Processing Bin Laden's Death in the Arab Spring

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine, checked in about new developments in the 'Arab Spring' and New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick reported on the reaction to Osama bin Laden's death in the Middle East North Africa region.

Ripple effect in Palestine

The change just keeps 'a coming in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region this year. Gideon Rose says the new unity deal between Fatah and Hamas was instigated by the fracture of old alliances.

Both Fatah and Hamas feel like the world is moving under their feet. Fatah has lost the Mubarak government which had been one of its backers, and the Syrian government which helps back Hamas is under stress right now so tensions are appearing there. So both Palestinian factions are feeling like they need to make new moves to ensure their support.

Egypt sculpts a new identity

Rose predicts the new Egyptian government will shift away from Mubarak's friendly relationship to Israel and the U.S. because it wants to transform the country's image from that of American pawn to MENA chess-master.

It associates the peace with Israel and the lackey status of American foreign policy with legacies of the hated Mubarak regime that it wants to move away from. It wants to flex its oats and regain a prominent role in Arab diplomacy and not simply as the junior partner of the U.S. imperialism in the region.

Bin Laden's Confused Egyptian Legacy

Tapping into that desire to stand up to American power is what made Osama bin Laden such a powerful figure, Kirkpatrick says. His New York Times article yesterday explained the mixed feelings in the region to the terrorist's death.

Kirkpatrick says the Arab Spring has so thoroughly transformed the political dynamics in Egypt that the name 'bin Laden' almost sounds like an echo of the past. At the same time, bin Laden was such an iconic figure that even people in Cairo who despised his tactics have a certain nostalgia for him.

He had a political significance. Because people here, a number of them said to me, 'after the end of the Cold War, it was the U.S. and bin Laden. Bin Laden was all by himself and the only counterweight we knew to American power.'

How much will Egypt's foreign policy shift?

Egypt said last week that it will re-open its closed border with Gaza, which Israel is seriously unhappy about. Israel contends weapons will flow across the border for terrorist purposes. (Meanwhile, everything from food to gas to cars gets in through a healthy underground tunnel network). Kirkpatrick says  Egypt's shift is happening because the newly democratic country must respond to the will of its people.

This is now a country that considers itself a democracy, even though it hasn't had an election yet. That means that individual policy makers are thinking, look, if I want to keep my job in a world where there are democratic elections, I need to do what the people want. The peace with Israel and the conduct of Israeli towards Palestinians and the Israeli settlements is overwhelmingly unpopular here.

Rose, on the other hand, isn't sure that much will really change in Egypt's international relationships because of the benefits that come with having peace with Israel and being friendly with the U.S.

They're kidding themselves first of all if they think that they're all sorts of wonderful other options out there for Egyptian foreign policy that don't have significant downsides. The more they move in this direction the more they'll realize that the Mubarak government did what it did for some very good reasons, and you don't want to make the U.S. and Israel dramatically unhappy. 

In the balance lies billions of annual aid for Egypt, which it surely doesn't want to disappear. All this puts the U.S. in a tricky spot too. On the one hand the U.S. wants to support and nurture the new democratic Egyptian regime, but at the same time there are some red lines that it doesn't want to see crossed.