Editorials 07 August, 2011

What's in Store for Egypt?

Keyword

Fawzi Hassan Hussain

Fawzi Hassan Hussain is a doctoral candidate at the Beirut Arab University in Lebanon writing his thesis on ‘Strategic Planning Foreign Policy and States’ National Security Projects: The United States as a Case Study.’ He earned a higher diploma in political sciences from the same university in 2006 and his Master’s degree in 2008. His Master’s dissertation was entitled ‘China and Japan: Elements of Global Hegemony’ which was published on the Al Jazeera website. He also holds a baccalaureate in political sciences from Baghdad University since 2002.

The West and Israel have both lost a great strategic asset with the fall of the Egyptian regime, following a mass popular uprising. Bringing this reality to life, observers noted with surprise that a former Israeli cabinet minister, Benjamin Benaliezer, wept at the toppling of a an Arab head of state. So let us ask ourselves: Why did the Mubarak regime have such a privileged position in Western and Israeli planning?

Answering this question cannot be done through a piece-meal analysis, albeit a penetrating one, of the former Mubarak regime's policies. Instead, we will try to examine the broad policy themes that governed the Egyptian regime's foreign policy for many years. It was this regime that strove to protect Israel's southern boundaries, and put security measures in place at the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. It was the same regime that exported Egyptian natural gas at less-than-market prices to Israel. In short, the Mubarak regime used all of its Egypt's powers and treasures, for the benefit of Western and Israeli interests in the Middle East. They did so for two ostensible pretexts or justifications.

The first pretext was "the protection of peace in the Middle East". While the second stated reason was the idea that doing this would protect the national interests of Egypt. However, in its blind service to the West, what the regime did not bear in mind was that no ally would ever be indispensable to the West, no matter how close of an ally they might be. As soon as the Western powers realized that Mubarak was no longer capable of completely ruling Egypt, and that his son and heir-apparent did not have the charisma and popularity required to lead the country, they quickly left Mubarak to face his fate. Now, the former President is facing a litany of complex and high profile court cases. The West, together with Israel, will now have to re-shape its planning with regards to Egypt. Relations between the two sides will have to follow one of two limited scenarios. Egypt will either have to become a strategic ally of the West again, albeit with minor adjustments, or Egypt can make a complete break with the Mubarak regime.

Should Egypt follow the second path, the West will quickly realize that carving up and weakening the country would be in its best interest. The West would do this in order to prevent Egypt from building bonds with radical Islamists in the region, such as Hamas or Hezbollah, or, even more pressing, the possibility of Egypt allying itself with regional powers such as Iran. Thus, the West is keenly following the actions of Egypt's new political elites, and is closely monitoring those who are candidates for the presidency. They will examine the factors impacting political dynamism in Egyptian society, taking a close look at the indicators of Egyptian economics and the behaviors of the Egyptian military establishment. The uncovering and arrest of members of Israeli espionage groups in Egypt in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution serves as a reminder of continued Israeli and Western vested interests in the unraveling of the Egyptian story.

The political scene in Egypt today is witnessing a number of novel developments in terms of ideology and political thought; groups that had never done so before are demanding to have their voices heard and represented. This is most clearly evident in the growing visibility of Salafi and Sufist groups, not to mention the splinter groups that have grown out of the wider Muslim Brotherhood. In light of the clear absence of the rule of law and state authority in many parts of Egypt, this trend will grow in tandem with persistent attacks against police stations and incidents of sectarian strife between Muslims and Copts. With the decline in many sectors of the Egyptian economy, especially those connected with tourism, services, and manufacturing industries, these sit-ins and protests continue to this day.

The weakness of the government, and the fact that it remains subject to any and all factors which might be sweeping across the country, exacerbate the current situation. The political naivety that takes hold of the military establishment, and holds the reins of power for the time being, is not helping. In short, there is a vicious cycle of self-perpetuating crises, which are only making things in Egypt worse.

While Egypt is awaiting its passage through this supposedly transitional period of its contemporary history, to a time when it will be able to hold legislative and presidential elections that will bring about a renewed Egyptian foreign policy, it will be in the West's interests to create an environment of internal chaos in Egypt, making the country more malleable and amenable to Western influence. A number of prospective options lie before the West should they wish to do this:

  1. Working to instill sectarian strife between Copts and Muslims, and creating animosity between Sufis and Salafis, as well as between the various communities of the Sinai peninsula, and between them and between the Sinai communities and the seat of political power in Cairo. They might even go so far as to arm, train, and fund militant groups to achieve these ends. This would be done in an effort to foil any possible Egyptian attempt to play an active role in Pan-Arab affairs.
  2. Working to keep the Egyptian economy stagnant and weak, allowing only for a small margin of international aid that would allow daily life to continue more or less as normal in the country. The Egyptian Central Bank will also be running out of foreign currency reserves at about the same time as the formation of a new cabinet, thus making the revitalization of the Egyptian economy another pressure point that could be used against any future Egyptian regime.
  3. Weakening the national security of Egypt, and hastening instability in the country's security, which the West could do by empowering groups who are growing to have a paramilitary or mafioso character, would aide the West. Such groups would also be likely to infiltrate the security and military forces of Egypt, and would ready themselves to intervene in the event of the coming Egyptian regime adopting a Nasserist or pan-Arabist stance.
  4. The West will also likely work to bolster the careers of Egyptian political figures known for their total and outright devotion to the West in a bid to help them arrive at the pinnacle of power in Egypt's regime. In the event that these candidates fail, the West could work to incite public protests that promote opposition and popular demands as a pretext to opposing any pan-Arabist or Nasserist development programs which a future Egyptian leadership might choose to adopt.
  5. The West could also work to recruit a number of high-ranking Egyptian diplomats, military officers, and intelligence personnel who were loyal to the former Mubarak regime, particularly those who were educated or trained in the United States or Europe. These people might be able to make use of in an information-gathering sense, should these former worthies be able to gain access to sensitive positions of power.
  6. In addition to pressures applied directly to Egypt, the West will also find it possible to use its relations with countries which host large numbers of Egyptian émigré migrant workers, namely in those in the Gulf countries, to help ensure that those workers constitute an additional pressure for any future Egyptian regime which does not adopt a foreign policy in line with the West's interests.
  7. These pressures could also be brought to bear on those countries that control the sources of the Nile, reducing Egypt's water share as an excuse to build projects and dams in order to achieve national development in upstream countries. This would put pressure on incoming Egyptian decision makers.
  8. The West might also insist on keeping the Sinai Peninsula a de-militarized zone, while maintaining small skirmishes within it. It should not come as a surprise, if such a new Egyptian government with nationalist tendencies came to power, to see NATO or Israel invading the territory under the surreptitious pretext of "combating terrorism". Such a move would also make it possible for Israel to control all entry points to the Gaza Strip. In such an eventuality, the siege on the Gaza Strip will be total. Jordan will be completely cut off from Egypt; Israel will be able to finally cast off the nightmare of the Gaza Strip and join it to the Sinai desert. No longer would Israel have to worry about the Gaza and the Rafah crossing, or about checkpoints linking the West Bank to Gaza, nor about the possibility of a national reconciliation between Palestinian factions affecting it.

In view of all of the above, the tasks that lie before the coming Egyptian government seem increasingly complex and difficult. It will face the double pressures of a West that is keen to return the country to its Mubarak-era historical relationship with the West, and a population who would like for Egypt to become a regional power on the same level as Turkey and Iran. It will be a real challenge for any government of Egypt to balance these two trends. If the people and government of Egypt choose the path of becoming a regional power - a power with a strong pan-Arabist character - then the Egyptian people would have to be aware of the considerable costs they would have to bear in order to be able to achieve that. Such a decision would require complete cohesion between the government and its people.

On the other hand, if the West succeeds in driving a wedge between the people and the government of Egypt, and manages to bring the future government of Egypt to drink from the Western-Israeli trough, Egypt will again be plunged into a dispute it knows only too well: a dispute between the people and the regime. The people who sacrificed so much to free themselves from dictatorship would have found that their government has been dragged back to enslavement and humiliation.