The Middle-East may not look the same in the times ahead, says Vikram Sood.
The protest on the streets of Cairo have apparently received a fresh breath of life after the release of Wael Ghonim, the young Google marketing executive, who had launched the 'We are all Khaled Said' group on Facebook.
So far the Egyptian regime has tried to bargain through concessions but shows no signs of acquiescing to the main demand of the protesters that Hosni Mubarak should leave. It is possible that Ghonim may be the totem pole around which the movement will gather in the next few weeks, rather like Aung San Suu Kyi became the face of the Myanmar uprising in 1988. This is provided that the movement does not turn violent as some stage if the Mubarak government remains determined to continue to be machismo even as the economy loses an estimated $300 million a day because of the turmoil.
A small incident somewhere could provide the trigger and one should not be surprised if that happens. It is unlikely that a regime so dependent on external financial assistance for its survival can afford to use storm troopers to break the struggle. What is more likely is a war of attrition as the regime may try to wear down the opposition.
A great deal would depend on the staying power of the people. The Mubarak regime has been a very repressive one backed by a 2 million strong police, thousands in the intelligence, an army financed and equipped by the US and reservists. Despite this, Egyptians have overcome fear, the regime has lost its aura and Mubarak has lost his main benefactor.
As people continue to gather in their thousands at Tahrir Square several conspiracy theories are making the rounds in the absence of any clear leadership and ideological content. One aspect is to be borne in mind which is that a movement of this kind requires organisation, co-ordination and resources to sustain it. It cannot continue to remain spontaneous for a fortnight. No one really knows who or what is organising this. One aspect is clear though -- that there are at least three broad groups in the fray.
One is the April 6 Movement led by Ahmed Maher Ibrahim which has been in existence since April 6 2008. The other is Kefaya (formal name - Egyptian Movement for Change) formed in 2004, one of whose leaders George Ishak became a member of El Baradei's newly formed National Association for Change along with Mohammed Saad el-Khatami of Al Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). Kefaya was also associated with the Ikhwan when it was formed.
Kefaya and the April 6 Movement have used the Internet to spread their message for some years now. Social networks and cell phones can guide a movement but people power on the streets does not necessarily translate into good governance. The test of the success, ideology and longevity of the movement will come later when they grapple with the problems of running Egypt with its economy in ruins with 30 percent inflation in food prices and its huge youth bulge with an estimated 34 percent unemployed.
It is believed that the Ikhwan has a few factions, ranging from the arch conservatives to moderate, which is understandable considering that it has been in existence since 1928 with a strong representation in the current Parliament through its independent candidates. It must be remembered that the basic creed of the Ikhwan is radically Islamic with the slogan "Islam is the Solution" -- and Syed Qutb, who called for violence against non-Muslims especially against Jews and Israel, was Osama bin Laden's teacher.
One does not see the overt hand of the Ikhwan in the present struggle and maybe this is tactical as they realise that if they were to come out openly the movement might lose sympathy in the West. It makes better sense to use the momentum of the present movement to position itself for later negotiations. Even as it is there is an attempt to change the discourse by describing the Ikhwan as a moderate force rather like dealing with moderate/good Taliban in Afghanistan.
One of the theories propounded is the one by F William Engdahl in his lengthy essay on February 5 titled "Egypt's Revolution: Creative Destruction for a 'Greater Middle East'?" he argues that what is happening in Egypt is part of a grand US design through the National Endowment for Democracy to reorder the Middle East on patterns similar to the several colour revolutions in Russia's periphery. Agree or not, one must read this as one of the grander conspiracy theories.
We also have the now ubiquitous Wikileaks, as revealed in the Daily Telegraph, that the Israeli, Egyptian and US governments were co-operating in the search for a successor to an aging Hosni Mubarak and the Israelis were comfortable with Omar Suleiman. As the country most directly concerned with the peace treaty, Israel's interest in the succession in Cairo was natural. With an uncertain Lebanon and the Hezbollah there and the Hamas in Gaza, Israel would continue to remain most concerned with the events in Egypt and their outcome.
There are other Arab regimes in the region whose autocratic rulers would be quaking in their thrones from Morocco to Yemen, all included, as they watch events in Egypt unfold and hastily make concessions to their people in an effort to stem the tide. Even though the current movement in Egypt is not Islamic in character and is Egypt specific, change in the region is inevitable and each country will probably find its own way to do so.
Iran, as a major Persian Shia regime in the regime in an Arab Sunni neighbourhood, would be keenly watching the movement in Egypt to detect any drift towards Ikhwan ideology. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his speech last Friday (February 4) supported the people of Egypt against the humiliation they suffered because they were led by a 'servant' of Israel and the US.
Saudi Arabia has been quiet but its aging and archaic monarchical disposition facing an oppressed and discriminated Shia minority in its oil rich eastern provinces, would be a worried cabal.
India has extensive commercial, energy and economic interests in the region. India earns $30 billion from remittances sent in by the 6 million hardworking Indians who work in the region; there is a $125 billion trade in the region; and India imports 18 percent of its oil requirements from Saudi Arabia and 16 percent from Iran. An additional 27 percent is imported from other counties in the region. While instability is a concern for India and disruptions may occur, it is unlikely that any of these countries would actually stop exporting oil and gas considering that this is virtually the only export commodity for these countries.
However, one cannot prophecy what shape the movement will take but surely between now and September, Mubarak will have to go. It is the manner of his departure that is uncertain. Till then it is difficult to predict the day to day events.
There is far too much at stake for the West and the US to let the region slip away from its dominance all these decades. Moreover, there is a new kid on the block -- China, with its deep pockets and hunger for energy resources. Whatever happens, the arrangements worked out by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 to divide the Middle East among the British and the French or the arrangement worked out by President Roosevelt when he met King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945 may change.
The region may not look the same in the times ahead.