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Middle East Issues





Egyptian Crisis: Round-up of News and Commentary


Events in Egypt are unfolding quickly.  Just yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he won't seek re-election but will stay in office for the next few months and today, the street demonstrations have become more violent as pro-Mubarak demonstrators have joined the fray; the U.S. administration, for the first time, has stated that it supports a role for Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in an Egyptian government, if they reject violence and recognize democratic goals. Other Arab leaders are scrambling to prevent in their own countries what is happening in Egypt: Jordan's King Abdullah dissolved his government and appointed a new one, charging it with bringing about "effective, tangible and real political reform." And the Palestinian Authority is blocking Palestinians from holding protests in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, while announcing that local elections will be held as soon as possible. In Syria too, citizens have called for a day of protest on February 5th. Below is a round-up of some of the commentary on the crisis and analysis of how the seismic developments may affect Israel.

Muslim Brotherhood

One potential key player, of major concern to some observers, is Egypt's banned but powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood rise to power should “give us great pause”:

Baloney and wishful thinking aside, the MB would be calamitous for U.S. security. What's more, their current defenders don't really argue that point, as much as they seem to dismiss it as not important or something we can live with. The MB supports Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast. Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide. That is a very big deal. ...

The real danger is that our experts, pundits and professors will talk the Arab and American worlds into believing we can all trust the MB. And that's dangerous because, outside of the government, the MB is the only organized political force, the only group capable of taking power. And if they do gain control, it's going to be almost impossible for the people to take it back. Just look at Iran.

The Investigative Project on Terrorism's Steven Emerson notes that the Islamist group “has endorsed El-Baradei's campaign, creating concern over how much power and influence the Brotherhood might enjoy under an emerging Egyptian government,” and explains why “it is not in America's best interests to allow a new Egyptian regime to be controlled, or significantly influenced, by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Emerson leaves open the question of whether this may happen, but does argue that

there's little to indicate that the Brotherhood's vision is representative of those taking to the streets throughout Egypt. ...

Observers also say that the Egyptian military also was not widely infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood except at lower ranks, the type of lower ranks that permitted Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the military in 1981 and assassinate President Anwar Sadat.

It is the Egyptian military that is the real power behind the throne.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen believes that “the dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.”

The next Egyptian government - or the one after - might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval. ...

The Muslim Brotherhood's most influential thinker was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He was hanged in 1966, but not before he had managed to turn out a vast amount of writings. He showed almost superhuman courage and was, in many respects, a formidable man. But he was also a racist, a bigot, a misogynist, an anti-Semite and a fervent hater of most things American. ...

The Islamists of the Brotherhood do not despise America for what it does but for what it is. Read Qutb's purplish alarm at the dress and appearance of American women. Read his racist remarks about blacks. The Islamic state Qutb envisioned would be racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian as well. It would treat women as the Taliban now does — if only because the Taliban, too, reveres Qutb. ...

It's possible that the contemporary Islamists of Egypt think differently about these matters than did Qutb. If that's the case, then there is no cause for concern. But Hamas in the Gaza Strip, although recently moderating its message, suggests otherwise. So does Iran.

Treatment of Minorities

Coptic Christians in Egypt also are concerned about their status under a new regime:

Fear of what may follow the removal of Mr. Mubarak, a secular strongman who has ruled the country for the past 30 years, is making reluctant supporters out of the country's Christians, an estimated 10% of Egypt's 80 million population. Mr. Mubarak has been aggressive in pursuing perceived Islamist extremist groups, a policy that has endeared him to Coptic Christians, not to mention the U.S.

Many Copts worry that Mr. Mubarak's exit would leave them dangerously exposed—either by chaos, or to a government that may be more tolerant of Islamist extremists. ...

"We need Mubarak. What we need above all is to be safe," said Samy Farag, director of the St. Mark's Hospital, which is attached to the church and where the dead and injured were brought immediately after the bombing.

"We feel safer with him because he heads a big, strong party. If he leaves, parties will come to power that we don't know," said the 65-year-old doctor. He added that this included any government that might be headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner and former international nuclear official.

"We just don't know what their policies toward Christians would be," Dr. Farag said.

How Might the Uprising Affect Egypt's Neighbors?

Jordan and PA

The Washington Post''s Jackson Diehl discussesJordan's King Abdullah and the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas scramble to contain the wave of unrest that is sweeping the Arab world with promises of reform. Where they failed before, he writes, they may succeed now.

Israel

The upheaval in Egypt could have a profound effect on neighboring Israel. Manfred Gerstenfeld discusses what the uprising may mean for Israel:

After what is happening now in Egypt, Israel can even less afford to take risks for a doubtful “peace,” with the Palestinians. There are two clear key messages Israel has to stress in its public diplomacy. The first is that the major unrest in Egypt shows that peace treaties with Arab countries are not assured, as they are concluded with non-democratic rulers. Security issues thus become even more important for Israel.

In times of great uncertainty in the region, a responsible government should not increase this by adopting agreements with a Palestinian partner who may be overthrown in the near future.

The Jerusalem Post's Herb Keinon has a similar assessment:

If Netanyahu was insisting on an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River before the events in Cairo, he will assuredly be even more adamant about it now.

The instability gripping Israel's neighbor in the south, as well as Lebanon in the north, will only strengthen Netanyahu's default setting – that any peace accord must be preceded by ironclad security arrangements on the ground, and that those security arrangements can't be a reliance on any third party. Israel must be present.

His colleague Yaakov Katz is similarly concerned:

If the Muslim Brotherhood grabs the reins in the massive Arab country, Israel will face an enemy with one of the largest and strongest militaries around, built on some of the most advanced American-made platforms.

The impact on Israel will be immediate – the IDF will need to undergo major structural changes, new units will need to be created and forces in the South will likely need to be beefed up. Since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the IDF has not had to worry about two fronts at once. Until now.

Iran

Iran might believe that the unrest in Egypt "will create an Islamic Middle East," but Daniel Pipes isn't so sure:

As Egypt's much-anticipated moment of crisis arrived and popular rebellions shook governments across the Middle East, Iran stands as never before at the center of the region. Its Islamist rulers are within sight of dominating the region. But revolutions are hard to pull off and I predict that Islamists will not achieve a Middle East-wide breakthrough and Tehran will not emerge as the key powerbroker.

In fact, Iran's regime has taken the opportunity to embark on a binge of executions of its own people, with little notice in the international community.  As Canadian member of Parliament and human rights activist Irwin Cotler points out:

Iran is engaged in a wholesale assault on the rights of its own people, including a state-orchestrated wave of arrests, detentions, beatings, torture, kidnappings, disappearances and executions. Initially, all of this was overlaid with Stalinist show trials and coerced confessions; but now, even that pretense has been discarded.

United States

There are differing views on whether the US should encourage a rapid transition, or a slow one.

Stephen Hadley argues for the latter:

Egyptian society needs time to prepare for these elections and to begin to remediate the effects of years of government oppression. The Egyptian people should not have to choose only between the government-backed NDP and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Non-Islamist parties need an opportunity to emerge to fill in the intervening political space. Time is short even if the presidential elections go forward as expected in September. The U.S. should resist the temptation to press for an accelerated election schedule. Hopefully wise heads in Egypt will do the same.

Time and a full array of political alternatives are critical in the upcoming presidential election and the parliamentary elections that undoubtedly will follow. If given an array of choices, I believe that the Egyptian people will choose a democratic future of freedom and not an Islamist future of imposed extremism.

Bill Kristol differs:

Secretary Clinton still seems to think that orderly implies gradual. Often, in life, it does. But we're not in that kind of business-as-usual moment. In a crisis like this, moving quickly is often more important than moving in an “orderly” way. After all, an “orderly” transition is far less important than a desirable and orderly outcome. Trying to ensure now that everything is “well thought-out” to the satisfaction of diplomats can easily become an excuse for a drawn-out transition. And that means trouble. The more drawn-out this transition is, the more likely it is to end badly.

And Max Boot is somewhere in the middle:

[O]ne recommendation I am not sold on is immediate elections. ... the only large nongovernmental organization in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists would thus have an advantage in any immediate election, which could allow them to win, as Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006. ...

A safer alternative, to my mind, would be to call for Mubarak to step down immediately and hand over power to a transition government led by Mohammed ElBaradai, the secular technocrat who has recently returned to Egypt to become the most high-profile opposition leader.

The Role of the Media, NGO's and Campus Activists

The question of why the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been so unexpected and shocking to the West is raised by Israeli journalist Evelyn Gordon. By obsessively focusing on the plight of the Palestinians, the media has ignored situations elsewhere in the Arab world that are far worse.

...Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel's blockade was causing starvation...

...Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode...

...But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

Alan Dershowitz similarly notes that "the hard left is finally talking about torture and other undemocratic abuses in Egypt and Jordan, as well as the despotism of virtually all Arab regimes" and asks:

Do you recall any campus protests against Egypt or Mubarak? Do you recall any calls for divestment and boycotts against Arab dictators? No, because there weren't any. The hard left was too busy condemning the Middle East's only democracy, Israel. Radical leftists and campus demonstrators, by giving a pass to the worst forms of tyranny, encouraged their perpetuation. Now, finally, they are jumping on the bandwagon of condemnation, though still not with the fury that they reserve for the one nation in the Middle East that has complete free speech, gender equality, gay rights, an open and critical press, an independent judiciary and fair and open elections.

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