Arab World: Crossroads for Cairo

With the region divided into two camps, how will the manner in which Egypt undergoes a transition play a significant role in its future?

Egypt Night Riots 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt Night Riots 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Events in Egypt have now entered a new phase. The regime has made the compromise it intends to make. There will be no republican monarchy.
Gamal Mubarak will not be president of Egypt. The de facto ruler is now former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
It will be Suleiman’s responsibility to navigate the dangerous transition period under way toward a revised constitution and new parliamentary and presidential elections.
What comes next is not yet certain.
But it may be said with confidence that there are currently two serious, organized political forces in Egypt. These are the leadership of the armed forces, and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The political process now opening up will be a veiled or open contest for domination between these forces.
The Al Jazeera version of the events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere has been that they constitute the rising up of long suppressed peoples against sclerotic, authoritarian governments. For fairly obvious reasons, Al Jazeera, which is the creation and instrument of an unelected, increasingly pro-Iranian monarch, leaves out a large part of the picture.
Popular uprisings in the Middle East must be understood in the context of this larger regional strategic picture.
THE MIDDLE East is divided into two camps. The camp of which Egypt currently forms a part consists mainly of authoritarian countries, ranging from fairly benign autocracies (Jordan) to deeply repressive ones (Saudi Arabia).
This camp also includes the region’s only functioning democracy (Israel) and is backed by the US.
It is ranged against an Iran-led camp of uniformly authoritarian states and Islamist movements.
The US-led camp is currently on the retreat across the region. It has suffered a series of defeats in the last half-decade.
The rival pro-Iranian camp now dominates Lebanon through force of arms. It has split the Palestinian national movement in two, and has established a Palestinian Islamist statelet in Gaza. It looks set to dominate a post-US Iraq.
These events represented gains in the frontier areas between the two camps, in which each vied for influence. The events in Egypt, however, raise the prospect of a further gain of infinitely greater significance to the anti-Western element. If the transition period is mismanaged, it will stand to make a play for power within one of the main bulwarks of the pro-US regional alliance.
EGYPT IS not only the most populous state of the Arab world, it is also located in a place of key geostrategic importance, containing within it the vital Suez Canal. The possibility of Muslim Brotherhood influence, or worse, power would represent, without hyperbole, a disaster for pro-US regional forces.
The Brotherhood is the prototype Sunni Islamist organization, in existence since 1928. Many of the most famous, or infamous figures of Islamist terrorism began their careers within its ranks. Abdulla Azzam, joint founder of al-Qaida, emerged from the Brotherhood’s ranks, as did Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The ideology of the movement is jihadist in nature, and where relevant, it supports political violence. Where this is neither relevant nor possible, as in Europe and latterly in Egypt, the movement also engages in social, political and educational activity.
Current “supreme guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Badi, in a sermon given in September 2010, said that Muslims “need to understand that the improvement and change that the Muslim nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice, and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as its enemies pursue life.”
What has been in evidence over the last half decade is the contrasting nature of the two regional camps. The latest events in Egypt have confirmed the differences.
The pro-Iranian, Islamist camp is at a distinct, indeed enormous disadvantage when it comes to power measured in physical terms – in economic capability and conventional military prowess.
Yet it continues to make gains.
This is because this camp possesses an implacable will and a belief in itself and its future. When Iranians rose up in mid- 2009 to protest the results of the presidential elections, the regime’s counterreaction was swift and fierce. They had read their Machiavelli well, and knew that to defeat the uprising, it was vital to offer no concessions whatsoever. And contrary to the hopes and predictions of sundry Western commentators, the rising was swiftly and brutally crushed.
Iran and its allies are authoritarians with a clear will to power and a clear, if simplistic unifying idea. The countries which they control are large prisons, in which no hint of dissent is permitted. Yet it may be asserted with some confidence that they are in no danger of being toppled by popular uprisings or forced to share power or reform any time soon.
Should such risings be attempted, the anti-US camp would have no hesitation in drowning them swiftly in the blood of their participants.
BY CONTRAST, the US threw their its ally Hosni Mubarak to the wolves, following the demonstrations, with scarcely a shot fired. This is not the way to project strength or make oneself trusted. The possibility now exists of US pressure on the new Egyptian government to invite the disciples of Sayed Qutb and Hassan al-Banna to participate in democratic politics.
Should the heartland of the pro-Western part of the Arab world be breached – by invitation – by the enemies of this camp, this would be seen throughout the region as a major triumph for the Islamists and a defeat for the US and its allies.
There is every reason to suppose that Omar Suleiman will argue for a very different approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
He too has evidently read his Machiavelli. It is to be hoped that Washington will now grasp the cardinal importance in the Middle East of standing by friends and identifying enemies. If so, it will allow him to deal with the threat to fledgling representative government represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and a better political dispensation in Egypt may even stand a chance.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Gloria Center, IDC Herzliya. His book The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel- Islamist Conflict was published in 2010.