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Egyptian unrest may spread in the region, affecting oil prices and security

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2011 - WASHINGTON -- As the calls for reform intensify in Egypt -- with a massive protest rally scheduled for Tuesday -- congressmen and academic experts from the St. Louis area warned that the unrest might spread elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

"What happens in Egypt is critical to our security and economic interests," said Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "There's serious concern about the possible 'domino' impact in the Middle East."

Egyptian-born Morris Kalliny, an assistant professor at St. Louis University's John Cook School of Business -- and an expert on the social and economic impact of the internet, satellite television and cellphones on the Arab-speaking region -- agreed that the protests in Egypt are likely to spread elsewhere.

"When I was growing up in Egypt in the '80s, you could not speak negatively about the government or the president," said Kalliny, who has been in close touch with friends and family in Egypt. "But now the gates have been opened and ... it's like a flood. Nobody knows how to channel all this, nobody knows where it's going."

He said young people in the region "have taken advantage of this. They've organized themselves over Facebook and they've been able to bring changes in Tunisia and now in Egypt. There's no question in my mind that it's going to spread to some of the nearby countries" such as Algeria, Sudan and Yemen.

Such fears of spreading unrest in the Middle East have caused the price of crude oil to rise this week, and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, contends that such fears should re-energize Congress to push for more "energy security" legislation that reduces this country's dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

"Even before Egypt, experts were warning about a gallon of gas rising to $4 or above," Shimkus told the Beacon. "If it's not Egypt and its problems, then it's going to be problems elsewhere in the Middle East or an increase in demand for oil and gas here. We're captive to imported crude oil."

Shimkus said he expects the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- of which he is a senior member -- to take up this and related energy security issues soon.

They are in different political parties, but Carnahan and Shimkus both say the U.S. government should push for human rights and democratic reforms in Egypt.

"We would be on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of our own values if we didn't continue to push for reforms" in Egypt, Carnahan told the Beacon. "It's important for us to continue to stand for democratic principles, be a voice of calm and discourage violence. The protesters should be heard and their calls for reform should be addressed."

Shimkus said "this presents an opportunity to move away from a totalitarian regime towards more openness and freedom and some type of democratic institutions. That's what we believe in. That's what we should be supporting."

The Illinois congressman added: "Our alliances with dictators because of security can lead to a sort of schizophrenia in foreign policy, because we end up being in bed with people we really don't like. How can we preach democracy and freedom, and then support dictatorships?"

For his part, Carnahan -- who expects Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on Egypt and related issues -- said "we have to continue to be engaged very actively to look out for long-term stability but also addressing some short-term issues of the protesters."

He agreed with various experts that the Egyptian unrest "is something that could be replicated in other parts of the Middle East in ways that could be very destabilizing for the region and that could cause economic disruption."

Carnahan also is concerned that the regional unrest "could also cause problems for Israel," considering the fact that Egypt and Jordan are the only countries in the region that have signed peace treaties with Israel.

So far, the unrest has caused inconveniences to many Americans who are working, studying or traveling in Egypt - including two Washington University students who were reported to be flying out of Cairo on Monday.

But Carnahan said State Department officials had told him that "there have not been any serious issues so far with U.S. citizens. It's our hope that things will remain stable, and that people who are visiting or working in Egypt will be able to get out, if they want to, without problems."

Roots of the Protests

Kalliny, who spent his first 18 years in Egypt -- growing up in an impoverished area of Upper Egypt and them moving to Cairo to attend high school -- contends that the protest movement there is to a great extent a product of modern communications.

"Arab culture is changing in very significant ways. There are a tremendous number of contradictions, paradoxes that people have been able to live with in the last 10 years, but they are not going to be able to live with any longer," he said.

"You've got a country like Egypt that is open economically to a good extent, and it's open in terms of media outlets -- you buy a [satellite] dish and you have access to about 1,000 different channels from all over the globe. A very large number of people are turning to the Internet. And you've got cellphones that are now being used there even more than here in the U.S."

With a Ph.D. in international business and marketing, Kalliny has written extensively about how the culture of the Arab world interacts with business. He wrote an article last year about how social media and various media outlets "might lead to changes in the mindset of the Arab community."

Kalliny believes that the rise of the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel, which was started in 1996 with a grant from the Emir of Qatar, introduced a new form of reporting to the television programming of the Arab region, which had been dominated by state-run stations that were tightly controlled by governments.

In recent years, the rise of cellphones and the greatly expanded use of the Internet and social media in Egypt and other countries provided new platforms to challenge state censorship and also allowed protesters to organize quickly and efficiently, he said.

What is likely to happen in Egypt? Kalliny told the Beacon that he sees two possible scenarios.

"Either the youth who have taken to the streets are going to win the [reform] struggle and ... elect a truly democratic government that is not based on religious ideology."

But he worries about the other scenario, under which forces led by the Muslim Brotherhood might co-opt the reform movement and try to establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

"You've got a lot of ideas running through the country right now, and a lot of people are fascinated by how things will unfold," he said. "These people have taken to the streets with absolutely no leader or no organized party behind them. It's a movement without a head, and now the people are trying to decide who that head should be."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.