Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.





The case of Libya

25 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

“Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country”

-Colonel Muammar Qaddafi

As the Arab Revolt continues to engulf North Africa and the Middle East, Libya appears to be the next country on the brink of regime change. The oil rich eastern part of the country, including the city of Benghazi, has already fallen, and towns in the west are following suit. Qaddafi is currently holed up in Tripoli (the capital) with a few thousand mercenaries and loyalists, and everything he has said or done so far indicates that he is not going down without a fight.

Qaddafi’s handling of Libya’s unrest thus far indicates he is a man whose soul is every bit as ugly as his physical appearance. He sent out his thugs to stamp out the fire of the protesters using whatever means necessary, including going door-to-door killing dissidents, and ordered the Air Force to bomb protesters. At least two pilots refused, choosing instead to eject and crash their jets into the desert.

The rebels are closing in on Tripoli and the battle for Libya seems to be reaching the decisive point. Qaddafi is reportedly gathering his remaining loyal forces including something the press is ominously referring to as the “irregular army”. Whatever happens, there is no going back for Qaddafi and the citizens of Libya.

The case of Libya resembles that of Tunisia and Egypt, but several factors set it apart. Libya is a major oil exporter. The army is not respected by the people. Tribalism remains a powerful aspect of Libyan society. Qaddafi is not a rational actor. Libya has no civil society. The transition to democracy (if that is where Libya is heading) is unlikely to be peaceful and civil war remains a strong possibility. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

History

Muammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969. He was 27 years old. Qaddafi made it his goal to be the thorn in the side of America, becoming one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism in the process. Libya began investing heavily in chemical weapons manufacturing.

After the US removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 however, the despot realized that there was little to be gained by being hostile to the world’s remaining superpower. Qaddafi agreed to halt WMD development and essentially “came in from the cold”, opening up Libya to foreign direct investment. Since then, Libyans have seen capital flooding into their sparsely populated nation, particularly from Europe.

Despite the increased presence of foreign dollars, Qaddafi maintained an iron grip on his citizens, ruthlessly punishing dissent. Some societies will tolerate totalitarianism if enough is gained in return in the form of stability and quality of life (see Saudi Arabia, whose GDP per capita is higher than Poland and Portugal). Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Petroleum

One could make the argument that Libya’s unrest is based on natural resources. Libya is in the top 20 exporters of oil and natural gas, and it has relatively small population of about 6 million people. The exact same thing could be said about Norway, which also is a lead exporter of oil & natural gas with relatively small population. Yet the difference in the quality of life between Norway and Libya is almost immeasurable*.

*While traveling in Jordan some years ago, I met two Americans who were working as civil engineers in Libya. They told me that they got a four weeks paid leave every third month (basically a month off every season) as well as a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. Astounded, I thought about this for a minute before responding, “Wow, Libya must be real shitty”. They each concurred with this assessment.

However, I have also heard that Libya has some of the best historical ruins (both Roman and Islamic) in the entire world, as well as breathtaking natural beauty. As a result of these two conflicting accounts, I am eager to find out for myself. Hopefully a post-Qaddafi Libya will be more conducive to tourism.

This must be frustrating for the people of Libya, who have watched the Qaddafi regime squander the country’s natural resources and make little improvement to the nation’s infrastructure over the last 40 years. Libya should be doing better. At the same time, they have watched other resource-rich countries like UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain provide a much higher quality of life for their citizens. Maybe the people of Libya realized that the world was quickly passing them by and placed the blame on their longtime ruler.

Civil Society

Throughout his tenure, Colonel Qaddafi made it a point to eliminate any semblance of civil society. From the LA Times:

Libyans stand almost alone among other Arabs for the extreme isolation they experienced not only under Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule but over a decade of international sanctions for the country’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until a few years ago, Internet communications were virtually nonexistent and the only local news source was state media. Satellite television, especially Al Jazeera, had opened Libyan eyes to developments in the world and region, but reports about Libya by international or independent journalists had been a rarity.

Libyans thus had little opportunity to assemble components of civil society. Political associations, human rights organizations, independent professional associations or trade unions were all strictly proscribed, and organized opposition to the “ideology of the 1969 revolution” was punishable by death. On my first visit to Libya in 2005, the specially selected “civil society representatives” permitted to talk with us, and even government officials we met, displayed anxiety about expressing any opinions outside their sanctioned talking points. They literally recited chapter and verse of the Green Book, Qaddafi’s small manuscript on governance. The performance was unmatched by anything I had seen in Syria and Iraq.

A strong civil society does not necessarily lead to a Jeffersonian Democracy (see Iran) but it can help, especially when a country attempts to find its way forward after 40 years under dictatorship.

Tribalism

Tribalism still plays a strong role in Libya. The only Libyan I have ever met (perhaps a testament to the country’s closed-offness) was in grad school. He told me that the state provided very little to people outside the major cities. As a result, a large portion of the population (over half, according to my friend) relied on tribal affiliations for social services.

If Libyans are depending on their individual tribes more than they are on the government, it does not bode well for the country going forward in terms of national unity. In a post-Qaddafi world, tribal differences could contribute to chaos in a fractured society as the various tribes vie for control. Here is a good summary of the tribal situation in Libya.

The Military

Even with officers defecting and pilots crashing their planes in refusal to bomb civilians, the military situation in Libya is vastly different from that of Egypt. In Egypt, the military was a respected part of society; it was responsible for protecting the country’s borders, not squashing civil disobedience. The Egyptian military’s strength was exhibited in the way that it handled the unrest, taking sides with the protesters against the police while stabilizing the country.

In Libya, the military is not as strong or trusted. A post-Qaddafi Libya could see various military factions competing for power, possibly along tribal lines. Libya’s tribal and military characteristics could contribute to chaos if the Qaddafi regime indeed falls, making the prospect of civil war far more likely than in Egypt or Tunisia.

America

Libya under Qaddafi has had an interesting relationship with the United States. For instance, in 1986 Qaddafi arranged the bombing of a Berlin disco, resulting in the death of two US servicemen. To teach him a lesson, Reagan ordered the bombing of targets in Libya, which resulted in the death of Qaddafi’s adopted daughter. In retaliation, Libyan agents arranged the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. This explains Libya’s frosty relations with America, 1969 to 2011.

Conclusion

The combination of Libya’s small population and vast supplies of oil and natural gas (as well as its geographic location) should have led to a far wealthier and educated Libyan society. It hasn’t, and the people are fed up. Libya’s manifestation of the Arab Revolt will not go as smoothly as it did in Egypt or Tunisia. A weak and untrusted military combined with the complex tribal affiliations of Libyan society should contribute to post-Qaddafi chaos. As the situation in Libya grows more unstable, so does its leader, who could turn to his chemical weapons arsenal as he becomes more desperate in his bid to retain power.






The Arab Revolt

3 02 2011

Last month in Tunis, a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building. This act of desperation set in motion the current unrest we are witnessing throughout the Arab world today.  An already tumultuous region has exploded in an expression of frustration with government oppression, indifference, and inability to provide a reasonable quality of life for the people.

While not all revolts are created equal and the situation is different for each country, one thing that binds them together is that the taboo of modern Arabs protesting and overthrowing their government has been shattered, possibly forever. But why are people so angry? What are the implications for the future? And what does it mean for the United States? Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon…a closer look reveals that while each case has its own personality, there are many similarities.

Egypt

Egypt is the most populous and influential country in the Arab world. Before the events in Tunisia, it was unthinkable that the politically apathetic Egyptians would rise up against their government in this manner. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated 1981. He immediately instated emergency law, which is still in place to this day. Mubarak has used “emergency law” to maintain order and suppress the opposition, while maintaining an iron grip on the country and stifling all manner of protest.

From 1981 to 2011, the frustration of the powerless Egyptians usually gave way to a kind of Arab fatalism that it was their lot in life to live under a dictatorship. Then, as history’s curious meandering has demonstrated on countless occasions, something happened. Fed-up Tunisians took to the streets, demanded change, and most importantly, they got it.

The events of Tunisia may have shown Egyptians what was possible when people take to the streets, but the fuel for the blaze had been accumulating daily over the last thirty years, and was sparked by the June 2010 beating of 28 year-old Khalid Said at the hands of police. Mr. Said, an alleged suspected drug dealer, was sitting in a cafe in Alexandria when police pulled him into a building and beat him to death in front of stunned onlookers. Two outcomes of this event were the surprising outbreak of large public protests, and the fact that the protests were led by the bespectacled, milquetoast revolutionary, Noble Prize-winner Muhammad El-Baradei.

El Baradei, a respected former IAEA chief, was encouraged by the nation’s youth to run for president against Mr. Mubarak, but the mood of the opposition at the time was so acidic that Mr. Baradei refused to participate on the grounds that it would give the elections a hint of legitimacy. Today in Egypt change seems possible, and it will be interesting to see what role El-Baradei will play if the government does indeed crumble under the weight of the protests.

Egypt is now at a turning point. The protests may ultimately fail, but for the Mubarak regime there is no going back to the way things were. While Egypt does not have a major organized opposition party waiting to take power, the country does have regular (if crooked) elections, a responsible military, a strong civil society, and an independent judiciary. These factors will help a fledgling democracy stay the course.

Another factor in the opposition’s favor is that the movement is not Islamist in nature; it is firmly rooted in students and the middle class. While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a major force in the country, their ideology is not as radical as their name suggests, and as someone smarter and better informed than this author put it,” they are neither a marginal nor mainstream organization”. The MB is not leading this revolt, but it is sure to have some say in any new representative government. This is a good thing, as by most accounts the MB is moderate in its aims, yet it will give more conservative (or radical) constituents a voice in the new government.

Right now, all eyes are on Egypt to see what changes the civil unrest of the last few weeks will bring, but other countries are also in play and it will be interesting to see what courses they take.

Yemen

Simply put, Yemen is in deep trouble.  The Yemeni people have no shortage of reasons to be upset with the government: Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Middle East; in 6 years Yemen will run out of oil, from which the government depends heavily for revenues; in 15 years, Yemen will run out of drinking water; and in 20 years its population is expected to double. The government has little control outside of the capital of Sana’a, and it faces challenges from rebels in the north and separatists in the south. Add to this list the fact that the Yemeni people are heavily armed on average and the situation is ripe for violence.

Indeed, there is little to be optimistic about in Yemen. Unemployment and illiteracy are high, as is religious extremism. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a firm foothold in Yemen, where the group’s anti-West/anti-government stance is popular with the locals. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, weak central government, religious extremism, endemic tribalism, arid mountainous terrain, the presence of Al-Qaeda, the source of attacks on the United States. All of this is reminiscent of Afghanistan, which is a worrisome comparison.

It would be nice to end this summary on a high note for Yemen, but there is not much to be optimistic about. Even if the current regime falls and a democratic government emerges (which is unlikely), Yemen still faces monumental challenges. Just repeat this mantra to yourself: “running out of oil, running out of water, population to double.” Without unprecedented help from the international community, it’s tough to see how Yemen averts a historic humanitarian crisis.

Jordan

Following the lead of Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan is also seeing its share of protests. Protesters are upsets high unemployment, high cost of living, and high commodities prices, as well as austerity measures enacted by the government in the wake of the global economic downturn. The situation is complicated by Jordan’s political structure, which is based upon tribal hierarchies and the nation’s constitutional monarchy.

Jordanian’s already have a functioning democracy, but are unhappy with the country’s system of the King appointing cabinet ministers to run the country. As a result of the protests, King Abdullah II sacked the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister. While Jordanians may have been inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, they are reportedly not pursuing regime change, only political reforms. So the King is safe for now.

Lebanon

Compared with Egypt and Tunisia, Lebanon seems to be a bird of a different color. But a closer look reveals that the three have more in common than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, Hizballah and its coalition (composed mostly of Shia and Maronite Christians) pulled their ministers and collapsed the pro-Western March 14 government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hizballah then appointed its own candidate (billionaire Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim as Lebanon constitution mandates) who won the support of a majority in Lebanon’s parliament.

The fall of Hariri as Prime Minister was swift and was based on his resistance to drop his support for the UN-led tribunal investigating the 2005 death of his father, Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal is expected to indict members of Hizballah, and the group wanted Hariri to distance himself from an investigation which they believed was biased at best, and an Israeli conspiracy at worst.

The rapid transformation from a government led by a Saudi and Western-backed Saad  Hariri, to a government led by a Syria and Hizballah-backed Nijab Mikati brought thousands of Lebanese Sunnis to the streets for a “Day of Rage”, where Sunni protesters expressed their anger at such a swift loss of power. The maneuvers by Hizballah complete the group’s transformation from a fringe resistance group formed in the 1980’s during the Civil War, to a powerful political machine dominating the government.

What does this have to do with Tunis and Egypt? On the surface, not much. But the case of Hizballah in Lebanon again shows what can happen when a group of people are oppressed for too long. For decades, Lebanon’s Shia were relegated to the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, with Christians and Sunnis above. This was historically the case in Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority. Today, both nations have transitioned to democracies dominated by Shiite political parties.

In Iraq, it took a US-led invasion to initiate such a change, but for Lebanon, the change has been happening incrementally over the last fifty years.  Imam Musa Sadr began preaching equality for the Shia of Lebanon in the 1960’s, eventually founding the secular Amal Movement. Lebanon’s Shiite population has been making slow and steady gains over the years, building to what we are seeing today.

While Lebanon is a democracy, it is not representative of the country’s demographic makeup. Christian’s make up less than a third of the population, yet they control half the seats in parliament. The rest are allocated to the other sects. This allocation is based on the 1932 census, and many estimates have the Shia vastly outnumbering the other sects today, representing as much as 40% of the population. Lebanon’s Shia believe that this is unfair and they have worked over the years to reverse the situation.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, oppressed groups have taken matters into their own hands and demanded a change. The difference with Lebanon is that the change took place on a more incremental pace, and it should be noted that this latest “Hizballah coup” was done completely within the confines of the constitution.

Israel

The recent developments in the Middle East have to be troubling for Israel. Egypt and Jordan are Israel’s only neighbors to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish State. As a result of these treaties, Egypt and Jordan have been showered with military and development aid from the United States, a close ally of Israel. Israeli’s have to be wondering what will come out of the protests, and how it will affect them. Will a new Egyptian government honor the old agreements with Israel? How will Hezbollah’s ascension to power affect Lebanon’s relationship with Israel?

And will there be any protests from Israel’s own oppressed masses of Palestinians? It seems as though the Gaza War of 2008-2009 broke the backs of the violent Palestinian resistance, and that a third Intifada is highly unlikely, but a month ago it also seemed highly unlikely that Egypt’s government would be on the verge of collapse. For now, Gaza and West Bank are quiet, but for how long? Israeli official have publicly come out on the side Egypt’s Mubarak, but it’s unclear what good, if any, such a stance does for Cairo’s embattled despot.

United States

The United States is in a delicate position. Its old friends in Cairo (Mubarak), Amman (King Abdullah II), Beirut (Hariri), Sana’a (Saleh), and Tunis (Bin Ali) are under attack, and no one is sure what kind of political order will emerge from the chaos. What doesn’t change is the region’s high importance to the United States.  America’s oil supply is at stake, and there are troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to worry about. And then there is Israel, who is arguably of little strategic interest, but is very influential in Washington.

The Obama administration has taken a wait-and-see approach in Egypt, gradually and subtly shifting support from the regime to the opposition. Washington does not want to be on the wrong side of history on this one (see: Iran, 1953, 1979). After Obama took office, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an impassioned speech to the Muslim world. He told Muslims that America was not against them, and that he supported them in their struggle for democracy. Now Obama’s word will be directly tested. Will he come to the aid of the dictators and Israel, or will he support the Egyptian people in their demands for a truly representative elected government?  For the time being, Obama is more comfortable on the fence.

Finally, it is natural to look forward to see who could be next in line for a revolution. Other countries in the region and around the world have to be watching and wondering if it could happen to them. The more time goes by, the more time authoritarian regimes have to sure up support and consolidate power in expectation of a possible popular challenge. Or they could take proactive steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and countries throughout Asia and Africa are all candidates for similar unrest. Time will tell how for this goes, but today revolution is in the air.

 





Is El-Baradei the next Mousavi?

22 07 2010

Mohammed El-Baradei

Last month, there was a rally in Alexandria attended by some 4,000 Egyptians protesting the death of Khaleed Mohammed Saeed, allegedly at the hands of Egyptian police. Eye witness accounts say Saeed was dragged from the street by police to a building where he was then beaten to death. Egyptian police claim that the man died after ingesting drugs, but postmortem photos of Saeed tell a different tale.

However, the story here is not the abuse of power by Egyptian police , but the fact that the rally was led by former IAEA chief Muhammad El Baradei. Such a high-profile and anti-establishment appearance by El-Baradei represents a big step forward for the man whom many want to run for president. The situation that exists in the run-up to the 2011 Egyptian presidential election is reminiscent of that which existed in Iran in 2009, when reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it might be useful to compare the two.

To start, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Muhammad El-Baradei are sort of similar in appearance. Bespectacled and quiet, at first glance the men look more at home on a university campus.  Both men were born in 1942, making them 68 years old, and each are considered to be “reformers” in countries that seem to be democracies in name only. Both men have strong appeal with the urban and educated. After that, it is less clear how much these men share both in terms of personal style and political will.

Mr. El Baradei’s position in the Egyptian political scene is a relatively new phenomenon. After serving for years with the IAEA, he had hoped to retire to a quiet life in south of France, but he returned to Egypt to find that he was the new hope for a generation of Egyptians who have grown ever more tired of the regime of Egypt’s current president, Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak took power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Immediately after taking office, Mubarak instituted “emergency law”, which gives the government sweeping powers to enforce security. But nearly 30 years have passed since those measures were taken and still the rules of emergency law remain in effect. Over that time, the government intelligence service has vigilantly snuffed out dissent, and Mubarak’s rule has be uninterrupted. That is, until now.

Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak, 82 years old, is believed to be of weak health, and it is unclear whether he will “run” for reelection in 2011 (It is speculated that his son, Gamal, is the chosen successor). If Mubarak does indeed retire, Egypt could have its first new leader in thirty years.

Even in the best of times, succession in any state is a tricky proposition and is never a given.  In the United States, every four to eight years, power is transferred from incumbent to elected in an orderly and predictable fashion that is steeped in tradition. This is true for many developed democracies, and it means that while the power of one regime chosen by the people is handed over to the next regime chosen by the people, the rights and values of the country will remain the same.

Egyptians are not used to this. Since 1954, Egypt has had only 3 leaders: Gemal Abdul Nasr, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak.  Three leaders in 56 years. Nasr died in office and Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. It’s unclear how Mubarak’s time in office will come to an end.

Egypt’s propensity for long-serving leaders dates back before the Ottoman Empire, to the Pharaohs. It could be argued that Egyptian society is not accustomed to regularly choosing new leaders and therefore might not be ready for it, but Egypt has been a faux democracy for nearly sixty years and its people are  clearly familiar with it’s tenets, including an active civil society and an independent judiciary.

Iran is in a similar situation. For centuries, it was ruled by kings (shahs) and the people had little power. Iran flirted with a full-fledged democracy in the 1950’s, yet was thwarted by the nascent CIA in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt orchestrated a coup allowing Shah Pahlavi to return to power. With the help of the United States, the Shah ruled with an iron fist until 1979. That year, the Islamic revolution swept the nation and the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge.

In the 30-plus years since the Islamic Revolution, the military and intelligence establishment exercised its control of the country. Today, elections (like the presidential election of 2009) are a predetermined farce. Sound familiar?

Mir Houssein Mousavi

In both Iran and Egypt, the elites maintain a stranglehold on power, information, and decision-making. In both countries, voter apathy remains high and the potential for change remains low. Still, few people predicted the massive outpouring of protests in response to Iran’s elections last year. And it is not outside the realm of possibility that the same could happen in Egypt.

The protests in Iran came from mostly dissatisfied educated urban elite, whose values were not necessarily shared with the conservative citizenry of the more rural parts of the country. In Egypt, there is certainly a large group of “educated urban elites” that would like to see a change in leadership, but there is also the discontent of the popular Muslim Brotherhood to be considered.

The biggest difference between Muhammad el-Baradei and Mir Hussein Mousavi is in there ability to credibly criticize the regime in power. Mousavi got in on the ground floor of the revolution, and is one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers. Mousavi was very close with Khomeini, and this background gives his opinions and criticisms substantial weight while making it very difficult for the regime to try to silence him.

El-Baradei, on the other hand, is a complete outsider. He spent most of his career outside of Egypt, working for the United Nations. He is neither a military man, nor an Islamist. The biggest weapons that he brings to the table is his international name recognition and his potential as a reformer. In Egypt, this will not be enough. Any presidential candidate needs the approval of parliament to run, which is controlled by the Mubarak clique. So it is unlikely that his name would ever appear on the ballot.

Another difference is in their respective levels of international support. The West, particularly the United States, wished desperately for the protests in Iran to morph into a revolution that would have swept both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad out of power. This is not the case with Egypt.

Egypt is a powerful and populous Arab nation that has been an ally to the United States for decades. It is also one of the few Muslim nations to recognize Israel and sign peace with the Jewish State. It is easy to understand why both nations would want to ensure continuity in Egypt, and the best way to do that is not the inconvenient and unpredictable use of the ballot box, but through predetermined succession.

In this regard, the United States, Israel, and the Egyptian military establishment are on the same page, as neither would like to see a popular Islamist movement take power that might threaten their interests and prior agreements.

Still, as the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian parliamentary elections have shown us, succession, especially in counties with a deeply dissatisfied citizenry, does not always go as planned.

The protests that took place in Iran have yet to precipitate any major change in leadership, but that hand has yet to fully play itself out. The kinetic energy of such massive displays of civil disobedience do not simply evaporate into the air like a pipe blowing off steam. Instead, these actions could have long-term effects that will ripple through Persian society for generations. Where it all will lead is unclear, but Iran’s protests will likely be reflected upon in the future as the catalyst of something major that has yet to occur.

Is a similar situation possible in Egypt next November? Probably not, but one never knows. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most significant opposition group, is lying low for the time being. The group is rumored to be in support of El-Baradei’s candidacy, but their real motives are uncertain, as they would likely support any alternative to the current regime. They are a wild card in all of this.

For El-Baradei, the political, military, and intelligence establishment- as well as the United States and Israel- are against him. With such internal and external hurdles in the way, it is unlikely that his candidacy, if he so chooses to run, would inspire anything other than intense public debate. However, in Egypt as in Iran, perhaps for now that is enough.