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Dizzying times in the Middle East: Where are we now?

Analysis: Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, weighs in on the changes sweeping the region and where they are likely to lead.
Image: Egypt constitutional changes referendum in Cairo
An Egyptian voter smiles while proudly showing his ink marked finger after casting his vote for the referendum on constitutional changes at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, March 19. Amel Pain / EPA
/ Source: NBC News and

The Middle East has seen a blur of activity this year. It’s hard to keep track of all that’s happened:

But the blur is starting to come into focus. Signs of what these changes could mean are beginning to emerge for the future of this critical region, dubbed “the Middle East” because it was closer to colonially minded Europeans than “the Far East” in Asia.

Not surprisingly, Egypt, the very site where Pharaonic priests believed Creation itself began, is the epicenter of the region’s transformation today.

The clues to what ultimately may happen are in what may look like small policy changes. 

Egypt’s interim foreign minister Nabil el-Araby announced that one of the first steps of the post-Mubarak Egyptian government will be to end its unofficial, but very real blockade of the Gaza Strip. Egypt said it will open the border to Gaza at Rafah. It could seem that the opening of a single border crossing is a minor change, hardly worth noticing. In fact, it is a tear in the status quo. 

Pressure on Israel over Gaza blockade
Egypt will open its border with Gaza, but certainly does not want the Palestinians living there to move into Egypt. Egypt has more people living on the banks of the Nile than it can handle now. It’s not an open door policy. Egypt doesn’t want immigrants. Instead by opening Gaza, Egypt hopes to rid itself of a moral dilemma, specifically the accusation that Cairo colludes with Israel to enforce a blockade on the one and a half million people of Gaza. 

Geography explains the situation best, as it almost always does. 

The Gaza Strip has only two land borders. One arches from the north, curling around the east to form Gaza’s boundary with Israel. This border is nearly impossible for Palestinians to cross.  Palestinians from Gaza are not allowed, except under very rare exceptions, to enter Israel. 

Gaza’s other border is with Egypt. It is also mostly closed, although Palestinians have tunneled under it to bring in supplies and weapons. Many Egyptians have felt guilty and hypocritical about keeping their border sealed. Egyptians often complain that Israel keeps Gazans penned in, even while their government was doing the same thing. It was an especially sensitive issue during the war between Israel and Hamas at the end of the 2008. 

During the three-week conflict, Israel pounded Gaza with tanks. It invaded with troops.  Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, triggered the invasion by firing rockets deep into Israel.  Israel said the war was designed to stop the rockets; a justification which most of the international community agreed was legitimate. No country could accept rockets flying over its border. Israel’s response to the rockets attacks, however, was ferocious and condemned as disproportionate by human rights groups and the United Nations. 

I was there at the time and saw how Israeli tank shells destroyed entire rows of buildings.  Military incursions sliced through neighborhoods on the outskirts of Gaza City like tornadoes.

Egypt kept its border zipped tightly shut throughout the war. President Hosni Mubarak didn’t want Hamas to spread or to encourage the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a group with historic links to Hamas. Many in the Arab world, and many Egyptians, thought Cairo was deliberately helping Israel. Palestinians couldn’t escape. Egyptians accused Mubarak of keeping the people of Gaza locked in like fish in a barrel, easily shot. Hamas couldn’t get supplies in from abroad to effectively fight back.  Israel won the war.

Mubarak was never fond of Hamas. If Israel beat Hamas to a pulp, he didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he hoped it would teach the people of Gaza not to elect Hamas in the future. Other Arab leaders seemed equally indifferent. They couldn’t — or wouldn’t — hold an emergency Arab summit. They couldn’t find a date that suited everyone’s schedule. The Arab street protested, but the regimes dispersed the crowds and moved on.

How things have changed. 

When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians stood in Tahrir Square and shouted, “The People Want to Topple the Regime,” Egypt became far more sensitive to public opinion. After all, isn’t that what democracy ultimately means – allowing the people’s opinions to drive policy?

It is therefore not surprising that one of Egypt’s first policy changes after its revolution was to announce the opening of the Rafah crossing with Gaza. 

Egypt is telling Israel, and undoubtedly its own people, that it will no longer be complicit in keeping Gaza locked down. If there were another bombardment on Gaza now, I’d expect thousands of Egyptians to march into the Gaza Strip, smartphones in hand. They’d turn themselves into human shields. Egyptians would try to make Gaza City into a giant Tahrir Square. There would be millions of alerts on Twitter. That might never happen. But the “can do” spirit of Tahrir Square — the belief that people power can make a difference — is still alive in the Middle East. It’s unclear how long it will last.

A new attempt at Arab unity
Egypt is also widening its gaze beyond Gaza. Egypt wants to lead the Arab world to create a new bloc to counter NATO, to be an alternative to the EU, a Middle East with collective power and bargaining rights. It may sound naive. It may be overly optimistic. It may ring of Egypt’s late president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the champion of pan-Arabism. But Egypt wants to give it a try. 

Interim foreign minister el-Araby said Cairo will also normalize relations with Iran. The two states haven’t had full diplomatic ties for three decades. There’s a lot of water under that bridge. 

Egypt is Sunni. Iran is Shia. Egypt is Arab. Iran is Persian. The revolutionary theocracy established by Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran has long called Egypt an American lackey. There’s even a street in Tehran named after Khaled Islambouli, the man who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a parade in Cairo in October 1981. Iran honored Islambouli because he killed Sadat for making a peace agreement with Israel, a deal brokered by the United States at Camp David.

Egypt is trying to put that past behind it. It has gone so far as to release Islambouli’s co-conspirators from prison, including Abboud al-Zumar, one of the masterminds of Sadat’s assassination, which brought Mubarak to power. Al-Zumar says he wants to run for president, although it’s hard to imagine he’d be anything more than a fringe sideshow. 

So where is the Arab movement going? I think it ultimately leads to Jerusalem. If that is for better or worse for the world remains unclear.

Arab dreams die hard
In Benghazi, a few nights ago, I was watching an Egyptian movie from the 1960s on television.  It was a love story, like most of the classic Egyptian movies, so different from the cheap, violent Hollywood ripoffs made in the Arab world today. The black-and-white movies are the Middle East’s version of "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon." They remain immensely popular. 

The movie on television in Benghazi was far too risqué to be produced today. The main character was a young Egyptian man dressed like Cary Grant in a tailored suit. He was love struck and spying on the woman of his dreams. Hiding below her house, he watched his unrequited love undress though a bedroom window.  The camera showed her naked body though a sheer curtain. A single lamp illuminated her bedroom. It was very sensual, even in black and white.  When the woman finally emerged from her room, dressed and ready, she wore a Hermès-style suit with a tight knee-length shirt and a fitted jacket. She carried a tiny leather purse that could have been used by Jackie Kennedy on Park Avenue. 

These movies were how Egypt, and most of the Middle East, wanted to see itself in the 1960s. Modern. Secular. Proud. United. No longer agrarian societies dominated by religious clerics and the often brutal tribal codes of village elders.

But fantasies and political realities are often broken by war. The Arab regimes of the 1960s ultimately proved to be failures to their people. In 1967, Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, Jordanand Iraq.  Israel did it in less than a week. For all the Arabs talk of strength and unity, all the outward impressions of prosperity captured in the black and white films, the Arab states were weak and divided. The humiliation of the 1967 war is still very alive in the collective psyche of the Arab world today, a scar on Arab pride.

This year is seeing another fundamental paradigm shift, arguably the biggest one since 1967.  The Arab world is changing because the Arab states failed their people again. 

I changed the channel from the Egyptian movie I was watching in Benghazi. I turned to Al-Jazeera. A reporter was discussing the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators, which has left hundreds dead.

It occurred to me then that the current Arab regimes didn’t fail their people with a six-day defeat by Israel, but through a collection of humiliations and failures that had reached a tipping point. 

From Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Syria, Yemen to Libya, Arab states failed because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop corruption. They couldn’t stand up to Israel. They couldn’t stand up to America. They couldn’t stop Abu Ghraib or Gitmo. They couldn’t provide jobs for their young people. They couldn’t produce many award-winning scientists. They weren’t becoming economic powerhouses like China or India. 

Arab state security agencies arrested and tortured their people at will. Their presidents lied about allowing more freedom and democracy. Their parliaments were jokes. The Middle East was backward and brutal, and because of new technologies like cell phones, Twitter and Facebook, the regimes couldn’t hide their failures any longer. 

Once the fear barrier was broken, there was no way to stop the crowds shouting, “The People Want To Topple The Regime!”

So what will the new era be like? 
I suspect the new Middle East will not embrace the hardest edge of radical Islam because that failed too. Just ask Osama bin Laden.  He didn’t topple a single regime and died a self-imposed prisoner in Pakistan. In fact, bin Laden was partly responsible for many of the region’s grievances — profiling at airports, denied visas, the hated link between Islam and terrorism.

Instead, I expect the Middle East will return to what it has always wanted: a mix of Pan-Arab nationalism and what I like to call “Islamic family values.” The states will also be far more sensitive to public opinion. Public opinion is the danger. It’s volatile and fickle and has been distorted for decades. Arab governments have, often deliberately, under educated or mis-educated their people as a means of control, especially in regards to Jews and Israel. The regimes wanted their students to learn to read and do basic math so they could operate the state — but not to think broadly enough to challenge it.

Egypt does have the free-thinking students of Tahrir Square who want an open society, but also people who believe Israel sent sharks fitted with GPS locators last year to eat tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh and ruin Egypt’s tourism industry. In my opinion, education is the most important factor to ensure long-term peace in the Middle East, or to at least give it a chance.

The emerging ideology, to coin an awkward phrase, Pan-Arab-Islamism, is likely to help groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a political party, a religious group and a charity all at once. It rejects Bin Laden’s extremism, but is adamantly anti-Israel. 

The Brotherhood believes the key to a good life is to be a god-fearing Muslim and to read the Quran. It believes a woman’s place is in the home, but supports education for girls. It believes the West works against Muslims, but does not support violence against Christians. Its opinions on Jews are somewhat murkier. The Brotherhood plans to field candidates to contest half of the seats in Egypt’s parliament in the first election after Egypt’s revolution. The Brotherhood initially said it would only field candidates for 35 percent of the seats in parliament, but no longer believes that’s enough. The group clearly has high expectations.

What does it all mean for the United States and Israel?  
The changes in the Middle East may ultimately prove to be a challenge for Israel. Mubarak was an Israeli ally, albeit a cold one.  Israel may find it was easier to deal with a cold ally than the volatile Arab street with its prejudices and decades of scores to settle.

The Arab street is already demanding changes. For the first time in decades, protestors in Egypt last month were allowed to demonstrate directly in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo.  Under Mubarak, Egyptian security forces closed off the street leading to the embassy building.  Demonstrations used to take place several hundred yards away by checkpoints. Those few hundred yards are significant.  Like opening Gaza, Egypt is telling Israel, and its people, it will no longer defend Israel at the expense of alienating public opinion.

Egyptians also want their government to stop selling natural gas to Israel at favorable rates, and accuse Mubarak of profiteering from secretive Israeli-Egyptians gas deals.  Talk of Mubarak’s hidden wealth from contracts with Israel fill Egyptian newspapers every day.

The United States will be also need to adjust to the emerging reality. Mubarak was a reliable and warm ally. Washington may end up missing him. Washington could pick up the phone and know Mubarak could deliver on Egyptian policy.  Mubarak could be counted on to use his contacts with other Arab regimes. 

But Washington can’t cry over spilt dictators.  The system in the Middle East as it existed wasn’t working. There were too many failures to hide. 

The United States may also chafe at dealing with the new Pan-Arab-Islamism. A disturbing opinion poll said that the majority of Egyptians have a negative view of the United States.  The survey was taken after the Egyptian revolution. I was initially surprised by its findings.  The United States helped the Egyptian revolution. If the Washington hadn’t pressured the Egyptian army and threatened to cut off aid, Mubarak might have cracked down and stopped the revolution. Ask Syrians today how that feels. 

But Egyptians’ rejection of Mubarak was also a rejection of American policy. It was a cry for change.  If the Middle East was complicated before, it’s much trickier now. 

The public has a voice, plans, dreams and momentum. The people know they can bring change. Throwing out Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali may have just been the beginning. It’s a new Middle East.