Thursday, February 24, 2011

Egypt's Revolution: The More They Reassure Us, The More We Worry

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By Barry Rubin

I think I was the first person to warn that the Egyptian revolution wasn't all roses but also had a dangerous amount of thorns. And the more Western governments and media reassure us, the more we worry. Why? Because it shows they have no idea what they are facing and no idea of what they are doing.

Well, there is a welcome exception, Michael Slackman, writing from the Gulf, has obviously been talking to some Arabs there trying to make the Americans see reality. His article is entitled, "Arab Unrest Propels Iran as Saudi Influence Declines" and here's the lead:

"The popular revolts shaking the Arab world have begun to shift the balance of power in the region, bolstering Iran’s position while weakening and unnerving its rival, Saudi Arabia, regional experts said....Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders who were its strong adversaries and has begun to project its growing influence, the analysts said."

Unfortunately, this is not affecting coverage further west, where the "loco weed" (see note) of Israel makes observers insane.

Here are some of the things we've seen so far:

--An Iranian-made Grad missile fired at the Israeli city of Beersheva. These have been rare in the past because they are hard to smuggle into the Gaza Strip. But now, through bribery, indifference, and ideological agreement, smuggling weapons to Hamas has become far easier. Might this not lead to a new Israel-Hamas or even Israel-Hamas-Egypt war?

--Two Iranian warships were allowed by Egypt to transit the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Could this perhaps produce a stronger Iran and a weaker U.S. position?

--In 2009, Qaradawi called on the Arabs to get nuclear weapons in order to overturn the peace which Israel wants.

--Egypt has begun opening the border with the Gaza Strip.

--The Muslim Brotherhood has begun a campaign to replace Egypt's top clergy with its own men, a move that would give them control of mosques, religious education, and lots of money and media access.

--The Brotherhood also has a long record of helping Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas, showing growing confidence, is more likely to attack Israel believing--wrongly or rightly--that Egypt will "guard its back."

Now the American media at least is covering Israel's concerns (a story that could have been written three weeks ago)  but only to show that they are wrong! Take a recent article in the New York Times (albeit three weeks after this point became obvious):

"Israelis worry that Arab democracy movements will ultimately be dominated by extremists, as happened in Iran after the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah. They worry about the chaotic transition between revolt and democratic stability, if it ever comes. They see Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, even if it remains a minority of Egyptian opinion, as pressing for more solidarity with the Palestinians and Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. And they fear that Israel’s regional partners in checking Iran are under threat or falling."

Shouldn't these factors also bother U.S. policy?

For example, another story reports:

"Senior Hamas military commander Ayman Nofal, who escaped from confinement in Egypt during a mass prison break, returned to Gaza where he told an interviewer: `We’re preparing for the next battle.' Two Israeli officials familiar with intelligence reports said this week that Hamas, emboldened by Mubarak’s resignation and its own successful crackdown on popular discontent at home, had stepped up the smuggling of militants and weapons through Egypt to be stockpiled in Gaza for use against Israel. `It’s not just terrorists coming in. It’s dangerous equipment–Grad-type missiles, anti-aircraft missiles,' a senior Israeli official said."

This was said before the Grad missile hit Beersheva. Shouldn't this also be a U.S. and European concern?

Going back to the New York Times piece, it answers Israeli concerns with a "reassuring" response:

"Arab analysts counter that new Arab realities and democracies should be welcomed by Israel, because the new Arab generation shares many of the same values as Israel and the West. [That remains to be seen, doesn't it? BR] They argue that there is no support among Egypt’s leaders for the abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty, though it is unpopular with the public, and that the Egyptian Army will not disrupt foreign policy."

No support? The two best-known reformist leaders--Ayman Nour and Muhammad ElBaradei--have called for revising the treaty. So has the Muslim Brotherhood, which can mobilize millions of people. Even the extremely moderate Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey takes for granted that the treaty will be unilaterally altered.

"`There is no regime that is going to be against or hostile toward Israel in the near term,'” said Mohamed Darif, a political scientist at Morocco’s King Hassan II University. `There has been an evolution in the Arab world, among political elites and in civil society. Israel is a fact.'”

Notice the phrase "near term," meaning over the coming months. The medium term and long term are, however, also matters of strategic interest, aren't they? Also the statement misses the most obvious point: it is precisely the existing elites that are being challenged or overthrown. And, of course, this does not apply to those now ruling Syria, Lebanon, and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

I'll go here with the assessment of the radical Arab (who is also a consultant to the U.S. Defense Department) As'ad Abu Khalil ridiculing the idea that the "overthrow of the regime would not change Egyptian foreign policy...."

More than a century ago, the great German Socialist leader August Bebel said that antisemitism was the "socialism of fools. Might it also turn out--as happened in Germany later--to be the "democracy of fools" in our own era?

After all, there has been no Arab leader more consistently anti-Israel than Libya's Muammar Qadhafi. Yet in posters and effigies, opposition demonstrators are putting a Star of David on him to suggest that he's an Israeli agent! That gives some sense that huge numbers of people in the Arab world--perhaps even a higher percentage among those rebelling against existing regimes--view Israel as a demonic evil behind everything they don't like at home and in the region.

[I will resist the opportunity to compare this view to that held by various European politicians, journalists, and academics.]

 U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told students in Qatar that some Middle Eastern rulers were using the Israel-Palestine conflict as a distraction from their own oppressive regimes. That's true. The problem is that it is such a good distraction precisely because doing so is wildly popular with the Arab masses, who may well want more militancy than those governments are willing to provide.

Qadhafi: The Israeli/Jewish Devil (Reuters)

The New York Times article continues:

"But new governments are more likely to increase their support for the Palestinian cause, with Egypt already reopening the crossing with Hamas-run Gaza. That new attitude could pressure Israel to do more to find a settlement, some analysts argue. Most others believe that Israel will instead resist, arguing that it cannot make concessions because it is now encircled by more hostile neighbors."

You think?  In other words, if Syria, Iran, Egypt, Hizballah-ruled Lebanon, and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip give more help to Hamas; if the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are intimidated and take a harder line to survive, then does that tell us Israel should make more concessions? That's sort of like saying that when next-door Germany was taken over by a new government in the 1930s it was the ideal moment for France to give up the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

Remember that the concessions made by Israel in the 1990s to the Palestinian Authority did not advance a comprehensive peace and that Egypt seems close to changing its own peace treaty to Israel. Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?

And what is the thrust of this article? Why that instead of supporting Israel against the heightened strategic danger, the Western response should be to pressure Israel for more concessions (supposedly for its own good). In other words, all of the events of the last year--correction: the last two decades--have taught these people absolutely nothing. That's why Israel will ignore their suicidal advice.

Often such articles say something so stupid that you know the author has no idea what he's talking about. In this case, the writer goes extolls how wonderful it is that Turkey is becoming more influential and then adds:

"The Turkish model would be a good outcome for Israel, many Israelis agree. But as they also noted, relations with Turkey have been deeply strained by its new closeness to Muslim neighbors like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas."

Yes, many Israelis agree that "the Turkish model" would be "a good outcome for Israel," but only in the context that a revolutionary Islamist or radical nationalist Egypt would be much worse!

If you want to be well-informed about the Middle East, I'm sorry to say that reading Western newspapers is largely counterproductive.

Let me repeat what I've been saying for years:

The main threat in the Middle East is revolutionary Islamism as embodied by the Iran-Syria-Hamas (controls Gaza Strip)-Hizballah (controls Lebanon)-Iraqi insurgent-Turkish government alliance and also by the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood.

The required strategy is to put together a counter-alliance of the United States, Europe, relatively moderate Arab regimes, and Israel. This also means supporting the oppositions in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran.

The Egyptian revolution removes the most powerful Arab country countering the Islamists (and opposing Iran). It will produce a new government that will not be allied to the United States but will work more closely with its enemies. Eventually, a revolutionary Islamist government may emerge.

Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gets it, noting, "It is quite probable that hard times are ahead [in the Middle East]including the arrival at power of fanatics. This will mean fires for decades and the spread of extremism."

Yet almost everyone in the Western establishment is telling us that this is a good thing. Go figure.

Note: Loco weed, the name given a plant in the old American west that when eaten by horses made them go crazy. See also, drinking the (poisoned) kool-aid.

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, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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