With institutional memories a rare commodity in the nation’s capital, the clamor of pealing hosannas for Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and the flight of strongman Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s into Saudi Arabian exile concealed the return of Islamist extremists.
Within 10 days of Ben Ali’s exit, demonstrators, waving Tunisian and Egyptian flags, clashed with police in Cairo (population 15 million) and other Egyptian cities, where most of the country’s 80 million (75 percent under age 35) subsist close to the United Nations’ global poverty level of $2 a day – and where 26 new billionaires spawn a blend of envy and hatred.
Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship was determined to avoid the bloody tragedy that befell its Algerian neighbor. After an eight-year war (1954-62) and a million killed to break itself free from France, Algeria suffered almost 30 years of a socialist military dictatorship as a client state of the Soviet Union. Finally, in 1990, at the end of the Cold War, the Algerian overlords felt sufficiently confident to risk free elections.
Algerian volunteers who had answered Osama bin Laden’s call to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan were back. And no sooner did Islamist extremists – the Islamic Salvation Front – win more than two-thirds of the seats required to change the Algerian Constitution and impose an Islamic state than the regime canceled the results – triggering a civil war that cost Algeria more than 100,000 killed in the 1990s.
The religious extremists were defeated, and in 1994, new elections were held – and this time, the army’s candidate, Gen. Liamine Zeroual, won. But the civil war continued. Entire neighborhoods, even small villages, were wiped out, and civilians massacred by the hundreds. Army psychological-warfare operations split the Islamists. One group opted for a unilateral ceasefire and the other subdivided into warring factions.
A new president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, one of the original revolutionaries against France, was elected – and is still in power today. Both Mr. Bouteflika and Tunisia’s now self-exiled Ben Ali, as well as the Moroccan government, have been cooperating closely with Washington in the global war on terrorism.
In Tunisia, all bets are now off. The only people who are organized and prepared to fill the vacuum are local Islamists. In Egypt, the masses look to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to save them from massive unemployment.
In Algeria, thousands of angry citizens rioted in cities and towns against a cut in food subsidies; some 300 police officers were wounded. At the other end of the Mediterranean, in normally peaceful, pro-Western Jordan, rioters in Maan city set fire to government buildings and police cars.
Buoyed by events in Tunisia, thousands marched through Amman, the Jordanian capital, as well as other Jordanian cities, and Cairo against food prices and unemployment. Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are determined to keep the Islamists at bay – and out of government.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded and armed Islamist proxy and a sponsor of terrorism, got to pick Lebanon’s next leader.
This week, too, the Mideast peace process crashed when leaked documents showed Palestinian moderates, desperate to keep peace talks alive, ditched their demands on the right of return for Palestinian refugees and all of East Jerusalem as their capital.
Thus, Hamas, the Palestinian extremist movement that rules Gaza and is funded by Iran, was back in the driver’s seat.
In the age of Twitter news, essential background gets lost.
The last major upheaval in Egypt is known as Black Saturday – Jan. 26, 1952 – when the Muslim Brotherhood torched some 300 locations – bars, cinemas, nightclubs, fashionable boutiques, anything that reflected the corruption and immorality of Egypt’s upper classes.
This, in turn, led to a bloodless military coup six months later. Headed by young Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new team overthrew a decadent monarchy. King Farouk was seen off peacefully from Alexandria on his royal yacht – bound for Monte Carlo and permanent exile.
Little understood at the time was that Nasser and his fellow “free officers” were pre-empting what they perceived to be the danger of an Islamist coup by the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization tried and failed to kill Nasser two years later.
The new Egyptian dictator went on to become the Pan-Arab world’s populist leader in 1956 when he nationalized the Suez Canal. The Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev rattled his rockets against the secret Franco-British-Israeli military alliance that invaded Egypt and took back the Suez Canal. A rattled President Eisenhower ordered the three allies out of Suez. And the Kremlin won the round.
Nasser survived the humiliation of total defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel decimated Egypt’s armed forces. But the Arab streets went on shouting Nasser’s iconic praise until he died of a heart attack in 1970.
His successor, Anwar Sadat the peacemaker, went to war in 1973 to prove he was serious about peace. His assassination by Islamist extremists in 1981 gave his successor, then-Vice President Mubarak, the political and police clout to keep Islamic zealots at bay, which he did for three decades.
In Tunisia, where the deposed ruler was a close ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, the unplanned Jasmine Revolution was not bloodless as first reported. Security forces fired to kill and several score would-be revolutionaries were gunned down in widely scattered parts of the country. The army then took over and vowed “to protect the revolution.”
Critical for Tunisia’s future is the annual influx of 7 million tourists, almost as many as there are Tunisians (10 million). The Islamists would like to ban or at least discourage them. A poor, ignorant populace is the cornerstone of their rule.
The unplanned Tunisian revolution spread rapidly when police confiscated the street vegetable stand of Mohamed Bouazizi for lack of the proper permit. His business destroyed and with no other means of support, he set himself on fire and died Dec. 17. President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia less than a month later.
The Gulf kingdoms and emirates, ruled by reigning families with thousands of relatives in almost all the key positions and flush with oil, and richly funded security services with state of the art equipment, are safe from Islamist predators.
The Mideast was conspicuously absent from President Obama’s State of the Union. He wisely concluded political forecasting in the Arab world has made astrology look respectable.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.