One by one, dominoes fall across Middle East

By Nathan Jeffay, February 3, 2011
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A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo against President Mubarak

A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo against President Mubarak

The Middle East unrest puts paid to the logic that what's bad for your enemy is good for you.

Between Jordan and the Mediterranean there are three governments which all have contempt for each other, but all of which, for different and sometimes contradictory reasons, view the latest developments with discomfort.

When the citizens of Tunisia took to the streets in December, analysts were talking of a possible domino effect across the region. Now there can be little doubt that this is happening.

After Tunisia came Egypt, and then Algeria, Libya, Jordan and Yemen. And on Tuesday, just over a fortnight after the Tunisia unrest resulted in the ousting of the country's government, it became clear that "domino" protesters have effected significant changes too. Egypt's autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, said that he will step down after the next elections, and Jordan's King Abdullah fired the unpopular Prime Minister Samir Rifai, appointing the more acceptable Marouf al-Bakhit and promising economic and democratic reforms.

The PA fears democratic calls and Islamism

But why the concern between Jordan and the Mediterranean?

First, take Hamas in Gaza. While much of the world is worrying that reforms in Egypt could be a prelude to Hamas's parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, taking control of the country, at this point the rallying cries in the Middle East are democracy and public accountability - demands which in Gaza could destabilise the non-transparent Hamas leadership.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has cause to fear both the democratic calls of protesters and the possibility of Islamist gains. Islamist headway elsewhere in the region will embolden its rivals, most notably Hamas. And if pro-democracy protests start in the West Bank, it is likely that they would turn against the PA's leaders, which is today considered even more unrepresentative of the Palestinian public than normal, following the leak of PA documents.

In a move that attracted considerably less attention than the Egyptian and Jordanian concessions, also on Tuesday the PA announced that it will hold local elections. This appears to be a move to pre-empt accusations of undemocratic conduct. The fact that it is prepared to go to the polls just as the leak has dented its popularity indicates just how seriously it views the spreading unrest.

Thirdly, Israel. As widely noted, while relations with the current regimes in Egypt and Jordan have not always been ideal, better the devil you know. Its peace treaties with these two states have served it well, and changes there raise the distinct possibility of leaderships are more antagonistic towards the Jewish state - whether Islamist or simply less friendly. The same goes for the wellbeing of the PA.

Admittedly of little comfort right now, there is a silver lining for Israel. The claim, fashionable from Tehran to the White House, that Israel's "occupation" is the main cause of instability in the Middle East just does not wash any more. People are waving banners about bread princes and civil rights, not about Bili'in and settlements.

    Last updated: 2:21pm, February 3 2011