are freer now. This is what's really important. For the first time, the Arabs are on the right side of history and they are controlling events. These people's positive energy will bring a change to the region, and it's important that the West support the forces of change."
As at previous conferences, many Arab speakers didn't hesitate to laugh at themselves. When a professor moderating a panel interrupted a senior diplomat who had gone over the allotted time, he explained that henceforth "the rule of law applies to us, too." The diplomat accepted the judgment. "We're not used this, but maybe this is the spirit of the times," he said.
'Prediction is very difficult'
Former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin lectured in Tel Aviv this week at the Council for Peace and Security. Israel, said Yadlin, looks at the moment like a country whose affairs are in order, "except for the matter of the cottage cheese." This has been the quietest period on the borders since the years after the 1956 Sinai Campaign. But it's still hard to measure the effect of the changes in the region, which are liable to lead to chaos in neighboring countries.
In this context, Yadlin noted the stalled diplomatic track with the Palestinians. He said he had met someone who told him Military Intelligence doesn't know how to evaluate regimes' stability because intelligence researchers don't devote any time to reading Arabic poetry. Yadlin accepted the criticism but asked the man if he could help him predict, based on Arabic poetry, when the Saudi regime will fall, something analysts have been predicting since 1982.
The former head of Military Intelligence says a democratic environment will ultimately provide a better strategic environment for Israel. "The values the demonstrators in Tahrir Square talked about are also our values," he said. "But this isn't going to happen tomorrow. In Europe, too, democracy didn't arise in a single day."
A moment before the next Gaza aid flotilla sets out, and in the context of the dramatic regional developments, Yadlin opened his remarks with a quote from Danish physicist Niels Bohr: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."
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