Egypt In Focus: What's at Stake

In Focus - Egypt
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WASHINGTON - It's not just in Egypt - a wave of anti-government protests has spread throughout the Arab world. In Yemen, the President has vowed not to run for re-election after 2013. But today, tens of thousands rallied there -- demanding he leave now.

Algeria's President tried to ease the tension in his country, promising today to lift the state of emergency that's been in effect since 1992.

With so many longstanding regimes suddenly threatened, the sands are shifting in the Middle East. CBS News national security correspondent David Martin puts it all In Focus.

In Egypt, the Nile moves slowly and the people are accustomed for 3,000 years to centralized authority," Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. "If the pharaoh is toppled then that will have not a ripple effect -but a tsunami effect across the Arab world.

The pharaoh, of course, is Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, leader of one of the world's oldest civilizations and in many ways the anchor of the Middle East.

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"Egypt is the largest, most powerful Arab country," Indyk added. "Nothing ever seemed to change there. Well, change has come to the Middle East. It will never be the same again."

Visible Gap

The Middle East already has the highest jobless rate in the world at over 10 percent. It's four times as high among young workers. Governments need to create 100 million new jobs in this decade to avert mass unemployment.

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"You have push carts, people on donkeys, riding alongside Mercedes-Benz and BMW's. It's the visible gap that really produces anger," said Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations. "A sense that the future is not getting any better, a sense that their regimes are not responsive to their needs."

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"I think no Arab country is immune," Marwan Muasher said.

"Is the day of repressive, corrupt Arab regimes over," Martin asked.

"Business as usual is not sustainable," Mausher replied.

The Wave

"The empowerment of the public on the scale that we have seen changes the calculations of every single ruler," the University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami said.

"Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, Libya - all of these countries are potential flash points," Danin said.

"It could well happen in Syria," Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said. "And I think of all the countries that have to look with caution at what's happened in these countries, then Syria has to be very high on the list."

Syria has been ruled by the Assad dynasty - first the father and now the son - for 40 years. Yemen's president has ruled for 32 years, but faced with his own demonstrations, he apparently has given up his dynastic ambitions and announced he will not run for reelection and his son will not succeed him.

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"Al Qaeda is already in Yemen," Indyk said. "If things fall apart in Yemen, al Qaeda will be in a position to take advantage of that.

Only the oil rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf seem safe from the tsunami of popular discontent.

"The Gulf leaders have money from their reserves to buy off dissent so they tend to be able to withstand the results of this kind of tidal wave," Indyk said.

"In the short term the unrest in the middle east will send oil prices up," Danin said. "Because what we're going to have is great uncertainty about where things are and the markets hate uncertainty."

Something Much Worse

For decades American foreign policy has relied on authoritarian Arab regimes to achieve its overriding goal of Middle East stability.

"We want to see the free flow of oil at reasonable prices coming out of the Middle East," Indyk said. "We want to avoid wars erupting there between our allies in the Arab world and our ally in Israel."

Now those regimes, even if they are not overthrown, will be less willing to do America's bidding.

"In the short term, every government is undoubtedly going to be more responsive to public opinion," Shibley Telhami said. "And public opinion is angry with America."

"How that dust settles will determine whether this is an inspiration to people or a cautionary tale about what happens when you get rid of a government you might not like but which might be replaced by something much worse," Jon Alterman said.

Giving power to the people of the Middle East could validate American values but undercut American interests.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.