WASHINGTON — The pictures from Egypt must be unnerving for autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East, but they also represent huge problems for organizations such as al-Qaida, said Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“This is transformational for them,” Gouttierre told The World-Herald.
Those kinds of transnational groups rely on ranks of young people susceptible to recruitment, including many angry and frustrated over being unable to participate in their own governance. Gouttierre pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers came from countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, where there was no outlet for citizens to have a voice.
But all that could be changing after weeks of protests in the streets of Cairo resulted in the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Now disaffected youths in the Middle East have seen how they can channel their time, energy and resources into changing things at home rather than serving the interests of some outside group, Gouttierre said.
“If you've got all these young people, a million of them out in the street demonstrating in their own country, they're not thinking about al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and the narrative message that they keep focusing on,” he said. “They're thinking about their own streets.”
Dr. John Calvert, a history professor at Creighton University, said during a panel discussion this week that the protests in Egypt have been driven, at least in part, by economic factors evident across the region.
“Young people throughout the region are finding their prospects are dim and upward mobility blocked,” he said.
“I often tell my students at Creighton that they have futures to look forward to. They hope to own a car, if they don't already have one; become homeowners; raise families; and whatnot. And all of those things are denied to young people in the Middle East.”
But he also said events were driven by the contempt shown to the people by the ruling regime.
“It's manifested in emergency laws that have been in effect in Egypt for more than 30 years, by which any individual can be picked up on the street, taken to a police station and tortured,” he said. “It's manifested in inattention to education and health care. It's a basic contempt for the aspirations and needs of the people.”
Gouttierre said that while uncertainty remains about how things will play out, a movement toward greater self-governance could help U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by weakening al-Qaida, elements of the Taliban, even rogue factions of the Pakistani intelligence agencies.
“They're just going to be losing their bases of support — at least the degrees and levels of that support will be diminishing if people are really now going to be able to be actively engaged within their own nations in change, real change,” he said.
“There's greater chance that the Afghans will be left to themselves more rather than having to deal with this constant cross-border interference.”
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a truly democratic Egypt would help U.S. causes in Iraq and Afghanistan because the nation would serve as a beacon of hope to others in the Middle East.
“We would like to see a democratic Middle East,” he said. “Democracies typically do not go to war with one another.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., lived for a time as a young man near Cairo's Tahrir Square, the central location of many of the recent demonstrations. Fortenberry was there in 1979 as part of an international 4-H youth exchange program. Now the Lincoln lawmaker sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
“Egypt is the historic center of Arab culture,” he said. “It is the most populous Middle Eastern country, and it has played this moderating role — for the most part quietly — for the last 30 years.”
Fortenberry said the direction Egypt takes from here will have significant consequences for the rest of the region and the world, whether the country descends into violent chaos or peacefully transitions into a place where the core principles of democracy take hold.
“This is very delicate and very complicated and very fluid ... so it's very unclear whether you'll end up with either one of those, or something in between,” Fortenberry said.
While expressing support for Mubarak's departure, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., warned about the dangers if the Muslim Brotherhood takes control. He noted recent incendiary comments by one of the group's leaders about war with Israel.
“This organization not only could pose a threat to the United States, but they could pose a threat to Israel,” he said.
The bottom line, Johanns said, is that Mubarak's ouster does not automatically solve all problems.
World-Herald staff writer Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.
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