Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Yes, Egypt’s in turmoil, but think about it: The Mideast has been remarkably stable

With a boiling Egypt, once again we’re talking about instability of the Middle East.

Thousands of pro-government supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak push their way towards Tahrir square on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Thousands of pro-government supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak push their way towards Tahrir square on Wednesday.

This is in no way a hint or a prediction about whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can hang onto power till the end of the day, the month or until the next scheduled election (where he now says he will not seek another term).

And of course, it’s true that the 24-year authoritarian regime was just overthrown in Tunisia.

But it may be a good time to note something Martin Sampson of the U of M, one my long-time sources of wisdom and insight about the Mideast, likes to point out (and reminded me of when we spoke about the situation in Egypt).

We talk constantly about instability in the Arab countries and the Middle East more generally. The U.S. media tend to portray the region, really, as the world capital of instability. And there always seems to be something going in the region to justify this notion, a war or the threat of a war or a low-intensity semi-war-type conflict or a civil war or a demand for the overthrow of the one of the kings or dictators or the threat of a revolution.

Article continues after advertisement

But on another and very relevant level, Professor Sampson has often pointed out to me, the Mideast is a region of astonishing stability.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak addressed the nation on Egyptian State TV on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Egyptian State TV
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak addressed the nation on Egyptian State TV on Tuesday.

Start with Egypt, for obvious reasons. Mubarak is going on 30 years in power, having gained the presidency on the death of the man that appointed him as his successor, Anwar Sadat. Sadat took power in 1970 upon the death of the man, Gamal Abed Al Nasser, who appointed him as his successor. Nasser took power in 1952 by a coup, which he led, that overthrew the last king (although Nasser didn’t technically acquire the title of president until 1956). So, there hasn’t been a revolutionary change in Egypt since the 1952 coup, and the presidency has been handed down, without benefit of any real elections, to three men over more than 50 years.

Other nations
In Jordan, the current King Abdullah, is the fourth member of the Hashemite monarchy since the nation was created by the British in 1921, and handed to the current king’s great-grandfather (also Abdullah) in recognition of the family’s assistance to the Allies in World War I. Although the first Abdullah was assassinated and his son, King Talal, was replaced by his own son (King Hussein) because Talal was diagnosed with mental illness, the crown has stayed in the family and been handed down peacefully. No successful revolution in Jordan since World War I.

In Syria, the current president, Bashar al-Assad, is the son of the previous president, the long-serving dictator Hafez al-Assad, who held power from 1970 until his death in 2000. So that’s at least 41 years of “stability” under one-family rule. Hafez Assad took power via a bloodless intraparty coup in 1970, but his Baath Party has held power in Syria since 1963 – 48 years since the last real change of power.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has been the de facto dictator of Libya since he seized power in a 1969 coup (he was 27 at the time). He’s still the de facto dictator of Libya (he’s 68 now).

In Iraq, there was a big change. But it was brought about by a U.S. invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. For all the chaos that the Saddam years visited upon Iraq, including the decade-long war with Iran and the reckless invasion of Kuwait that brought about the first U.S.-Iraq war, Saddam nonetheless maintained a secure grip on power from 1979 to 2003, and his Ba’ath Party had held power since 1968.

Speaking of Kuwait, the Sabah family has been in charge since the 1700s, and is the only ruling family since the British created Kuwait as a semi-independent state separate from the rest of Iraq in the 1920s. The Saudi royal family has controlled its original homeland for centuries and by 1925 had defeated the Hashemites (yes, the same clan that is now the royal family of Jordan) for control of the Hejaz region, where the holy cities are located. So they have been in power since the founding of the modern nation of Saudi Arabia in 1931.

When you get past all the talk of instability and look at the endurance of so many of these regimes, “the longevity is astonishing,” said Sampson.