The Power & Policy Fellows’ Forum
We all rejoice when dictators fall and the prospects for democracy flourish. What has happened in Egypt and Tunisia is a regional earthquake and it may be far from over. An opening exists for a better regional future.
Dramatically, Egypt could become a moderate, stable, pro-Western democracy, committed to peace. Other outcomes, however, are also possible.
- Egypt may remain a military dictatorship, or be taken over by some other strongman. The military’s role is as yet unclear. It has begun the reform process, but retained full control over it and clearly wishes to set limits. Just ten days were allotted for reforming the constitution, a ludicrous time period, and the military stated that elections will be held by September “circumstances permitting”.
- The Moslem Brotherhood or some other radical Islamist movement could eventually take over, in the coming period or down the line. One can argue that they gained “only” 20% of the parliament when allowed to run, or, conversely, that a previously banned party won a “whopping” 20% despite severe restrictions and will likely do far better under free elections. We do not know. What we do know is that they are a rabidly anti-American, anti-Israeli and explicitly anti-Semitic organization, which has repeatedly called for the end of the peace with Israel, including in recent weeks. Hamas in Gaza is simply the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, not a positive omen when it comes to Egypt’s future commitment to good governance, democracy and peace.
- Some hope Egypt will become a Turkish-style “moderate Islamist” government. The AK party certainly started out as a moderate and even reformist Islamist party, but has since fundamentally realigned Turkish foreign policy. It is hard to speak of Turkey as being a friend of the US today and it has become viciously anti-Israeli, aligning with Syria, Iran and Islamic radicals instead.
- There could also be prolonged turmoil, even chaos, hardly in anyone’s interest.
At a minimum, the new Egypt is likely to be less friendly to the US and less committed to peace with Israel, both of whom are popularly associated with the Mubarak regime. As such, Egypt would be far less inclined to support American policies in the region, including counter-terrorism cooperation, and to play its traditional stabilizing role in the peace process and Mideast generally. An Egypt such as this would constitute a dramatic change for the worse in the regional balance of power.
Iran is already ascendant in Iraq and the region and neither its hegemonic nor nuclear ambitions show signs of abating. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, for all practical purposes Iran itself, has gained control and the international sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program are clearly insufficient to do the trick. Turkey is no longer a force for regional moderation and peace. The signs of unrest in Jordan, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority, Bahrain and the truly big prize, Saudi Arabia, portend an even weaker moderate Arab camp and decline in US influence. Change in Iran (is Iran ripe for change too?), conversely, would be an entirely welcome story.
Egyptian governmental control in Sinai has already weakened, leading to an increase in the flow of arms into Gaza and increasing the dangers of renewed confrontation between Israel and Hamas and of cross-border terrorism from Egypt into Israel. The ultimate nightmare, of course, is of Egypt ending the peace with Israel and even rejoining the conflict. This will certainly not happen over night, but could over time. It could be the result of conscious design, or Egypt might be drawn into a future Arab-Israeli clash by an outpouring of inflamed public opinion, or Arab pressure. We have been there before.
A further round with Hezbollah and/or Hamas is in the offing, probably just a matter of time. Hezbollah now has a gargantuan rocket arsenal of some 50,000 rockets (compared to “just” 13,000 during the 2006 war). In the next round, an imminent Hezbollah success, or defeat, could lead to overwhelming pressure in Egypt to join the fray, especially if Syria is involved this time. Hezbollah and Hamas will have a clear interest in drawing Egypt in, as will Syria and Iran. For thirty years, Egypt could be depended on to stay out. That assurance is no longer there.
The emergence of a new Egypt, even if only partly democratic, will initially give rise to elation and euphoria. Reality, however, will soon set in and lead to a dangerous collapse of expectations; the tragic realization that no government can solve Egypt’s crushing poverty and other problems. Anti-Americanism and opposition to Israel, including the peace agreement, may again become the expression of public frustration and sweep the government with it, or provide it with an effective means of rallying the people and deflecting the fury outwards, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood is involved. If peace with Egypt ends, Jordan will be hard pressed to remain the sole Arab country at peace with Israel.
The potential for progress between Israel and the Palestinians, or Syria, already limited, will further diminish. An Israel afraid of the collapse of peace with Egypt and Jordan will be less likely to cede territory. Some will argue that now, more than ever, is the time to try and reach a deal, maybe so, but this will be a very hard sell in Israel politically.
The Palestinian Authority, too, has been jolted by recent events, finally announcing that new and long overdue elections will be held by the fall. Embarrassed by Al-Jazeera’s leaks regarding putative Palestinian concessions in past talks, facing a Hamas strengthened by Mubarak’s demise and fearful that elections will lead to its take over of the West Bank, as well, the PA will be hard pressed to make concessions and even its willingness to continue counter-terrorism cooperation with Israel may diminish. Syria, afraid for the future of its own uniquely oppressive regime, will be far more prone to hunker down, than to adopt risky new ventures.
None of the above is deterministic, events can take a far more positive course and it is essential that we all try to make this happen. Just as we must not fail to grasp the greatness of the hour, we must not let our values and emotions blind us to the dangers.
The author, an International Security Program Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was a Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel.