March 9, 2011
People around the globe have watched with a mixture of awe, excitement, and dread as history kicked into high gear in the Middle East in December 2010. When an account of the past few monthsand that of those to comeis written, special attention will hopefully be given to Mohamed Bouazizi. Remember him? Maybe not.
This college-educated 26-year-old had been operating an unlicensed vegetable cart for years in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid to provide for his family. Like many in the North African country, he was unable to find work in his profession. Then, when the cart was confiscated by police and local authorities soundly refused to hear his case, the young man did what he must have felt was his only option: on Dec.17, 2010, Mohamed set himself on fire.
Less than a month later, Tunisias resident autocrat was driven from power in a popular revolution that took the media, the American intelligence community, and the dictator himself utterly by surprise. And even when all the pundits and intelligence officials claimed it would never happen in Egypt, a handful of weeks later, protests brought down the decades-old regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Whats more, protest movements have sprung up in countries across the Middle East and North Africa and to top it off, Libya has descended in an all-but-official civil war as rebels attempt to drive the crazed Muammar al-Qaddafi from the country.
So what does all of this mean? Among countless other things, these events mean the defining U.S. foreign policy of the past several decades is going to change. The U.S. and Israel have had an extremely close relationship since Israel became an independent country in 1947. So close has this bond been, in fact, that even President Obamaarguably the least-friendly president toward Israel weve ever electedhad his U.N. Ambassador unilaterally veto a Security Council resolution earlier this year that would have condemned the Israelis for not ceasing settlement construction in the West Bank.
An anti-Semitic undercurrent in many of the protests sweeping the Middle East is coming not just from the radicals, but from young university graduates, educated professionals, and other darlings of the movements supporters in the West.
Remember that many of these dictators now getting the boot have long been complicit in U.S. foreign policy that advocated peace with Israelor at least willing to acquiesce to it given proper incentive (i.e, billions in U.S. aid money). If these popular uprisings do produce genuinely democratic governments (or if, as some have suggested, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood succeed in hijacking them), most agree the new leaders will almost certainly be less friendly toward Israel simply because the people who elected them are.
Not to over-simplify things, but all of this adds up to a new crossroads for the West, particularly for the United States. Public opinion in Israel is consistently against negotiating with the Palestinians and especially against ceding territory to them. Public opinion among Palestinians is also against negotiating with Israel; remember Palestinians duly elected a government in Gaza headed by Hamas, a terrorist organization.
The choice it appears increasingly likely the United States will have to make will be between continuing its longstanding support of Israel or following the shifting winds of world opinion to force the Israeli government into some sort of settlement with the Palestinians. Will this actually happen? Will Israelis consent to giving up their territory? Not known.
What will the Middle East look like at the end of 2011? Only God knows that one. We can, however, come to one conclusion: 2011 will be a year of reckoning for the next several decades. If Arab regimes continue to implode, the governments that step in to fill the vacuums they leave behind, whether headed by extremists or not, will almost certainly be less friendly toward the West and its interests.
So, in the end, Mohamed Bouazizi probably didnt know the full effect his actions would have when he doused himself in gasoline. As trite as it may sound, he was probably just a young man who didnt know what else to do. Mohamed and thousands like him were oppressed under a system that made its rulers rich at the expense of the people. He was spat at, humiliated, and ignored by those in power and probably did the only thing he could think of to make his plight known.
I hesitate to adhere to the predictably bleak assessment of the situation by the ample naysayers, but I certainly have my doubts and I acknowledge the present situation appears to be accelerating toward some sort of showdown. Whatever thoughts were ricocheting about in Mohameds mind as he struck the match, its unlikely one of them was, Im about to set the world on fire.