Mubarak's Balancing Act (Extract)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubark's government faces both domestic and regional condemnation in the wake of the conflict in Gaza, whose outcome may well determine Egypt's region role

21cairodemo (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A submissive and dependent Egypt was not what Gamal Abdel Nasser had in mind. When the charismatic colonel and his cohorts seized power in a bloodless coup in 1952, he set in motion a chain of events that would inspire millions of Muslims across the Arab world. Pan-Arabism, the dream of uniting all Arabs under one banner, quickly became Nasser's catalyst for an Arab awakening, the perfect tonic to emancipate the Arab people from all foreign control and political influence. Today, in what has become of Nasser's Egypt, past sentiments are just that. The conflict in Gaza has reaffirmed what many in Egypt and across the Middle East have known for sometime - that Egypt, once the powerhouse of the Arab world, is impotent in the face of a regional crisis, such as that in the small neighboring Palestinian territory. Egypt, of course, sacrificed thousands of men in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-49, 1956, 1967 and 1973 in the name of Arab nationalism and a free Palestinian state, yet today it is desperately fending off claims of incompetence and even collusion. The latter claim was the first in a long line of blows sustained by President Hosni Mubarak's regime, with the Egyptian leader's meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Cairo the day before the assault began, leading to accusations that Egypt was complicit in the Israeli attacks. In Lebanon, for instance, about 4,000 protesters marched through the Ain el Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon in the south, condemning both the attacks and Egypt, in particular. "Hosni Mubarak, you agent of the Americans, you traitor!" they shouted. Opposition groups in Egypt - from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to the nationalist left - have reacted to the Gaza crisis with anger and dismay, laying the blame at Egypt's alliance with Washington for the country's inability to deal effectively with Israeli policies in the region. "It's needless to say that the Zionist enemy, which is occupying Palestine, the Arab and Islamic land, wouldn't have been able to conduct these horrific criminal massacres without scandalous international complicity, humiliating silence, shameful impotence and disgraceful Arab collaboration," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a Cairo demonstration on December 29. Mubarak hit back at the critics and at Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who slammed his government's stance and called on the Egyptian people to take to the streets to change it. "We say to those who are trying to make political capital out of the plight of the Palestinian people," said Mubarak in a televised speech a day later, "we say loud and clear that Egypt is above such pettinesses and will not allow anyone to extend their influence over its affairs." Rejecting calls from Nasrallah and others to open the border crossing with Rafah to help the besieged Gazans, Mubarak also said: "We in Egypt are not going to contribute to perpetuating the rift [between the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmud Abbas and Gaza's Hamas rulers] by opening the Rafah crossing in the absence of the PA and EU observers, in violation of the 2005 deal between Israel and the PA after Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005. But, Mubarak, in truth, has had to negotiate a delicate balancing act. Since succeeding president Anwar Sadat, who paid the price for a peace treaty with Israel with his life in 1981, when he was assassinated by Muslim extremists, Mubarak's political priorities have been three-fold: nurturing a solid and financially rewarding relationship with the United States, maintaining the 1979 peace agreement with Israel - however frigidly - and clamping down on Islamic fundamentalism internally. He has pursued these goals, say his detractors, while presiding over a corrupt regime that has eaten away at the country's social institutions, and prioritizing state security over the welfare of its citizens. "Mubarak has surrounded himself with his cronies for decades, and will bring in his son [Gamal] through the back door to become president after him - just like a monarchy," says Dr. Ahmad Chafic, a Cairo physician, speaking to The Jerusalem Report. "There's no opposition either - with all these issues, how can Egypt govern effectively, especially in light of the current problems in Gaza?" The Egyptian public, while by and large no great lovers of Hamas, have, nonetheless, called on the Mubarak government to not only open the border with Rafah, but to sever diplomatic ties with Israel and even send weapons to the Palestinian faction. Such appeals may have found a willing ear in Nasser's era, when the "Saladin of the Arab world" broke off diplomatic ties with Washington in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, but no longer. Today, of course, there is no Soviet superpower to turn to, as Nasser did, and if Mubarak were to do any of the above, the Egyptian government would soon find itself stripped of the West's economic support [the U.S. sends $1.7 billion in annual aid to Egypt compared to up to $3 billion for Israel] - an unthinkable scenario that would leave Egypt facing financial ruin. Instead, the Egyptian government has had to deal with both domestic and regional condemnation - the country's Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit also came under fire at the outset of the war for publicly condemning Hamas as being partly culpable for the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza - even if Mubarak did roundly attack Israel for "barbaric aggression against the Palestinian people" on state television at the beginning of the conflict, and has since rounded on it again for its military incursion into the Gaza strip. And, just as the July 2006 Second Lebanon War between Hizballah and Israel led to further radicalization in Egypt's political discourse, and that of other Arab countries, so too, say many analysts, will the Gaza conflict. "As for the radicalization of Egypt's political discourse, there is already some stirring taking place in Egypt due to political and economic reasons - the Gaza crisis can only make things worse," says Dr. Hisham M. Wahby from the Political Science Department of The British University in Egypt, in El Sherouk, on the outskirts of Cairo "Unlike the war between Hizballah and Israel, this crisis is on the Egyptian border, much closer to home and Egypt can redeem itself somewhat in the eyes of the Palestinians and the Arab and Muslim world if it is able to get both Hamas and Israel to agree to a cease-fire," explains Dr. Wahby to The Report. "Egypt can further improve its standing, if it is able to bring both Hamas and Fatah together - ultimately achieving some good out of a disastrous situation," he adds. Demonstrators in Egypt have vented their anger at the ongoing crisis in Gaza - "The blood of the martyrs will remain a disgrace on the forehead of [Arab] leaders," read one of the many banners carried by protesters, who waved copies of the Koran and chanted pro-Hamas slogans during one demonstration - and many protests have resulted in violent exchanges between protesters and members of the security services. But Egypt has been quick to restrict demonstrations which, say experts, are unlikely to threaten a Mubarak regime that has long succeeded in controlling dissent. "The protests are relatively small in size in Egypt," says Nadim Shehadi, an Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London's Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs, speaking to The Report. "In a country of 70 million, where protests are controlled, the numbers protesting are too small to threaten any kind of a coup." Egypt's nagging fear is a lawless Gaza threatening the internal stability of Egypt as a whole. The prospect of Palestinian and Egyptian militants joining forces and turning a peaceful, albeit frosty, relationship with Israel into something approaching hostile is the stuff of nightmares for Mubarak, who will have to remain on alert - whatever situation presents itself - once the dust settles in Gaza. Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.