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Despots in Arab countries receiving unwelcome news

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By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–It has not been a good week for our neighbors. 

  • A referendum in South Sudan may produce the first division of a country that defines itself as Muslim. One can expect dispute about the results. If the separatists win, defining borders will not be easy and the near future may not be peaceful. 
  • The president of Tunis has fled to sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, said to be the first case of a popular protest that toppled the government of an Arab country.
  • Lebanon has no government. Observers are talking about confusion or worse as the country prepares for what may be an international indictment of its largest, most powerful, and most militant religious group, the Hizbollah.
  • Lebanese sources are reporting that the UN organ investigating the killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will point its finger at Iran and Syria as well as Hizbollah.
  • Palestinian authorities cannot be happy with a poll shows a plurality favoring Israel over Palestine, and news that more East Jerusalem Arabs are applying for Israeli citizenship

Even before the rest of these items developed, signs were that governments throughout the Middle East were worried about the precedent of dividing Sudan. It is not the only Middle Eastern country troubled by regional tensions with potential for separatism. Minorities in Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran should be following the news. It is a long way from being restive to getting the attention of the United Nations, arranging a referendum, and then implementing regional autonomy or a new country. Sudan is far from being a done deal, and power holders elsewhere will not relinquish territory without a struggle.

Whatever happens is not likely to be region-wide. Muslim unity is a slogan but not a reality. 
We should not anticipate a great enlightenment sweeping the region. Concerns about government-toppling riots in Tunis will encourage activists elsewhere and worry those in office. However, the cultural traits of authoritarianism and corruption are deep enough to resist change. Tunis is one of the softest of the regimes in the region. The response of others might well be to harden their controls. It will take a while to see how this works in the internet era. Changes may occur in the direction of religious extremism rather than openness or democracy. 
If the reports about accusations of high level Iranian and Syrian involvement in the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister prove to be accurate, they will add to tensions between Iran and Syria and the regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Policymakers and their advisors in Washington and Western Europe will be rethinking their scenarios.
Also in the mix are co-religionists outside of the region who will press their governments. Although the pagan majority in South Sudan may not have allies with significant clout, the Christian minority there does have friends. Jimmy Carter will express himself on the nature of the referendum, but no longer is his finger close to important buttons. Christians of Lebanon can count on verbal support from the government of France. They will also have sympathy elsewhere, as do the Copts of Egypt and the Christians of Iraq, whose problems have been in the headlines.
What’s in it for the Jews?
Communities in Morocco, Tunis, Turkey, and Iran have learned to lower their profiles, express loyalty to the authorities, and hope for moderation in the politics focused on Israel. 
Compared to others, Israel is an island of quiet.
Before we get carried away with our aspirations, we can worry that Hizbollah will seek to deal with its problems by provoking something with us. The IDF has moved assets to the north, and should be thinking of appropriate responses to whatever may come from the other side of the border.  
It may be a while before there is pressure from the Palestinians. Their biggest news this week–aside from disappointments in East Jerusalem–is the recognition achieved from the Government of Guyana. 
The last time I heard about that country was when Jim Jones served Kool Aid.
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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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