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As the events are unfolding in the North African and Middle East region quite dramatically, there are talks as to whether the balance of power in the region would mark any shift. The changes and developments were so sudden and unexpected that it left little room for maneuvering; and intelligence agencies hardly had any clue whatsoever about what would happen in the next few moments. No one apparently imagined that a mere protest in Tunisia, which led to the collapse of Ben Ali’s empire, would spark and engulf the whole Middle East. And the fall of Mubarak regime in Egypt marks the most striking development with huge strategic significance. This single incident may lead to further equations as to the future geo-politics in the region.

For quite a long time Mubarak-gong was successfully serving the US interests in the region–supporting their policies; stabilizing the most war-prone and volatile region; securing incessant energy supply; and ensuring the very security of Israel. But the costs of playing for the master were proved to be high in the domestic end. The people of the respective countries were virtually in living jails. Absence of pluralist democracy, fragile institutions, weak civil society, and civil-military nexus and supports for the ruling coterie promoted and prolonged the dictatorships. These tyrants crushed any dissent voices with iron hand.

Democracy in the Middle East is a bitter pill for the US to swallow. It has been proved in the past that whenever a democratic government assumed power, it paid less heed to US concerns. Democratic Iran is more than unfriendly, democratic Kuwait is less differential on policy matters, democratic Palestine (election of Hamas) is a nightmare. There are not a lot more instances of democracy in the Middle East. But whenever it triumphed somewhere, it was proved counter-productive for the interest of the United States. Now, it will be really interesting to watch the US response to the uprising in the region and whether it will merely watch the events, or, as usual, will opt for meddling in the affairs and trying to halt any unfriendly outcomes.

If we assume that ultimately democracy will triumph and the new players will turn their back to the US, it will be worth watching the subsequent developments in the Middle East. Especially, the new Egyptian leadership–apparently the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhoods–will be central to this equation. If they consider any realignment of their country’s earlier position, we can expect that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty will be reconsidered, at least as to its effects, to respond to the popular demand; will try to be closer to Hamas or other Palestinian political entities; will keep the the Rafah Crossing open; and more adversely will grasp the friendship offers from Tehran and Damascus. Any variations to these very few choices could be a game changer. Especially, the response from Israel will be crucial. There are however lots of ifs and buts. If Egypt recedes from the peace treaty obligations, what would be the status of the Sinai Peninsula? If Egypt permanently and unconditionally opens the Rafah Crossing, will Hamas and other Palestinian fractions exploit this chance to smuggle arms, rockets and more lethal trajectories? What would be the Israel’s response to this sovereign Egyptian decision? What will be the response from the US and Israel if the new Egypt ties itself with Iran, Syria and other nations hostile to them?

Although Egypt is holding the key to most of these discussions, there are certainly a few other concerns which are also important given the past history of the region. As the Israel-Palestine issue remains in the core of Middle East politics for decades, issues on this particular dispute certainly are of great concerns. Already three regional wars (1948, 1967, and 1973) took place centering around the dispute. And in all those wars, most heavyweight forces got themselves actively involved in those wars–either by initiating a war or by participating–and, frustratingly for them, Israel came out as the winner each time. One of the main reasons the United States, the Western forces or the Israel fears the democratic Middle East is that most people of this region are carrying absolute resentments towards Israel. It is not only that Israel is an imposed Jews state or an unfriendly nation but also the compassion as a losing force. And the decades of heavy rearming of these countries including Saudi Arabia, which is the key ally of the US after 1973 war testifies their willingness to recover from that bitter end and shock and preparedness for the retaliation.

Now the ultimate challenge has popped up: the rise of a democratic Middle East. Two most important aspects have to be considered to assess any implication of this new reality and of the reshaped Middle East in the region. One is, the way newly democratic countries would behave and the other is, the reaction of the stakeholders of so-called peace process in the region. It will also shape the proceedings of the US engagements, and whether there will be any alternations to the usual preemptive reactions of Israel that we all have experienced in the recent past. Certainly, democracy is not a sluice for any war rather vice versa. But that equation worked reversely in this part of the world. Here dictatorship was promoted to quell the tense and democracy was feared for peace. However, for the people of Middle East, democracy is also an option for status quo. They believe that to contain Israel’s adventurism–bombing and intimidating any country at its will (Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza were the worst victims)–there should be balance of power. Formerly, the country which could have balanced the power in the region and could play as the defusing factor was the United States. After Israel’s assumption of nuclear power, which offered it the ultimate edge over other regional powers, the US role should have been to rebalance it. Ironically, it chose the wrong path; its incessant supports for Israel did make it more than the regional super power and pushed others to the corner. Moreover, it endorsed all of Israel’s misdeeds, provided Israel with billions of dollars in aid for military purchase, and transferred sophisticated war technologies. Obviously, greater democracy will not entirely rebalance the power game. It will at best, create an uncertainty as to the response of inferior powers, which would then be driven by domestic pressures and choices. For the United States, the stability of the region is not entirely for the security of Israel but to ensure the energy security. Any miscalculating move by any of the inferior powers may not result in its winning over the other, but could certainly impair the second limb of the US policy pursued over the decades.

* The article first appeared in the Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star, June 11, 2011. URL: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=189435

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