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The Middle East In 2003 - The Stabilisers Are The Military Or The Middle Class.

NICOSIA - The events of 2001 and 2002 have distilled the arguments about stability in the Middle East into two categories of stabilisers: the military and the middle class. In those countries where sectarian militancy is acute and diverse, where the middle class is marginal, only the military is the stabilising element. In the countries where such militancy is marginal, only the middle class is the stabilising element.

With the US poised for regime change in Iraq, sending signals that there will be other regime changes to follow, all the rulers in the Middle East have been pondering the question of who's next. It is a question of genuine legitimacy. Since only a strong middle class can have a viable democracy, it is this viability which makes its undemocratic ruler no longer legitimate and liable to be changed for the sake of an elected leadership. Where the middle class is marginal, military rule can be legitimate but only if the ruler is focused on strengthening the middle class; if the ruler proves to be doing otherwise, he is liable to be replaced by one who will. Rulers regarded as illegitimate will have to legitimise themselves quickly or fall like a bad dream, the fate of Suharto of Indonesia. The following is a review of the main countries in the two categories.

The Middle Class Stabilisers - Bahrain: As one of those regimes to have faced the threat of being overthrown through domestic unrest in the mid-1990s, the ruling family in Bahrain has been quick to recognise the new realities after Sept. 11, 2001. Having declared the emirate a constitutional monarchy on Feb. 2, 2002, its young new King, Shaikh Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa, oversaw municipal elections on May 9, 2002 with women allowed to vote, and general elections for a parliament on Oct. 24. An independent judiciary system is to be set up in 2003, and a permanent constitution is in the works. Aggressive efforts are underway to attract foreign investment and increase employment. Lack of jobs was seen as one of the key reasons behind the unrest, which started in 1994. As HQ of the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain will be a key launch-pad for any US action against Iraq.

Egypt: With a middle class gaining in size and Islamist activity on the decline, Egypt is poised to continue as one of the key stabilisers in the region. The main challenge for the regime of President Husni Mubarak in 2003 and beyond would be to balance the question of legitimacy with the high probability of dramatic changes in Iraq. With the prospect of democratisation still remote, President Mubarak appears to be grooming his son for a future leadership role. But the US is likely to become more insistent on democratisation, especially if regime change in Baghdad goes according to plan. A Washington Post article on Dec. 30 pointed out that if regime change followed by democratisation is possible in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, "then free elections and free speech ought to be possible soon in Jordan and Egypt, too. The Bush administration should be setting out specific benchmarks for change in Cairo and Amman..." Egypt may be more vulnerable to such pressure as its economy falters in tandem with the global slowdown. The economy registered growth of 5-6% a year in the late 1990s, but has since 2000 fallen, reaching just 2.5% in 2001 and less than 3% estimated for 2002.

Iran: Through the 1980s and 1990s, despite the Islamist revolution, Iran has developed a fairly well educated middle class that has gotten used to the trappings of a democracy, even if it is constrained within the theocratic structure. Public political debate is vigorous on economic and social issues, for instance, and in that sense Iran is not ruled by an authoritarian state. The people also have the possibility to change their government, and to indicate their preferences which they have done by voting for pragmatist or liberal candidates through the 1990s. In this environment, it would be foolhardy - if not impossible - for any Iranian leader to attempt to revert to a dictatorial style without creating chaos in the country. The various factions in the theocracy are well aware of this reality. In that sense, the middle class is a stabiliser in Iran because it will not allow the theocracy to reverse existing democratic rights. What may prove difficult would be to expand these rights, as the traditionalist theologians are capable of blocking efforts in this direction. Yet in view of public opinion favouring socio-economic reforms as well as the changing regional scenario, the traditionalists would be likely to opt for preserving the theocracy rather than risk its destruction either through civil strife or a military confrontation.

Iraq: Now poised for regime change, Iraq is likely to undergo historic developments in 2003. The US is determined to see that the regime of Saddam Hussein is replaced, either peacefully or by military force. What comes next is uncertain, and will depend on the manner of regime change - i.e. whether it is voluntary or by war. If it is by war, the chances are that Washington will install a military administrator for a transitional phase in Iraq. Some observers have noted that Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, director of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is an Arabic speaker of Lebanese descent and who has spent some time in Iraq, may be the "right man at the right place at the right time". Recently appointed as a deputy to Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks, Abizaid's task would be to help manage the transition to democracy in Iraq. If the regime is removed voluntarily, the job of managing this transition may pass on to a UN administrator nominated by the US. The middle class of Iraq, which will be bolstered by returning members of the numerous Iraqi diaspora, would then become the stabilising factor in the country.

Israel: With elections to the 16th Knesset (parliament) scheduled for Jan. 28, 2003, Israelis are once again faced with a choice of whether a hawkish or dovish government can lead to peace with the Palestinians. Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was elected in February 2001 based on promises of physical security for the Israelis, has been unable to deliver. But in the process Israelis themselves become more hawkish in their approach towards the Palestinian issue, partly because of the change in the global approach to terrorism since September 2001. So in Israel, the middle class may become a factor for instability - at least temporarily - but there is no prospect of the military emerging as a "stabiliser". What is more likely is a series of fragile coalition governments in the coming years, with stability likely to emerge only when one of these governments is able to address the question of physical security - either through war or through peace. Now Sharon is most likely to win a second term and form a national unity government supported by the opposition Labour Party.

Jordan: King Abdullah has been moving very cautiously towards a constitutional monarchy in Jordan. Critics of the existing system, which consists of an elected parliament operating under the absolute authority of the ruler, say the pace of change has been slow and is usually "one step forward, two steps back". However, on Jan. 1, 2003, the Council of Ministers formed five committees to implement some reform measures - including the creation of a constitutional court, giving women a quota in parliament, and amending the Political Parties Law so that parties would be more capable of "shouldering national responsibilities".

Kuwait, Oman, Qatar & The UAE: Democratisation is proceeding at different speeds in all these countries, with the UAE being the slowest. This may be due to the fact that the UAE is also the wealthiest, with Dubai among the most liberal city-states in the Middle East. UAE nationals are far more concerned about their personal well being and business than about the right to vote. Nevertheless, Dubai is setting a trend in e-governance that is likely to spread to the rest of the emirates, introducing a higher degree of participation in decision making in this region. Oman and Qatar are moving fastest in terms of political reforms, so it is unlikely that they will face pressure for a more rapid change from the population. In Kuwait, the more immediate problem is one of succession, with the main question being who will replace the ageing Emir Shaikh Jabir Al Ahmad Al Sabah and Crown Prince Shaikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah - both of whom are in poor health. The challenge will be for the elected National Assembly to help maintain stability in the emirate during the transition period.

Lebanon: The middle class in Lebanon, the most sophisticated and educated community in the Arab region, is not likely to endure the current political situation for much longer without demanding change in the quality of governance. Syrian control over the Christian presidency, combined with the corruption and inefficiency of the Saudi-backed Beirut government, is seen as a drag on its economic potential by large segments of the Christian community as well as important parts of the Muslim community. Viewed from that perspective, any shift towards democratisation in Syria after a regime change in Iraq would be a positive development for Lebanon as well.

Libya: Once the process of regime change is set in motion in the Middle East, Libya would be among the first to face the pressure. Although it has made efforts to forge links to the US and distance itself from terror, the regime of Col. Moammar Qadhafi does not have sympathisers in Washington. Qadhafi is so disillusioned with the Arabs that he wants to leave the Arab League and concentrate on getting an African Union to form along the lines of the EU. But African states are aware of his track record within the League and are likely to go along with such ideas as long as Libya provides aid.

Palestine: President Arafat has indefinitely postponed elections scheduled for this month, brushing aside accusations of corruption and saying democracy can only develop in parallel with resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The US does not subscribe to this and wants democratic reforms, although it would like to get the two sides talking again. The Bush administration insists that the Palestinians need a new leadership capable of negotiating a settlement with Israel. Many Palestinians feel the same way, including people within the Palestinian Authority and the Legislative Council. But if Arafat continues to resist reforms, Sharon's use of military force to contain the intifada may lead to his expulsion from the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians fear that Sharon could eventually destroy the possibility of a two-state solution.

Saudi Arabia: Relations between Riyadh and Washington have become severely strained since Sept. 11, 2001. Despite efforts behind the scenes to cool things down, there is little relief in terms of bad publicity for the kingdom in the West. The US media in particular has been demanding that Washington apply pressure of various kinds to see changes in Saudi Arabia ranging from democratisation to the partition of the kingdom if necessary. Pressure for democratisation of some kind would be applied in the coming months, although this is more likely if the campaign for regime change in Iraq is successful and if post-Saddam plans materialise as envisaged. Riyadh is trying as much as it can to hide the fact that it is supporting US military efforts against the Baathist regime in Baghdad, as that would have a negative impact on domestic public opinion. But the royal family is edging closer towards a situation where the Western and Wahhabi time zones in which the kingdom operates may clash openly. Whether this happens in 2003 or later, it is inevitable that only one time zone will prevail.

Syria: The Baathist regime in Damascus is concerned that it may come next in Washington's crosshairs after the Baathist regime in Baghdad is ousted. There has been no overt move towards democratisation, however, despite expectations that the young President Bashar Al Assad may introduce political reforms after taking over following his father's sudden death in June 2000. If there is regime change in Iraq, the pressures on the Syrian regime may come from various sources, including the local elites who do not belong to the ruling Alawi sect, as well as the numerous wealthy Syrians who reside outside the country. Whether Bashar will be able to show the same firmness as his father Hafez in cracking down on dissent, and whether that approach would be successful in the current regional environment, remains to be seen (see News Service Vol. 57, No. 18).

Tunisia: Under President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia is in effect a hybrid between the two categories of stabilisers. While it has a large and sophisticated middle class in which educated women play a strong role, relative to its population and to its counterparts in the Arab World, the regime depends heavily on the military to keep stability - i.e. by preventing the Islamist unrest in Algeria from spilling over. This has meant a tough crackdown that has affected the non-Islamist opposition. But there has not been, so far, much protest from the middle class due to the fairly successful efforts of the regime at improving socio-economic conditions through closer economic integration with the EU. The regime may be insulated from challenges so long as it is able to keep the middle class satisfied; but with GDP growth for 2002 revised downward from 4.9% to 1.9%, this may not prove to be easy in 2003 and beyond.

Yemen: Now caught up by the demands of the American war against terror, the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is trapped between the reality of Al Qaida activity in the country and the expected US assault on Iraq. There is no support for such an assault among Yemenis, where compromises reached by the tribal elites - a "middle class" of sorts - is the stabilising factor. But Saleh cannot afford to challenge the US, and risk his regime being labelled a rogue state on par with Saddam's Iraq.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 6, 2003
Words:2366
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