Dispatch: 'Day of Rage' in the Middle East
Analyst Reva Bhalla outlines the issues at stake in the protests that have embroiled Lebanon and Egypt.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Protesters in Egypt and Lebanon have proclaimed today a "day of rage" with Lebanese Sunnis protesting against the nomination of the new prime minister, and Egyptians protesting against the Mubarak government. Now the situations in Egypt and Lebanon have very, very little in common, if anything at all. So we'll begin by looking at the situation in Lebanon.
Hezbollah with a backing of Syria engineered a collapse of the Lebanese government. Once the Lebanese government fell apart, premonitions of a return to civil war started making their appearance in the Lebanese media. In this whole scenario though, Syria and Hezbollah knew that they held the upper hand. If anyone wanted to avoid a bigger conflict, and that includes the Americans, the Saudis, and many of Lebanon's own factions, then they would have to come to Syria to negotiate on Syrian terms. Those terms meant getting rid of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and also neutralizing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating his father's murder, and that investigation was putting at risk a number of Hezbollah and Syrian officials.
Now a compromise candidate of sorts, Najib Mikati, has been nominated as Lebanon's next prime minister. According to Lebanese law, the prime minister has to be Sunni. This is causing a lot of anger among Lebanon's Sunnis who are outraged that Lebanon's next prime minister is someone who's been nominated by their archrivals in Hezbollah. Now we have a situation where Lebanon's Sunnis are the ones leading violent protests in the country and everyone is appealing for calm. And again this works in Hezbollah's favor, for once they are not seen as the propagators of violence, the Sunnis are, and Hezbollah is using this to sow more divisions within the Sunni camp. Now as everyone is trying to diffuse this crisis, the terms for a compromise are going to have to entail neutralizing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigation into the al-Hariri murder, and that means largely absolving Syria and many Hezbollah officials of blame for that murder. In the end, the Saudis and the Americans will have miscalculated while the Syrians will have returned to their preeminent position in Lebanon.
In Egypt, lots of fear is rising over whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will be dealt the same fate as Tunisian President Ben Ali who was overthrown in a popular revolt. In trying to take advantage of the Tunisia situation, a small group of Facebook mobilized protesters, called the April 6 Youth Movement, have mobilized today in this "day of rage."
This is where we really need to factor in the differences between Egypt and Tunisia, and one the biggest factors to look at is the U.S. The broader strategic interest for the United States right now is to maintain stability within Egypt and to ensure a smooth transition between Mubarak and his successor. Now this is not only vital to the U.S. interest, but also to the Israelis, who do not want to see a crisis erupted in the country that could be exploited by Egypt's well-organized Islamist movement. So amidst all of these concerns and these protests it's very little coincidence that the Egyptian army chief of staff is in Washington right now, with the U.S. getting assurances from the Egyptian army that the army will not abandon Mubarak like the Tunisian army did with Ben Ali.