Twenty days that shook the world

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief

All of a sudden, in rapid succession, the world has been convulsed by major upheavals, many of them concentrated in the already volatile and ever-changing Middle East and North Africa:

• A surprisingly peaceful referendum was held in which an estimated 95 percent of voters in Southern Sudan voted to secede from the northern portion of the African nation to form an independent nation. The mostly Christian and Animist Black African South will split formally from the mostly Arab and Muslim North on July 8. Sudan’s President, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Al Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court was surprisingly conciliatory on the eve of the Sudan referendum, promising to accept its results and to co-exist in a “brotherly” fashion with the new Southern Sudan independent state.

• In Tunisia, a sudden and popular revolt by ordinary citizens toppled the dictatorial but pro-Western President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the nation for refuge in Saudi Arabia. At this writing, protests continue over the continued presence of Cabinet ministers loyal to Ben Ali in the new interim government.

• In Lebanon, the fragile government of the pro-Western Saad Hariri collapsed just as a United Nations investigatory panel was prepared to indict members of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah in connection with the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s brother, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In order to prevent the moderate Cabinet of Saad Hariri from cooperating with the U.N. panel, Hezbollah withdrew from the government. In the jockeying for position that followed, Hezbollah threw its support to Najib Miqati, a billionaire Sunni Muslim. The fact that Hezbollah, which fought a months-long war against Israel in 2006, and which is allied with both Syria and Iran, has named the new Lebanese prime minister represents a serious potential threat to Israel. Israeli leaders have warned that Hezbollah has been armed with as many as 40,000 rockets, including many that can reach Israel. Israeli leaders have said that Israel will not do anything to provoke Hezbollah, but that they are concerned by Hezbollah’s dominant role in the new government. The development might also mean that Hezbollah and Syria could avoid punishment in connection with the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, for which they are widely believed to have been responsible.

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• In Iraq, Iran and Egypt, ancient Christian communities, some of them dating back to the dawn of Christianity, have been subjected to brutal and escalating attacks, resulting in scores of deaths and injuries and prompting many Christians to flee those nations for their own safety and survival.

• The League of Arab States, holding an economic summit meeting in Cairo last week, was warned by its Secretary General, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister of Egypt, that “the Tunisian revolt is not far from us,” noting that the discontents among the body politic on stark display in Tunisia pervade the entire Arab world. Indeed for nearly a decade Arab intellectuals, think tank studies and even a recent warning by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have underscored the urgency of major reforms among all of the 22 Arab governments.

Rigged elections, authoritarian regimes and rampant corruption are too often the “norm” among the Arab nations, and the popular uprising that led to the ousting of Tunisia’s longtime ruler could threaten regimes throughout the region, including such “moderate” and pro- Western ones like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There are “upsides” and “downsides” to the events in these regional flashpoints. The Sudan referendum went peacefully and without incident. The Carter Center, which had been invited to Sudan to monitor the balloting, pronounced the election “fair.” And President Bashir’s conciliatory stance prior to the election was certainly helpful. The downside to the Sudan developments include the danger that the new nation of Southern Sudan could become yet another “failed state” in Africa, along the lines of Somalia – a deeply impoverished nation with virtually no infrastructure. To be sure Southern Sudan is the location of substantial oil, but this resource will have to be shared with northern Sudan under terms of the separation agreement. In addition, it would be appalling if Bashir is allowed to “plea bargain” away his status as an war criminal because of his role in the genocide in the southwestern region of Darfur in which an estimated 300,000 Darfurians were massacred and over 2 million driven from their homes by Bashir-backed janjaweed marauders.

In Tunisia, while it is a positive development that a popular uprising drove an entrenched autocrat from power, it is unclear what kind of regime will replace that of ousted President Ben Ali. Ben Ali had been regarded as pro-Western and “moderate” in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and headed a government that protected and respected the status of the ancient 1,500-member Jewish community of Tunisia.

JTA reports that the Tunisian Jewish community is “safe” and we hope they remain that way. We also hope that the new regime, once it takes hold, will not join the radical, rejectionist camp of Arab states who do not support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which had previously been endorsed by the Arab League.

Lebanon is once again caught between warring factions. On one hand, Syria and Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, is attempting to regain control of Lebanon, which Syria has historically regarded as a Syrian “province.” If the United Nations panel indeed indicts members of Hezbollah for the assassination of Rafiq Harriri, Syria and Iran must not be “bargained with” in a way that would allow Hezbollah to get away with yet another murder in addition to engineering the collapse of yet another moderate Lebanese government.

Regarding the horrific and increasing attacks on ancient Christian communities in Iraq (where nearly 70 Catholic worshippers were massacred during a church service), and against the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the United Nations (which is always so quick to pounce on Israel for any real or imagined infraction) should give urgent and immediate attention to the persecution and attempted eradication of Christian communities of the Middle East.

Yes, the recent period could be called “Twenty Days That Shook the World.” Each regional explosion can be seen as individual crises unrelated to one another.

They can also be seen as signs that unless the entrenched regimes set their own houses in order, their leaders might be joining the ousted President of Tunisia is seeking new houses for themselves in Saudi Arabia or France.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.