Thursday, June 10, 2010

Egypt's Waning Influence


BEIRUT — “This is language that we have not heard since the time of Gamal Abdul Nasser.” Thus wrote the influential chief editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, referring to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fiery response to the Israeli assault on the Gaza flotilla — adding that such “manly” positions and rhetoric had “disappeared from the dictionaries of our Arab leaders.” He lamented that “Arab regimes now represent the only friends left to Israel.”

There is no doubt that it is President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Nasser’s successor, to whom the editor, Abdel Bari Atwan, principally refers. There is no doubt, too, that the “flotilla affair” marks a watershed for Egypt — and to a lesser extent for Saudi Arabia.

Even the notoriously tin ear of President Mubarak to his own people’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause in Gaza could not fail to hear the grinding of the tectonic plates of Middle East change. He ordered the immediate opening of the Egyptian crossing into Gaza.

What we are witnessing is another step — perhaps crucial — in the shifting strategic balance of power in the Middle East: The cause of the Palestinians is gradually passing out of the hands of Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

It is the leaders of Iran and Turkey, together with President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, who recognize the winds of change. Mubarak appears increasingly isolated and is cast as Israel’s most assiduous collaborator. Here in the region, the Egyptian embassies as often as not are the butt of popular demonstrations.

Mubarak’s motives for his dogged support for Israel are well known in the region: He is convinced that the gateway to obtaining Washington’s green light for his son Gamal to succeed him lies in Tel Aviv rather than Washington. Mubarak enjoys a bare modicum of support in the United States, and if Washington is to ignore its democratic principles in order to support a Gamal shoe-in, it will be because Israel says that this American “blind eye” is essential for its security.

To this end, Mubarak has worked to weaken Hamas’s standing in Gaza, and to strengthen that of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, he has pursued this policy at the expense of Palestinian unity — his regular “unity” initiatives notwithstanding. Egypt’s one-sided peace “brokering” is viewed here as part of the problem rather than as part of any Palestinian solution.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this posture that has opened the door to Turkey and Iran seizing of the sponsorship of the Palestinian cause.

But standing behind this sharp Turkish reaction to Israel’s assault on the Turkish ship is a deeper regional rift, and this divide stems from the near-universal conviction that the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has failed.

Its structural pillars have crumbled: The Israeli public no longer believes that “land for peace” — the Oslo principle — will bring them security. Rather, Israelis believe those who tell them that further withdrawal will only bring Hamas rockets closer.

The other Oslo pillars also lie broken: The hitherto presumed “reversibility” of the Israeli settlement project and the hypothetical possibility of last-resort American imposition of its own solution are now understood to have been no more than chimeras.

Yet Egypt refuses to budge in these changed circumstances even as the shift in the balance of regional power toward the northern tier of Middle Eastern states — Syria, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Lebanon — gathers pace.

Egypt increasingly has only its memory of past grandeur on which to stand. In contemporary terms its influence has been on the slide for some time.

Egypt’s one card is that it is Gaza’s other neighbor. It has been Egypt’s acquiescence to the siege of Gaza — encouraged by President Abbas in the West Bank, who shares Mubarak’s desire to see Hamas weakened — that has given Mubarak his stranglehold over Palestinian issues. But the Islamic and regional tide will be flowing ever stronger against him after Israel’s action against the flotilla.

Already the Arab League is talking of supporting Turkey in any legal action against the Israeli assault on the aid convoy to Gaza. The Arab League has also issued a call to other states to break Israel’s siege on Gaza.

It is too early to say that such talk marks any turning point in Arab League politics. The Arab League, as such, is not taken seriously in the region, or anywhere else. But it is rather the shifting of the regional strategic balance that marks the locus from where real change may become possible.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia may conclude that the price of seeing the baton of leadership on such a key and emotive issue pass to non-Arab hands, Iran and Turkey, is too high, and too shameful. The near-universal skepticism directed toward the “peace process” among their own peoples has already left these leaders exposed internally.

For nearly 20 years these leaders have used their involvement in the “process” as justification to curb internal dissent; but it is now a tool that has lost its magic. They are already paying the price of popular cynicism.

This is Mubarak’s dilemma: stay with the siege and hope America will reward him with Gamal’s succession; but flouting the winds of change may imperil Gamal’s very survival. In any event, Egypt’s control of the Palestinian “file” will never be the same again.

Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer in the Middle East, is author of “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.” He runs the Conflicts Forum in Beirut.

Global Viewpoint/Tribune Media Services

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