Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mubarak Says: What Me Worry?

By Barry Rubin

"With regard to attempts to say Iran is a common danger, President Mubarak's and Egypt's priority is on the Palestinian issue," presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad announced. "This will remain the priority regardless of the numerous dangers and threats in the Middle East."

This is hardly surprising and yet it does remind us of an important aspect of Middle East politics. It is shocking to realize that no Arab state really has much influence outside its own borders in the region (the rare exception is Syria on Lebanon) and that the greatest Muslim power in the region is not Arab either.
Iran has leaped the ethnic Persia and Shia barriers by allying itself with Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah. It makes clear its intentions to achieve regional hegemony. Tehran is racing to get nuclear weapons’ and long-range missiles. It has more influence in the Gaza Strip than Egypt; more influence in Iraq than any regional state. Iran might soon be the patron of Lebanon’s government.

Iran even dares to let its Hizballah client call for the overthrow of the Cairo regime and operate in Egypt in a way that Mubarak’s government views as openly subversive. Hamas ignores Egypt and Iran arguably has more leverage with Palestinians than Egypt.

In light of all these threats and problems Egypt can—or will—do nothing much. Why? Because the line of Arab politics, of demagoguery with its own people, of ideology dictates that always and everywhere Israel and the Palestinian issue must be said to be the top priority.

I purposely wrote “said to be.” It isn’t really for Egypt or other Arab regimes. They aren’t going to do much to fight the conflict or resolve it. This is all just a posture which can only fool the na├»ve and ignorant—you know, Western leaders, diplomats, journalists, and academics—into thinking that this is what Arab rulers really care about.

But this posturing does have an important effect: it prevents them from dealing with their real international and internal problems.

And so Egypt says: solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict and then we’ll consider doing something about radical Islamism, Iran, Syria, terrorism, poverty, democracy, and every other issue.

So when President Barrack Obama goes to Cairo the Egyptians will tell him to forget about everything but an issue where he can make no real progress. Of course, they’ll probably whisper in his ear that they are frightened of Iran and want America to get tough with Tehran. But since they won’t help and won’t say so publicly, Egypt will throw away any potential leverage it has.

Arab politics: Sixty years and still as self-destructive as ever.

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