Egypt Shakes up Middle Eastern Order

By M K Bhadrakumar · 5 May 2011

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Picture: NixBC
Picture: NixBC

The thesis was just about gaining ground that the bitter legacy of the Arab spring is going to be the reawakening of the rough beast of sectarianism in the Muslim Middle East. Sectarian strife, it was prophesied, would lead to a Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation involving Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

That specter helped deflect attention momentarily from the existential threat posed by the Arab spring to the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. It also helped the United States to distract the Arab street while Western intervention is under way in another oil-rich Muslim country, and to reinvent the containment strategy toward Iran. Most important, it gave the Barack Obama administration in Washington a fig-leaf with which to cover up the comprehensive failure of the Middle East peace process. 

Arab Spring is for Real 

However, Riyadh and Washington didn't factor in that in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids the Sphinx was bestirring, expounding visions of the shaking up of the established order in the Middle East. The interim agreement between the Palestinian groups brokered by the ''new Egypt'' in tacit collaboration with Iran and Syria threatens to become the leitmotif of the Arab spring. 

Saudi Arabia in principle ought to be celebrating that its Palestinian brothers are forging unity at a historic moment, but are instead stunned into silence. President Obama quickly postponed his ''historic'' Middle East policy speech, originally scheduled for this week, in order to read the tea leaves. 

As things stand, the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas will sign an agreement in Cairo on Wednesday to form an interim government leading to fresh elections in a reconciliation deal brokered by the Egyptian military leadership. The deal provides for an interim government of ''neutrals'' approved by the rival factions, which will set the stage for elections within a year to form a ''unity'' government. 

The agreement apparently finds a way around the five sticking points that have so far thwarted political unity between Gaza and the West Bank - a date for elections, an acceptable supervisory body for overseeing polls, formation of a unity government, resuming talks on reforming the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and security issues. The presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously and Fatah and Hamas would form a committee to oversee them. 

The unity government would comprise technocrats and will be headed by a prime minister acceptable to both Fatah and Hamas. The political prisoners in Gaza and the West Bank will be released and a ''social reconciliation'' programme initiated. Reform of the PLO has been a key demand by Hamas, which Fatah now accepts. An interim committee will lead the PLO until it is ''reformed'' and its decisions will be binding. Security issues, another tricky item, are also sought to be resolved by a joint committee of Fatah and Hamas. 

Needless to say, it is too early to express optimism. But, as Massimo Calabresi of Time Magazine wrote, ''The most important marriage of the week was in Palestine, not London. True, the odds of a lasting relationship between the internationally recognized leaders of the Palestinians, Fatah, and the internationally designated terrorist group, Hamas, aren't great - it's not clear whether the union will actually be consummated. But even a short fling has the potential to upturn Arab-Israeli affairs, shift US interests in the Middle East and play a role in the 2012 [US presidential] election.'' 

The Sphinx is Stirring

The upheaval in the Middle East provided the backdrop for this reconciliation and, evidently, something has changed in the scheme of things. Both Fatah and Hamas understood the need to be responsive to popular opinion that favors Palestinian unity. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas, in particular, saw the writing on the wall as throngs of young people in the West Bank borrowed the chants of the Egyptian revolution to demand Palestinian unity. 

On February 17, Obama strongly pressed Abbas during a 55-minute phone call to withdraw the resolution in the United Nations General Assembly demanding that Israel stop its settlement activities. Obama said the move jeopardized America's US$475 million assistance for the PNA. But Abbas was undeterred and in a subsequent interview with Newsweek slammed the vulnerability and impotence of Obama's policy. 

As for Hamas, put simply, developments in Syria are extremely worrisome. At the same time, it places trust in the ''new Egypt''. A top Hamas leader Ezzat al-Rashq told the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur, ''The collapse of Mubarak's regime restored Egypt to its place in the heart of the region and revived the regional spirit which is helping the Palestinian reconciliation take place.'' 

In a gesture that was much more than symbolic, the Hamas leaders were received in the Egyptian foreign ministry rather than in the ''safe houses'' of the intelligence - as used to be the case during the Hosni Mubarak regime. The Egyptian interim head of state Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi (who is also the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) received the Hamas leaders. The Hamas leader Taher Nounou was quoted as saying, ''When I was invited to the meeting in the Foreign Ministry, that was something different, and this is what the agreement grew out of.'' 

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby told the visiting Palestinian leaders that he didn't want to talk about the ''peace process'' but wanted instead to talk ''about the peace''. Quite obviously, the revisionist thesis about the ultimate legacy - or the ''new great game'' - of the Arab spring being a Sunni-Shi'ite war doesn't apply to Egypt. Egypt's warming at the same time to (Shi'ite) Iran and (Sunni) Hamas represents a tectonic shift that is undeniably ''secular''; it traverses the great sectarian schism in the world of Islam; and it is leagues away from the archaic geopolitics built around ''isolating'' Iran in the region that Saudi Arabia and the US were hoping to perpetuate. 

No More a Poodle…

What is becoming apparent is that Egypt is reclaiming the regional influence it abjectly surrendered when it became a poodle of the US and a collaborator of Israel following the 1979 peace treaty. The spokesperson of the Egyptian foreign ministry told the New York Times, ''We are opening a new page. Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.'' 

The profundity of the shift in the Egyptian policies is that the military is spearheading the process with the full realization that this is also the collective wish of Egyptian society, its elites and professionals as well as the working class, and the secular-minded as well as the observant Muslim masses. Even the strategic community, as practitioners of realpolitik, feel enthralled that an independent path bestows flexibility to Egypt's policies and earns respect for the country as a regional power when Cairo speaks or acts. 

The New York Times noted, ''Egypt's shifts are likely to alter the balance of power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe and creating distance between itself and Israel.'' No sooner than the news appeared about the Fatah-Hamas accord, Tehran scrambled to welcome it. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the agreement is the ''first great achievement of the great Egyptian nation on the international scene''. 

Tehran estimates that the Egyptian leadership is seeking to gain leverage over Israel. Egypt appears to have coordinated with Iran in efforts to bring reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. According to the Middle East analyst of the US think tank Stratfor, Tehran's backing for the deal and the fact that Hamas is headquartered in Damascus imply that ''Syria also decided to allow the reconciliation to go through''. 

The Egypt-Iran rapprochement has indeed gained traction. Starting with the granting of permission (disregarding US and Israeli protests) for the unprecedented passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal in February, Cairo moved purposively and by the beginning of April, Egyptian Foreign Minister was already reaching out for closer diplomatic ties with Iran. 

Israel's worst fears about the meaning of the Egyptian revolution seem to be coming true. 

The latest Egyptian announcement in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas accord, that it will reopen the Rafah crossing with Gaza permanently, has set alarm bells ringing in Israel. (An Egyptian security team is preparing to visit Gaza). An unnamed senior Israeli official told Wall Street Journal on Friday that recent developments in Egypt could affect Israel's ''security at a strategic level''. The chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces General Sami Anan promptly warned Israel against interfering with Cairo's plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, saying it was not a matter of concern for Israel. 

Again, the Egyptian military leadership's decision on Rafah reflects a collective wish of the domestic public opinion which empathizes with the sufferings and hardships of the people of Gaza. (A recent poll by US-based Pew Research Center found that 54% of Egyptians want Egypt's peace treaty with Israel to be annulled.) In the circumstances, what will worry Israel (and the US) most is whether the surprise Fatah-Hamas agreement brokered by Egypt is linked in some way to the Palestinian plan to push at the General Assembly session in New York in September for UN recognition for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Such an apprehension is not unwarranted. The Wall Street Journal commented last week, ''In the more than two months since … Mubarak abdicated … Egypt has reached out to Iran, questioned the price on a contract to export natural gas that is crucial to Israel's energy needs, and won major diplomatic victories with Hamas.'' 

To be sure, the Israeli reaction to the Fatah-Hamas accord has been predictably harsh. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, ''The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. It cannot have both, because Hamas aims to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.'' A group of American congressmen also warned against the reconciliation plan. The US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee's chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that US taxpayers' money cannot be spent on terrorists who threaten the US and its ally Israel. Netanyahu reportedly endorses that view. 

...No More Backroom Deals 

However, Obama is keeping his thoughts to himself. It is apparent that while the Arab spring shows no traces of ''anti-Americanism'' as such, the new successor regimes are almost certain to be responsive to popular wishes and aspirations and that is going to debilitate the US regional strategies. 

At the very least, as Helena Cobban, a long-time expert on the region and author, blogged, ''What is true as a general rule in the region is that the kind of sordid backroom deals that regimes like Mubarak's, that of successive Jordanian monarchs, or others have struck with Israel in the past - that is, arrangements to quash Palestinian movements that go far beyond the formal requirements of the peace treaties - have become considerably harder for these Arab parties to uphold, given the long overdue and very welcome emergence of strong movements calling for transparency and accountability from Arab governments.'' 

That is to say, any digressions in the nature of stoking the fires of Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian passions may work only momentarily in the developing regional milieu. This became amply clear when Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Abdulaziz Sharaf chose the occasion of a meeting last week with the Kuwaiti Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah to shrug off the paranoia about Iran whipped up by Saudi Arabia and firmly asserted Cairo's resolve to expand ties with Iran. He said, ''Egypt is trying to begin a new chapter in ties with Iran, which is one of the world's important countries.'' 

Simultaneously, Egyptian government spokesman Ahmed al-Saman said Cairo is determined to resume relations with Iran and no third party can pressure Cairo into changing the decision. A visit by the Egyptian foreign minister to Tehran could be on cards. 

The Saudis resurrected the specter of a Shi'ite crescent under Iran's leadership. But it takes two to tango. Iran prefers to set its eyes on far higher goals than the leadership of a Shi'ite world. Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad - the heart, brain and soul of Arab politics - aren't falling for the Saudi clarion call, either, that Salafism is in mortal danger from militant Shi'ism. 

Meanwhile, not only for the Saudis but for all Arab governments, the crunch time comes if and when they are called upon to recognize a unified Palestinian state under a ''unity'' government, which would mean a number of things - recognition of Hamas; adjusting to a major Israeli-Egyptian rift and the new Egyptian-Iranian-Syrian proximity; and daring a strategic defiance of the US. The stunning geopolitical reality of the ''new Middle East'' is that the Egyptian intelligence brokered the Palestinian reconciliation without consulting the US and Israel - or Saudi Arabia.

Ambassador Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published by Asia Times Online. SACSIS cannot authorise its republication. For reprinting rights, please contact the author.

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