Israel is watching with concern the street demonstrations that erupted this week in neighboring Egypt and Lebanon. The fear is that an Iranian proxy-state could emerge in Lebanon and that in Egypt the autocratic rule of aging President Hosni Mubarak could be overthrown.
Although both demonstrations erupted on Tuesday and had similar names — in Lebanon it was called a “Day of Rage” and in Egypt a “Day of Revolt — they had different purposes. In Egypt they protested Mubarak’s iron rule; in Lebanon, they protested Hezbollah’s seizing of power. The demonstrations followed ones earlier this month that toppled Tunisian strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“There has always been a potential for instability throughout the region,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “But there has been so much focus on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for so many years that the reality of the region and the threats of complete chaos and far more radical governments have largely been ignored.”
He added that many had subscribed to the “myth that all the problems of corruption, dictatorship and radical Islam would suddenly disappear if only an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could be reached.”
The demonstrations in Egypt were basically confined to Cairo, Alexandria and Ismailiya. The demonstrators said they had just wanted to celebrate the uprising in Tunisia, and the Egyptian government sanctioned it for that purpose.
“But it was just a cover,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The government was prepared to allow limited expression, but it got beyond their control. It just shows the pent-up sentiment there.”
At least one policeman and two demonstrators were killed in street clashes. In Alexandria, thousands reportedly marched, some chanting: “Revolution, revolution, like a volcano, against Mubarak the coward.”
David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that although Egypt’s Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, participated in the demonstrations, the protests were “broad-based expressions of popular dissatisfaction with Mubarak’s authoritarian rule of the past 30 years. In recent years, there have been an unprecedented number of protests against the government. But this was the biggest of all with up to 100,000 participating.”
But unlike Egypt, the protests that brought down the government in Tunisia “started in the countryside and worked their way to Tunis — it was like a rising tidal wave. It was all very sudden. In Cairo, it was a planned demonstration.”
Although the people in both Tunisia and Egypt complained of similar problems — high unemployment — the Tunisian government was much more repressive than the one in Egypt, and the Tunisians are better educated and closer to Europe. In Egypt, 40 percent of the population earns less than two dollars a day, Schenker said.
The people in Tunisia demonstrated in favor of a democratic government. Those in Egypt were protesting against Mubarak, 82, who has promised to run for re-election later this year.
In contrast, the protests in Lebanon were against the tightened grip that the pro-Iranian terrorist group Hezbollah holds on the country. The demonstrations came the same day Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati was appointed Lebanon’s next prime minister. He received the designation after Walid Jumblatt, leader of the influential Druze sect who heads an 11-member bloc in parliament, threw his support to Mikati instead of the country’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri.
Although Hezbollah said it would like to see the Harvard-educated Mikati form a unity government, Hariri said he would not join. Hezbollah brought down Hariri’s unity government Jan. 12 after Hariri refused Hezbollah’s demand that he renounce a UN-backed international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal’s prosecutor has presented sealed indictments against several men for the murder, and a pre-trial judge is now reviewing the evidence to see if it is sufficient to unseal the indictments and bring the men to trial.
It is widely believed that members of Hezbollah are named in the indictments, and some feared Hezbollah would act violently if the indictments were unsealed. But now that Hezbollah is in control of the government, it is expected that Lebanon will formally disassociate itself from the work of the tribunal and ignore any arrest warrants that are issued.
Mikati, whose wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion and is considered a moderate, has insisted that he will be his own man once in office. But he sidestepped the question of whether he would sever Lebanon’s ties with the international tribunal, saying only: “Any dispute can be solved only through dialogue.”
Ephraim Inbar, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said that although “Makati is probably a moderate, he is going to be a Hezbollah puppet.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared on television Tuesday to try to calm the riots by promising the supporters of Hariri that “Hezbollah will not lead the next government” and that Makati is an unbiased candidate.
How Hezbollah will behave once Makati forms a new government is hard to tell, but one Israeli analyst said at least one scenario would benefit Israel.
“For the time being, Hezbollah has the upper hand, but it will become more and more unpopular in Lebanon as it is seen as the hand of Iran,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Syria is not happy with Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon — it would have liked to have seen more of a balance of power,” he added. “It remains to be seen how Syria will behave. It doesn’t want an Iranian-dominated theocracy on its border. It might swallow it because of its alliance with Iran. But if [Shiite-run] Iran were one day to dominate Iraq, then Syria would be encircled and that would create concern in Syria because it is a secular, basically Sunni state.”
Should that happen, Gilboa said it might drive Syria to want to move towards the West and make peace with Israel.
Eldad Pardo, a senior fellow at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested that Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language news network, deliberately released this week what it claimed are classified documents that recount details of secret Israeli-Palestinian talks in order to provide a “smokescreen” for Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon.
He too said Hezbollah’s power grab is going to backfire because “they are using more and more power and they have lost the moral upper hand that they have claimed for so long.”
“Everyone knows that Iran is not ruling Lebanon with the agreement of the people, that Hezbollah assassinated a former prime minister, and it is ruling by the gun with supplies from Iran, which is non-Arab,” Pardo said. “Only 10 days ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that pretty soon there would be seven million Persian-speaking people in the world. The Arabs don’t like this, particularly the Sunnis.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t think this is going to be good for Iran,” Pardo added. “The Shiites will stop supporting Hezbollah, and it won’t be able to hold the support of the people. … Hezbollah is like foreign rule. So there will be changes or an uprising. You can’t do everything by force.”