Egyptian dilemma

The Egyptian passion play has cornered global attention for two weeks following the Tunisian drama. Authoritarian regimes are on notice; even the Chinese are unnerved.
On the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, the second President of Egypt, in 1970, his successor Muhammad Anwar El Sadat swung Egypt away from the

nonaligned pro-Soviet orientation towards engagement with US and peace with Israel in 1977-1979, abandoning Arab solidarity. Current President Hosni Mubarak further mutated the secular, leftist and reformist agenda of Nasser to a crony-capitalist, secular and even more than Sadat pro-US construct. The result has been a gradual diminution of Egypt’s influence in its neighbourhood and the Arab world. I recall in 1977, watching from my flat in Zamalak, a Manhattan-like island on the Nile, across the river a mob advancing towards an Army tank. The Riots broke out over Sadat’s withdrawal of bread and gas subsidies under International Monetary Fund pressure. For two days the situation was precarious but quick subsidy restitution and force restored order. While in recent times the economy fared better, boosted by oil and gas finds, increased income from Suez Canal and tourism, basically nepotism, unemployment and corruption have increased the alienation of the common man. Egypt population is also younger and better networked through the Internet, more aware of the world and with rising expectations.
The George Bush administration realised that its war on terror following 9/11 had to be accompanied by political reform in Islamic countries to counter radical Islam’s narrative. In January 2005, Bush’s second inaugural speech endorsed this. Then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice spoke about it at the American University, Cairo, in June 2005, prior to Mr Mubarak’s re-election. However, the turmoil in Iraq and Hamas’ victory in Gaza changed US priorities. Mr Mubarak ham-handedly rigged the elections, restricting the participation, harassing Ayman Nour, his main opponent, even re-imprisoning him post-election. The US ambassador hailed the victory, the US state department spokesman guardedly welcomed it. Reality had overtaken principle.
Then came constitutional changes enhancing presidential powers, abridging citizens’ rights ignoring protests by groups like Kifaya or ElBaradei’s Association for Change etc. US President Barack Obama’s Cairo message to the Islamic world was forgotten as he was distracted by the financial crisis, the Afghanistan war review and his domestic agenda besides the Democratic Party’s electoral disaster. The issue is back in his face and so far he has addressed it deftly. He has cut the ground from beneath his ally by asking for immediate transition. US’ stakes are high as its entire West Asia policy, since 1977, rests on peace between Israel and Egypt. There can be no war without Egypt non-comprehensive peace without them. Successive US Presidents have tried to finesse a settlement of the Palestinian issue, Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan heights but neither found another Arab Sadat or an Israeli Yitzhak Rabin, both assassinated by their own people. Rabin, in his 1979 memoir presciently concluded that Israel-Egypt peace was precarious unless the remaining issues were settled. He wrote, “If our efforts fail and our trial with peace does not work, Israel will find herself facing the most difficult period of her existence since the War of Independence”. He concluded that also critical was the economic success of Egypt.
The dilemma for US policymakers has been between their core values as the most powerful democracy and their strategic interests. Democracies are unpredictable to work with; dictators make excellent clients, until their masses rebel. The irony is that by the time that happens the initiative passes to those the US fears the most, i.e. radicals on the right or the left. Power is, wrote Joseph Nye recently, shifting globally but also getting diffused in each country due to communication revolution. Twitter and Google collaborated to set up alternative arteries the minute the Mukhabarat (Egyptian intelligence agency) disrupted the existing ones.
The focus is now on the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). Founded by Hassan al-Bana, in 1928 to resist British colonisation, it had its ideology magnified by Sayyid Qutb’s writings and their puritanical vision of Islam, rejecting rationalism and Western values. Nasser and his Free Officers group first worked with Ikhwan and then fought them after their attempt to assassinate Nasser. Before Qutb’s hanging in 1966, Nasser offered compromise, which was rejected. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, is Qutb’s follower. The Ikhwan have at best polled about 20 per cent vote in parliamentary elections. In the present street protests they have remained omniscient, though their leadership has gradually surfaced. The newly-appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman wants dialogue with the Opposition, including the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan would be a factor in any free election. It is unclear what would be their foreign policy orientation. Would they breach Israeli and US red lines: rejection of the 1979 Peace Agreement, open alliance with the Hamas and excessive Islamisation of Egypt? That conditions US caution in ejecting Mr Mubarak and wanting orderly transition.
On February 4, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, in a rare sermon, delved into Egyptian developments. Ignoring the smothering of similar Iranian protests last year after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory, Mr Khamenei termed them as “sacred anger”. The churning in the largest Arab nation, which historically has been the font of thought and culture in the Arab world, may be the Islamic renaissance that the Cold War froze with both superpowers preferring dictators as pawns in their geo-political chess. Soviet pawns were overpowered by their people when USSR collapsed, creating myriad democracies. Is it the turn of US pawns now? Let Mr Khamenei not exult, his street awaits him too.

K.C. Singh is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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