Trying to evaluate the implication of the wave of demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, one is reminded of Zhou Enlai, the premier of the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong - who when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, reportedly replied that it was too early to tell. Samuel Goldwyn's well-known aphorism reminds us that we should not hasten to predict future events: "Never make forecasts, especially about the future," he said. And especially not about the future of the Middle East, one might add.
A number of Middle East experts who were asked to comment on recent events in the region and, throwing caution to the wind, dared to predict where this was all heading, found themselves with egg on their face within 24 or 48 hours.
It is not the experts alone who on occasion get the picture wrong. It happens to our politicians as well. Do you remember how Ehud Barak, on becoming prime minister, began showering Hafez Assad with complements, referring to him as "the builder of modern Syria" - the same Syria Assad ruled for many years using brutal repressive measures that should have landed him in the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. The "modern" Syria of which Barak spoke remained a third-world country throughout Assad's corrupt rule, and it was in that sorry state that he bequeathed Syria to his son Bashar.
Ehud Olmert, as prime minister, completely misreading the developments in Turkey, sought out Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that "great friend of Israel," to serve as the "neutral" mediator between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israel.
Cognizant of these mistakes, one needs to be very careful when venturing guesses regarding the direction the current events are going to take. Nevertheless, can we discern anything when we try to peer into the future in light of the dramatic events of the past few weeks, and gauge the impact they may have on Israel?
The wave of demonstrations sweeping over much of the Arab world these past weeks is aimed to overthrow autocratic rule. It is directed against dictators who have held power and abused that power for many years. Israel quite naturally sympathizes with those calling for democratic rule, whether in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria. The concern that has been rightly voiced, and not only in Israel, is that once democratic rule is established it would be hijacked by extremist elements, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The possibility of such a development has raised concerns not only in Israel. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take power in Cairo, it might spell the end of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. How likely is such a development? There is no way to assess the probability of such a turn of events, but to take place a number of obstacles would have to be overcome. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood were to attain power in democratic elections overseen by the Egyptian army and then establish dictatorial rule, the group would have to contend with the secular liberal elements that played a prominent role in the Tahrir Square demonstrations. They will most likely make their appearance again in the square should they feel they have been cheated.
The West's military intervention in Libya has added a new dimension to the events unfolding in the Middle East. Any group in power is likely to be cautious when considering drastic action against opposition groups, out of concern that such moves might lead to outside intervention. Thus dictatorial rule by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, although a possibility, does not seem likely for the time being.
Similar considerations apply to Syria, where the younger Assad is at the moment holding on to power. He is not likely to repeat the brutal repression of opposition carried out by his father in Hama, in which tens of thousands were killed. Should the Assad regime be overthrown it may affect the existing alliance between Syria and Iran directed against Israel, which would be welcome news for Israel and the rest of the world. And if the wave of protests reaches all the way to Iran, that would be good news indeed.
So all in all, there is room for some optimism.
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