Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt Revolution Produces New, And Very Unimproved, Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

How have the events in Egypt affected the regional situation in the Middle East? And should they be presented as a defeat or victory for U.S. interests. The way to deal with that question is to approach it with an open mind, saving one’s conclusions for after the evidence is presented.

Almost universally in the U.S. debate, it is seen as a victory, as the triumph of democracy and people power showing, at least in the end, that the United States is on the side of history. There is an expectation that the Muslim Brotherhood is weak, moderate, or both and thus there is no threat of an Islamist Egypt. Those who are more sophisticated expect that the army will keep the country within reasonable bounds. It is assumed that a stable, democratic Egypt will result.

This assessment has some good points to make. The removal of an individual named Husni Mubarak by itself changes nothing. The issue is what Egypt’s next government looks like, and we don’t know anything about that yet.

What is most striking is the almost total absence from the American and Western debate—and even from the public pronouncements of the U.S. government—of strategic thinking about the region. Issues like how U.S. policy and the events in Egypt would affect U.S. allies (and American deterrence or credibility) or other regional issues were almost totally absent. When discussed, they seemed to focus around utopian assumptions that can be summarized as: Everything is going to be fine.

It is on the regional level, though, that this analysis should be challenged. Some of the points being made are not very logical. One claim is that now al-Qaida is miserable because it has been shown that there are ways other than violent Islamist revolution to change the existing regimes. But, in fact, al-Qaida was never the threat. It is a small group that can stage bloody terrorist attacks but it cannot seize state power anywhere. If one views al-Qaida as the principal enemy in the Middle East then one understands nothing.

Moreover, let’s assume that the elected Egyptian government will have more legitimacy and be better able to reduce an internal Islamist challenge—something that cannot be taken for granted by the way. How does that help the United States on a regional level?
The real issue is on one hand the Iran-led alliance consisting of Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, the Iraqi insurgents, and increasingly the Turkish government, to which is now added Lebanon. This powerful anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Western coalition now controls four countries plus the Gaza Strip, which is for all practical purposes, the anti-Islamist side has had just three real Muslim-majority countries left: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

To say that Egypt would follow the Turkish model, something that those using this term don’tunderstand, is not a good thing. It means that there would be an Islamist government in power more friendly to America’s enemies than to its friends. A Turkish model in Egypt would be a disaster for E, gypt. I expect that at least in the short run even a bad result in Egypt would be better than that.

But let’s assume that Egypt is more moderate than the current Turkish government, more neutralist than pro-Iran, which seems a reasonable.expectation. That is still a major loss for U.S. policy. Egypt would not be a reliable anti-Islamist force abroad, even if the army kept the Islamists at bay at home. Moreover, it seems likely that the Egyptian government would view Hamas favorably, which would be a major blow to the Palestinian Authority and one more factor making the peace process dead.

While a wave of attempts at popular revolution will spread, that doesn’t mean they will succeed. In large part, by the way, the world is under an illusion over Egypt. Mubarak did not fall because people went into Tahrir Square, Mubarak fell because the army wanted him out, in part because it was tired of him and angry that he had not retired or prepared for the succession; in part because he was a useful scapegoat for all the regime’s sins.

Thus, the army stood aside and did not lift a finger against the protesters. Uninformed observers will say that it did not want to shoot its own people but that has never stopped the army before. More accurately, it did not want to shoot its own people on behalf of Mubarak. The people’s revolution was actually a very cleverly engineered coup.

Keep that point in mind because it is very important to understand other countries. The conditions prevailing in Egypt are not present elsewhere. The security forces in Iran, Syria, and the Gaza Strip will not hesitate to shoot. That’s why the dictatorships on the other side are stronger than the authoritarian regimes that- give a wider margin of freedom on the anti-Islamist side. And while I don’t expect a revolution in Jordan, if one does come there have no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will run it.

The confidence of the remaining anti-Iran governments is shaken by what they perceive as the unreliability of the United States as an ally. For them, the Egyptian revolution is not a reason for rejoicing and they also know that they cannot depend on an elected government in Cairo. For Israel, even with the Egyptian army saying it will keep the peace treaty, it is a source of strategic stress. Additional money and manpower must be used to build up the southern front, the border with Egypt, and there is a heightened possibility of a future war with a better-armed Hamas.

Thus, despite the happiness and enthusiasm, the Egyptian revolution marks a strategic loss for the United States and its allies in the region and a gain for the opposing side, though not as big as the other side claims. The nature of the new Egyptian government will determine whether it is going to be a bigger loss but it is most unlikely that it will become a smaller one.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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