Egypt boils over

Tzvi Fleischer

Australian Jewish News

February 4, 2011

When a heavy lid is placed on a pot of boiling water, eventually, enough steam builds up until the lid is blown clean off. The autocratic rulers of the Arab Middle East have kept a lid on the aspirations of their peoples for decades. Now, lids are starting to blow off across the region, starting with Tunisia and now Egypt.

Egypt has long been the centre of the Arab world. The unrest there could re-draw the map and place all Arab despots at risk. What would replace them is impossible to know. However, at the very least, their fall would grant an immense short-term boost to the forces of Middle East Islamist extremism as represented mainly by Iran and its allies.

The Egyptian protestors are not a united force with a coherent program. After thirty years of repression and stagnation under Mubarak, they constitute everyone fed up with the status quo. A huge driver of the unrest is economic. Wheat prices have recently spiked, making bread unaffordable for the approximately 50% of Egyptians who live on around $2 per day.

Some protest leaders are the young and educated – who have few job prospects, are internet-savvy, and know that they lack basic freedoms. Others are fed up with corruption and police repression. Many protestors are liberal democrats, but they are probably not a majority.

Ultimately, however, what happens in Egypt will depend on two interest groups – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is undoubtedly the most effective and best organised opposition movement – as well as the parent movement of most radical terrorist groups in the Middle East, including Hamas in neighbouring Gaza. Until now, they have not been leading the protest movement, but they are looking for an opportunity to gain power through it. Moreover, polls of Egyptians show that Islamist ideas are very popular overall, as are terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah.

What ultimately happens will depend mostly on the military. Since the 1952 revolution, all Egyptian presidents have come from the high ranks of the military, and have essentially ruled Egypt on its behalf. If the military remains united and decides this is in its interests, it probably can see off the current protests either by temporarily preserving a gravely weakened Mubarak in power or keeping the main attributes of the current regime while forcing Mubarak out. The military may also see its own interests served by a transition toward more democracy, and may throw their weight behind a deal with the protestors.

Finally, if discipline breaks down, and substantial elements of the army start to join the protestors, outcomes become very unpredictable. Civil war is possible. So is quick victory by an opposition coalition which may well become dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as happened with the Khomeinists in Iran in 1979.

For Israel, the uncertainty is nailbiting. The peace treaty with Egypt, cold as it has been, is central to Israel’s national defence strategy. It is worth noting that Israel has been scarcely mentioned by the protestors. So much for the common theme that Israeli/Palestinian issues are the main source of Arab resentments. Moreover, the Egyptian military knows the value of the peace treaty with Israel and will not want to see it abrogated. Nonetheless, peace with Israel is unpopular, while many Egyptians want to end their blockade of Hamas in Gaza.

Finally, if the Egyptian regime falls, there will be knock-on effects throughout the Arab world. In the longer term, regional democratic transformations away from despotic regimes that deflect local discontent against an Israeli scapegoat can only benefit Israel as well as the region’s people. But in the short term, with the Iranian nuclear threat looming, Israeli strategic planners must be anxious indeed as they evaluate the many ways the overthrow of the status quo can threaten the Jewish state.

Dr. Tzvi Fleischer is editor of the Australia/Israel Review.