Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egypt and the Arab chessboard

The egyptian upheaval  is far from over. It continues to set in motion reactions inside and events all over the Arab world.
The media continue speak too often  about the Arab world as if it were a coherent, organized “ensemble” of nations. Identical causes are also supposed to lead to identical effects. This superficial overview does not take into account the many structural differences which exist in the Arab world.  Suffice to scrutinize the workings of the Arab League which is a lame duck since the day of its creation. The almost identical mantle of authoritarian regimes does not cover the same reality. Likewise the hidden antagonisms between Arab states surface as soon as the binding element of religion disappears. The Mecca link or the anti-Israel paranoia cannot compensate for the tensions which prevail between Sunni and Shia  power or between Wahhabism and Jihadism.  It is hard to find an Egyptian who likes Morocco, or to perceive a common denominator between the necrophiliac leader in Libya and the, for the time being, rather enlightened system in Turkey. The fight over water will even further oppose brother against brother. The Gulf States prefer the allure of Canary Wharf to the voice of the messenger of Jihad.
 The Egyptian outcome is the result of a combination of multiple factors that are for their major part indigenous. We have only seen Act 1 by the way and the social, political, econnomic  aftershocks  remain unpredictable. The  possible trouble in Yemen, Jordan, Libya  etc. might have related causes but they might activate different effects.  In Egypt, the absence of a succession or identification with an agreed alternative leadership, made room for the professionalism of  the armed forces. The vacuum could be avoided. For how  long ? In the short term the power elites remain the same. So are the problems.
This does in no way diminish the importance of what  happened , but the outcome remains  ideologically more hybrid than coherent. The wave which sent Mubarak packing has no defined agenda.  There is no personality like Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa  to galvanize the Egyptians inside and the Arabs outside. The strength of the change in Cairo is also its weakness. The street believes it got the upper hand but the Establishment remains, for now at least, at the helm. It is too early to predict the outcome of what might be a radical change for the better or an amended continuation of the same. The military are a state within the state . The recent cautious American embrace for democracy in Egypt could very well lead the military to take measures which look ”all right” on the surface but which might be just “placebos”, set in motion to avoid the repeat of scenarios like the ones we have seen in Gaza or Lebanon. Free elections gave – for the West and Arab leaders- undesirable results.  It is true that in Egypt a memory still survives of a pluralistic, multi-party society. The Muslim Brothers might not be as formidable as some predict. Still they constitute an organized force, rooted in history which could  take advantage of  opportunities that might appear once the euphoria recedes.
Nevertheless the contagion in Arab states is unlikely. The Iranian joker will certainly attempt to take  advantage of the situation, twisting events, attempting to  give the Egyptian change an  Islamic content, which it did not have. Until the elections the interim in Egypt might also set in motion uncertainties  which could  allow a spontaneous movement to be hijacked for a more perverse cause.  Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad will apply any pressure so that the Egyptian army (too close to the USA) or some Egyptian Kerensky might not get the opportunity to attempt to play the role of peacemaker with the civil society .On the other hand, the Egyptian Military might also change course and cling on to power. Other Arab states meanwhile will certainly initiate real or half-baked reforms to avoid at any cost a copycat  scenario.
It is clear that the West has largely misinterpreted the signals and lost consensual oversight of the events. The “intelligence” which still plays old cold war games was yet again faulty. The successive policy   adjustments  might come home to roost . They were as totally unconvincing in Egypt as they were in Tunisia. The Americans and the French were equally taken by surprise and were obliged to continuously calibrate their position, post facto. It is to be expected  that  the west might have to make some difficult choices. Incidents and turmoil will erupt elsewhere and it would be ironic that the USA  for example would back freedom “a la carte” and not as a moral obligation.  It is wiser to stay abreast of an evolution rather than to be a reluctant follower.  One has to follow a double track : dialogue with traditional US allies-preventive, discreet diplomacy- and encouragement of democratic evolution -creative policy-.All this will require tact and modulation. Iran is not the United Arab Republics, Morocco is not Algeria. All those countries are not  equal  , indifferent  pieces of a larger puzzle.  They  present us with specific challenges which in turn require tailor-made interaction both with the (friendly) power structure and with the legitimate demands of the people. Iran is a case sui generis because it doesn’t confront the West with a choice. The Ayatollahs must  go. The nuclear doomsday ambition has to be stopped.
 In the future, on condition that the level of overall security might have risen, a day might come when Israel might consequently be asked to lay its cards on the table.

Only the resolution of the Palestinian question is the “ way out” if the West wants to avoid undesirable results becoming  the offspring of desirable events.  A Palestinian state will deprive the extremists of the flame to ignite or of the message to enflame. The democracy in the present   Arab confusion can only become reality   if   it is also experienced as  a simultaneous equation for the making of a Palestinian state. This will in turn allow Arab states to live in the realm of diversity and not in the fantasy of some   Caliphat   which would  turn  the clock backwards  again.

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