The Region: What next for Egypt?

Islamist parties are almost certain to be elected in Egypt. It isn’t yet clear exactly what that will mean for the country or the region.

Protesters during a march in Tahrir Square in Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Protesters during a march in Tahrir Square in Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
Assuming that the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller Islamist groups do very well in Egypt’s parliamentary election today, what does it tell us about the modern history and political future of that country? The main cause for the political upheaval in Egypt was the long-term failure of the Arab nationalist regime that governed there, and in much of the Arab world, for well over half a century.
Rulers’ inability to keep promises about what they were going to achieve – pan-Arab union, rapid social and economic progress, genocide against Israel, driving out Western influences – has long been clear. Their corruption, the lack of freedom they offered and the economic hardships they brought have also long been clear.
The immediate causes of the successful revolt include dissatisfaction with the succession of Mubarak’s son among the elite and the especially hard times economically for the masses.
So will Egypt change now? Of course there is always a lot of continuity in the political culture and structure of a country, but clearly Egypt will move toward Islamism, though the precise extent of that change cannot yet be determined.
During the Mubarak era, Egyptian foreign policy was based on a pragmatic consideration of Egyptian national interests. That included supporting regional stability rather than wasting resources on losing battles to destroy Israel or seeking Egyptian leadership of the Arab world. The policy was a reaction against the failure of the campaign by President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-1970). It related to the defeats by Israel in 1967 and 1973 (despite the fact that Cairo claims the latter war as a victory).
Now those mistakes are likely to be repeated, although it is not clear to what extent. The new-old Egypt is likely to try to battle Israel in some way, to promote Islamist subversion elsewhere, and to seek Egyptian leadership in the Sunni Arab Muslim-world.
For Egypt-Israel relations, the removal of the military from power (probably sometime around June 2012) will mean a turn toward total hostility.
For all practical purposes, this would mark the end of the peace treaty even if there is no actual war. Whether or not the treaty is formally reviewed or abrogated doesn’t matter in terms of this practical impact. US policy, enamored of the Muslim Brotherhood and not warmly supportive of Israel, will be useless on these issues.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Egypt would go to war against Israel. The main danger is that Hamas would try to lure Egypt into the conflict by attacking Israel. In such a case, however, Egyptian actions might be limited to letting Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist volunteers cross into the Gaza Strip to fight while permitting money, weapons and foreign terrorists to pour into Gaza to help Hamas.
IN TERMS of Egyptian foreign policy, the most likely scenario is that of an Egypt becoming leader, whether on an official state level or a de facto sense, with the Muslim Brotherhood leading a Sunni Islamist bloc that would include Tunisia, Libya and the Gaza Strip, with support for Brotherhood groups in Syria and Jordan trying to subvert those regimes.
The Saudis and Gulf states would be angry at this Egypt; Jordan would be suspicious of it. Sunni Arab Islamists in Egypt have no interest in working with, much less following, Turkey, whose regional influence would be reduced. It would view itself as a rival to a Shi’ite bloc, including Iran, the current Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
While the impact of Egyptian policies would be anti-American, Cairo would do the bare minimum necessary to keep the Obama administration deluded that this is not the case. Such a success might come with minimal effort.
There are three potential barriers to such a badcase outcome.
• First, and most importantly, it would depend on who is elected president. The only man who could prevent this scenario is the aging Amr Moussa. He is a radical nationalist, a demagogue, and he hates Israel. On the more positive side, he has a strong pragmatic and realistic streak. In other words, he would talk tough but avoid adventurous action.
• Second, the military could serve as a restraint if it feels that its economic interests are at stake. It wants to keep US aid and avoid a(nother) humiliating defeat at Israel’s hands. However, it might also cut its own deal with the Islamists.
• Third, if the Islamists are preoccupied with domestic issues, too busy fundamentally transforming Egypt to spend too much effort on regional politics. It is likely that internal terrorism against moderates and Christians increases as the Salafists flex their muscles.
As for the moderate parties, they are too badly and bitterly divided to play a major role as an opposition. Staging a demonstration of a few thousand people in Tahrir Square cannot ultimately substitute for having a strong national organization with a mass base and a clear ideological line. Facebook will not face down determined Islamists willing – even eager – to use intimidation and violence.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at Pajamas Media.His new book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.