The Shifting Balance of Power in the Middle East: The Cases of Egypt and Lebanon

America’s international standing is under mounting strain on multiple fronts.  Nowhere is this more glaring than in the Middle East, where the balance of influence (and hence power) is shifting away from the United States and toward Iran, Turkey, and their allies.  This trend may, in fact, accelerate as a consequence of ongoing unrest in Egypt and several other Arab states.

As our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi wrote presciently a few weeks ago:

In Tehran, there is a strong belief that the region is changing dramatically in favor of Hezbollah, the Palestinians, and the Resistance.  The rise of an independent Turkey, whose government has a worldview very different from that of the U.S., German, British, and French governments, along with the relative decline of Saudi and Egyptian regional influence, signals a major shift in the regional balance of power.  Saudi military incompetence during the fighting with Yemeni tribes along the border between the two countries, the general decline of the Egyptian regime in all respects, and the almost universal contempt among Arabs as a whole for the leaders of these two countries and other pro-western Arab regimes and their corrupt elites, are seen as signs that the center cannot hold.  The fact that the Iranian president and the Turkish prime minister are so popular in Arab countries, while most Arab leaders are deeply unpopular, is a sign that the region is changing.

U.S. officials are treading very carefully with their words, especially regarding Egypt.  We have previously pointed out that the United States and Israel have accrued enormous strategic benefits from their alliance with Egypt — this is a statement of fact, not a moral judgment.  This strategic reality shapes the dilemma which U.S. policymakers believe they are facing.  For, while they don’t want to be seen as turning away from or otherwise undermining an ally, they also feel compelled to express at least ritual support for the rights and “aspirations” of the Egyptian people.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken the lead for the Obama Administration (President Obama ducked the issue during his State of the Union address earlier this week) in calling on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his government to pursue sweeping political, economic, and social reforms as the key to restoring Egypt’s stability.  Like her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, and many contemporary commentators, Secretary Clinton seems to think that popular movements for political change in Arab countries are ultimately good news for the United States.  The unspoken (and, we suspect, unexamined) assumption is that, by prompting “liberalization” or even “democratization,” such movements not only affirm values Americans hold dear, but also help to stabilize and ensure the longevity of America’s key strategic partnerships in the Middle East.  The flip side of this assumption, which is also reflected in much current commentary, is that political change in the Arab world is inevitably bad news for the Islamic Republic.

It remains to be seen, of course, how much change actually takes place in Egypt and other Arab countries.  But, to us, it seems clear that, to the extent that political orders in Egypt, Tunisia, or some other “pro-Western” Arab countries becomes more “authentic” and reflective of popular interests, preferences, and sentiments, those countries will become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States and more inclined toward closer relations with the Islamic Republic.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice egregiously miscalculated the results of genuinely democratic Palestinian elections in 2006, which produced a Hamas victory.  (Rice famously challenged, in retrospect, that no one could have foreseen such an outcome.  No one, that is, except anyone who knew anything about the Palestinian street.)  She and her colleagues also blew it in their efforts to create a pro-Western “democracy” in Lebanon following former Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri’s assassination in 2005.

In this regard, we are struck that many of those who think that what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen represents an authentic push for fundamental political change in these societies seem disinclined to think about recent developments in Lebanon in the same way.  We consider what is happening in Lebanon is very important, and will write about it in greater detail in a separate piece.  For now, we would note that, in the view of many American commentators, what is happening in Lebanon is a thoroughly negative turn of events, quite the opposite of the “hopeful” and “promising” manifestations of popular sentiment displayed in some other Arab states.  Hizballah is routinely discussed as if it were some foreign actor, imposed on an otherwise happy Lebanese society by nefarious outside forces and now, by some descriptions, holding Lebanon “hostage.”

Why is Hizballah, which manifests its deep reserves of popular support every day, routinely depicted in this way?  At the same time, why do Western commentators persist in glorifying the March 14 movement — most of which opposes “one person, one vote” democracy in Lebanon and would not exist but for massive external support from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia — as the heroic embodiment of the aspirations of (some) Lebanese for a pro-Western, democratic (for some) political order?

We think that what is happening in Lebanon — and, perhaps, what is happening in some other Arab states — will accelerate ongoing shifts in the Middle East’s balance of power.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article is adapted from an article published in The Race for Iran on 28 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license.  Cf. Elias Muhanna, “Day of Hypocrisy” (Qifa Nabki, 25 January 2011); Rami Zurayk, “Lebanon Update: The Morning After” (Land and People, 26 January 2011); Nicholas Noe, “One Last Act for Stuart Levy: Sanctioning ‘Rogue’ Miqati?” (The Mideastwire Blog, 27 January 2011); Nicholas Noe, “The Defense Ministry” (The Mideastwire Blog, 27 January 2011).

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