Sunday, May 1, 2011

Egypt: Pillar of Fire and Political Plagues Are Bad Signs

This article appeared in a somewhat different form in the Jerusalem Post. I own the rights and please link to this site if using.

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By Barry Rubin

Gas flames shooting 65 feet high signal the birth of a new Middle East. That pillar of fire, unlike the Biblical one, indicates that Egyptians are on the march, following new, would-be religious prophets into the desert. So does a new Pew poll which, despite the positive spin put on it by much of the mass media, is very worrisome.

You know it's all obvious when the New York Times runs the opening paragraph in an article:

"Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran."

This all should have been obvious in February, before the revolution took place.

And now once again the Egyptian pipeline supplying 15 percent of Israel's energy needs (and 40 percent of its natural gas supply) was bombed. It had just reopened after a long delay after the previous bombing, a delay so long as to make one suspect it wasn't just technical. The terrorists simply waited until damage from the last attack was repaired before launching another one. No doubt, this process will continue.

Whether or not the pipeline is ever formally reopened it won't stay open long. This is a major setback for Israel, a high cost for having trusted in trade with an Arab neighbor with whom peace had been concluded--supposedly--more than 30 years ago.

Whether or not Egypt formally renounces or officially demands changes in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty that, too, is finished as a reliable source of stability. Regarding the treaty with Israel, Egyptians supported tearing it up by a 54 to 36 percent margin. But this might significantly understate opposition to the treaty. Many of that 36 percent would probably support major revisions, a position advocated by most Egyptian politicians now.

Among other developments, the Egyptian government supported Syria in the UN to prevent any condemnation of that country for its repressing peaceful demonstrations. But wasn’t that the basis of Egypt’s government? Arab solidarity has trumped any consistent stand supporting democracy and human rights. Mubarak had a bad relationship with a terrorist-sponsoring, anti-American Syria. The new regime will reverse that.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby has announced that the Egypt-Gaza Strip border will soon reopen fully and permanently, meaning that arms, money, and terrorists can flow freely to Gaza. As if that’s not enough, the Egyptian government helped negotiate a Fatah-Hamas deal (something its predecessor failed to do) that radicalizes the Palestinian Authority and makes negotiations, much less peace, impossible.

As part of this deal, Egyptian troops will enter into the Gaza Strip. And what will they do there? Help unify the Hamas and Fatah militaries, in theory. But that’s not what’s going to happen. What is more likely to take place is that the Egyptian officers will become in practice military advisors to Hamas. And what if Hamas attacks Israel and Israel retaliates. Will this trigger a war with Egypt, especially if Egyptians are accidentally killed.

The fact that this nightmare has been brought about with the help of the United States and in the face of mass media denial of every reality resulting from Egypt’s revolution only makes the situation more absurd.

According to this new Pew Poll, Egyptians  view the Muslim Brotherhood favorably by a margin of 75 percent versus 20 percent. Asked directly, 31 percent of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamists; 30 percent don't. While 62 percent say laws should strictly follow the Quran; most of the others say all laws should merely adhere to its values and spirit.

What this amounts to is that roughly one-third of Egyptians want an Islamist state and support the Brotherhood, one-third are open to its propaganda and may be swayed in the coming years, and one-third are opposed (including, presumably, the country's ten percent plus Christians).

Egyptians respect the military--at least for now--and think well of the democratic movements that made the revolution. But when it comes to programmatic sympathy for an organized group, the Islamists are clearly the strongest force.

The poll also shows some interesting variations in public opinion that have strong implications.

Contrary to Western expectations, sympathy for the Brotherhood is greatest among high-income (43 percent) and middle-income (41 percent) than among low-income Egyptians (26 percent).

Remember the conventional wisdom theme that poverty and ignorance breeds Islamism and extremism? It's just flat wrong and this finding also suggests that revolutionary Islamism might be more a wave of the future than a relic of the past. Moreover, it shows that even the middle and upper classes don't naturally embrace democratic moderation, another conventional wisdom theme in the West.

Islamism, like Marxism, is a coherent ideology that fulfills the needs of people looking for systematic answers to their problems.

Why are the poorer less Islamist? Though this is informed speculation I would suggest two factors. Poorer Egyptians are likely to be more traditional in religious terms and loyal to the nationalism of the old regime. In other words, they are relatively passive recipients of what they've been taught in religious and political terms.

This explains the seemingly contradictory finding that while 59 percent with only a primary school education want to annul the treaty with Israel, "only" 40 percent of those with a college education do. Xenophobia is a simple idea quite consistent with both tradition and the Arab nationalism dominant in Egypt for the last sixty years.

Here, we see the potential power of anti-Israel and anti-American demagoguery to win support in nationalist and traditional sectors. The most sophisticated, I'll bet, would prefer some clever maneuver that guts the treaty without making Egypt look bad internationally.

Speaking of attitudes toward the United States, guess what? President Barack Obama's assistance in wrecking the old regime overnight brought no additional popularity to America. Attitudes toward the United States are negative by a 79 to 20 percent margin. Hostile views of Obama personally are less overwhelming but not only still strong--64 to 35 percent--but also unchanged from before the revolution.

Yet his policy toward Egypt in quickly dumping an ally won few friends. The conclusion was that the U.S. involvement was negative by a 39 to 22 margin, with 35 percent saying it was neither, which also represents a defeat for Obama. Note that those who felt it was positive correspond in number to those already favorable to the United States. In other words, Obama's actions convinced no one.

As for presidential candidates, Amr Musa score an amazing 90 percent positive rating. Readers know that my view is that he will be Egypt's next president and follow a radical nationalist policy, opposed to Islamism but willing to make concessions to the Brotherhood that might be the first stage in a longer-term Islamist transformation.

Finally, there is a new force to be reckoned with: revolutionary Islamists more radical than the Brotherhood. Suddenly, these groups--many comprised of former Brotherhood activists--are getting a lot of media time. Some think they could win 5 to 10 percent of the parliamentary seats if they run candidates, which would create an even larger Islamist bloc in addition to the Brotherhood's likely 30 percent.

Also, these are going to be the people committing a growing number of assaults on Christians and terrorist attacks. The natural gas pipeline is only the beginning. A real revolution in Egypt and full-scale regional wars might be the end.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

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