30 June 2012

A New Dawn in Egypt

Muhammed Mursi will shortly be sworn in as Egypt's new President. He will be the first civilian President in Egypt's history (for factual sticklers, there was Sufi Abu Taleb, who was the Acting President for eight days after Sadat's assassination but that does not count).

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the so called Scaf, will hand over the power to the President in a few hours.

The day before the results of Egyptian presidential elections were announced I thought about posting a piece to predict that the Brotherhood candidate was going to win and the Egyptian army was going to abide by the results. But, even though I felt reasonably confident about that prediction I decided not to post it. In that part of the world, you can come up with the most plausible scenario only to see it destroyed at the last minute by some unforeseen event.

That is one of the reasons I have been cautious about stating my working hypotheses. They make a lot of sense to me but I am cognizant of the fact that all it would take for them to go up in smoke is a strategically placed bomb by some marginal player.

So the Mursi's victory was reassuring in that respect.

Let me explain why I found it reassuring for the purposes of this humble soapbox.

A win by Shafiq would have indicated a return to the ancien regime, as he is not much more than Mubarak without hair coloring. He was Mubarak's last Prime Minister after all. As one of my hypotheses is the US need to create a Palestinian state to stabilize the region, a Shafiq government would have been counterproductive. Such a government would have removed all pressures on Israel's conservative forces to work towards a negotiated settlement.

On the other hand, a Mursi landslide would have created a highly volatile situation, as it could convince the Brotherhood that their popular support was sufficient to undertake a rapid regime change internally and disavow Egypt's international commitments, i.e. Camp David accords.

When I wrote about the Egyptian elections after the first round, I said that if I were forced to predict I would go with a Mursi win with a lot of reassurances to be given to secular groups internally and to the US externally. But I also cautioned that the intervening period could entail many surprises.

And they did. On 14 June, judges appointed by Mubarak in the Supreme Constitutional Court made the decision that last years Parliamentary elections were unconstitutional and they dissolved the legislative body. Three days later, the Egyptian army issued a declaration that gave Scaf new powers to ensure that, regardless of the outcome of the presidential elections, they have the final word over all significant decisions.
Under the 17 June declaration, which preceded the results of the presidential run-off, the Scaf has restored to itself legislative powers in the light of the dissolution of parliament and has complete control over all army affairs.
The Scaf will also play a significant role in the constituent assembly that will draft the country's new constitution.
The new president will be able to form and fire a government, ratify and reject laws, and declare war but only after the approval of the Scaf.
In short, in the span of two weeks, the army got rid of a largely Islamist Parliament and drastically reduced the power of the new President. With these safeguards in place, it would have made no sense to block a Mursi victory, as this would only lead to more polarization and violence.

To be sure, I am not claiming that the army was simply acting to comply with my hypothesis (i.e. acting according to a larger US plan). They were also making sure that their fabulous wealth (which I previously reported as 10 percent of Egypt's GDP, but according to the BBC, could be as high as 40 percent of the GDP) is off limits for the new civilian government.

Having said that, from my perspective, the new system is likely to be conducive to a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. It contains enough safeguards for the time being not to generate a security anxiety in Israel. But it is clearly an eroding platform that will likely become more Islamist with the passage of time and even the army will not be able to stop that slow transition. If the current stalemate continues, popular anger in Egypt will continue to rise and at some point it could become too significant for the army to be able to contain it.

Moreover, currently there is a significant power struggle in Hamas between pro-peace (Meshaal) and pro-fight (Haniya) groups backed by different regional powers. The pro-fight group will almost certainly be emboldened by the rise of the Brotherhood, as the two organizations are inextricably linked both by history and philosophy. You see, Hamas was not a radical entity formed in 1987 as revisionist history would have you believed. Originally, Hamas was a formal outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early part of the 20th century, operating not only in Egypt but also in Syria, Jordan and Palestine. In fact, the Palestinian chapter was founded in 1945 by Said Ramadan who was one of the founders of the actual Brotherhood.

When Arab nationalism became the ascendant identity with Nasser (at the expense of Islamic identity), Hamas found itself on the defensive along with the Brotherhood. In an ironic twist, in 1967, Israel made the fateful decision to tolerate or back Hamas (depending on your sources) against the secular and nationalist al-Fatah. This tolerance is usually seen as the beginning of the Islamic radicalization in Palestine, as it ensured that, for a long time, Hamas could operate there much more freely than its Egyptian big brother in its homeland.

Given that intertwined history, it is no surprise that current Hamas leaders in Gaza (the Haniya faction) are looking at the rise of Brotherhood as an extremely encouraging event.

Consequently, the current situation in Egypt provides Israel with a historic window of opportunity. If it could seize the moment to start a peace process with the Meshaal faction and the Palestinian Authority, thereby preempting the Haniya faction and the radical elements within the Brotherhood, it could slow down or stop the radical polarization in Egypt, take away the rhetorical justifications of radical Islamists and finally achieve peace and security.

This is not just my opinion:
Israel Hasson, a lawmaker with the centrist Kadima party who has served as a Netanyahu government envoy to Cairo, said the possibility of already chilly bilateral relations going into a deeper freeze meant Israel had to revive its peace partnership with the Palestinians after months of diplomatic stalemate. (...)
"The immediate conclusion to be drawn from this (election) is that the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a common interest in quickly, quickly building a regional coalition," Hasson said.

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