Egypt shakes up Middle Eastern order
By M K Bhadrakumar
The thesis was just about gaining ground that the bitter legacy of the Arab
spring is going to be the reawakening of the rough beast of sectarianism in the
Muslim Middle East. Sectarian strife, it was prophesied, would lead to a
Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation involving Saudi Arabia and Iran.
That specter helped deflect attention momentarily from the existential threat
posed by the Arab spring to the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. It
also helped the United States to distract the Arab street while Western
intervention is under way in another oil-rich Muslim country, and to reinvent
strategy toward Iran. Most important, it gave the Barack Obama administration
in Washington a fig-leaf with which to cover up the comprehensive failure of
the Middle East peace process.
Arab spring is for real
However, Riyadh and Washington didn't factor in that in the shadows of the
Egyptian pyramids the Sphinx was bestirring, expounding visions of the shaking
up of the established order in the Middle East. The interim agreement between
the Palestinian groups brokered by the ''new Egypt'' in tacit collaboration
with Iran and Syria threatens to become the leitmotif of the Arab spring.
Saudi Arabia in principle ought to be celebrating that its Palestinian brothers
are forging unity at a historic moment, but are instead stunned into silence.
President Obama quickly postponed his ''historic'' Middle East policy speech,
originally scheduled for this week, in order to read the tea leaves.
As things stand, the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas will sign an
agreement in Cairo on Wednesday to form an interim government leading to fresh
elections in a reconciliation deal brokered by the Egyptian military
leadership. The deal provides for an interim government of ''neutrals''
approved by the rival factions, which will set the stage for elections within a
year to form a ''unity'' government.
The agreement apparently finds a way around the five sticking points that have
so far thwarted political unity between Gaza and the West Bank - a date for
elections, an acceptable supervisory body for overseeing polls, formation of a
unity government, resuming talks on reforming the Palestinian Liberation
Organization (PLO) and security issues. The presidential and parliamentary
elections will be held simultaneously and Fatah and Hamas would form a
committee to oversee them.
The unity government would comprise technocrats and will be headed by a prime
minister acceptable to both Fatah and Hamas. The political prisoners in Gaza
and the West Bank will be released and a ''social reconciliation'' programme
initiated. Reform of the PLO has been a key demand by Hamas, which Fatah now
accepts. An interim committee will lead the PLO until it is ''reformed'' and
its decisions will be binding. Security issues, another tricky item, are also
sought to be resolved by a joint committee of Fatah and Hamas.
Needless to say, it is too early to express optimism. But, as Massimo Calabresi
of Time Magazine wrote, ''The most important marriage of the week was in
Palestine, not London. True, the odds of a lasting relationship between the
internationally recognized leaders of the Palestinians, Fatah, and the
internationally designated terrorist group, Hamas, aren't great - it's not
clear whether the union will actually be consummated. But even a short fling
has the potential to upturn Arab-Israeli affairs, shift US interests in the
Middle East and play a role in the 2012 [US presidential] election.''
The Sphinx is stirring
The upheaval in the Middle East provided the backdrop for this reconciliation
and, evidently, something has changed in the scheme of things. Both Fatah and
Hamas understood the need to be responsive to popular opinion that favors
Palestinian unity. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud
Abbas, in particular, saw the writing on the wall as throngs of young people in
the West Bank borrowed the chants of the Egyptian revolution to demand
On February 17, Obama strongly pressed Abbas during a 55-minute phone call to
withdraw the resolution in the United Nations General Assembly demanding that
Israel stop its settlement activities. Obama said the move jeopardized
America's US$475 million assistance for the PNA. But Abbas was undeterred and
in a subsequent interview with Newsweek slammed the vulnerability and impotence
of Obama's policy.
As for Hamas, put simply, developments in Syria are extremely worrisome. At the
same time, it places trust in the ''new Egypt''. A top Hamas leader Ezzat
al-Rashq told the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur, ''The collapse of
Mubarak's regime restored Egypt to its place in the heart of the region and
revived the regional spirit which is helping the Palestinian reconciliation
In a gesture that was much more than symbolic, the Hamas leaders were received
in the Egyptian foreign ministry rather than in the ''safe houses'' of the
intelligence - as used to be the case during the Hosni Mubarak regime. The
Egyptian interim head of state Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi (who is also the
leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) received the Hamas leaders.
The Hamas leader Taher Nounou was quoted as saying, ''When I was invited to the
meeting in the Foreign Ministry, that was something different, and this is what
the agreement grew out of.''
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby told the visiting Palestinian leaders
that he didn't want to talk about the ''peace process'' but wanted instead to
talk ''about the peace''. Quite obviously, the revisionist thesis about the
ultimate legacy - or the ''new great game'' - of the Arab spring being a
Sunni-Shi'ite war doesn't apply to Egypt. Egypt's warming at the same time to
(Shi'ite) Iran and (Sunni) Hamas represents a tectonic shift that is undeniably
''secular''; it traverses the great sectarian schism in the world of Islam; and
it is leagues away from the archaic geopolitics built around ''isolating'' Iran
in the region that Saudi Arabia and the US were hoping to perpetuate.
No more a poodle…
What is becoming apparent is that Egypt is reclaiming the regional influence it
abjectly surrendered when it became a poodle of the US and a collaborator of
Israel following the 1979 peace treaty. The spokesperson of the Egyptian
foreign ministry told the New York Times, ''We are opening a new page. Egypt is
resuming its role that was once abdicated.''
The profundity of the shift in the Egyptian policies is that the military is
spearheading the process with the full realization that this is also the
collective wish of Egyptian society, its elites and professionals as well as
the working class, and the secular-minded as well as the observant Muslim
masses. Even the strategic community, as practitioners of realpolitik, feel
enthralled that an independent path bestows flexibility to Egypt's policies and
earns respect for the country as a regional power when Cairo speaks or acts.
The New York Times noted, ''Egypt's shifts are likely to alter the balance of
power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe
and creating distance between itself and Israel.'' No sooner than the news
appeared about the Fatah-Hamas accord, Tehran scrambled to welcome it. Iranian
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the agreement is the ''first great
achievement of the great Egyptian nation on the international scene''.
Tehran estimates that the Egyptian leadership is seeking to gain leverage over
Israel. Egypt appears to have coordinated with Iran in efforts to bring
reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. According to the Middle East analyst of
the US think tank Stratfor, Tehran's backing for the deal and the fact that
Hamas is headquartered in Damascus imply that ''Syria also decided to allow the
reconciliation to go through''.
The Egypt-Iran rapprochement has indeed gained traction. Starting with the
granting of permission (disregarding US and Israeli protests) for the
unprecedented passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal in
February, Cairo moved purposively and by the beginning of April, Egyptian
Foreign Minister was already reaching out for closer diplomatic ties with Iran.
Israel's worst fears about the meaning of the Egyptian revolution seem to be
The latest Egyptian announcement in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas accord, that it
will reopen the Rafah crossing with Gaza permanently, has set alarm bells
ringing in Israel. (An Egyptian security team is preparing to visit Gaza). An
unnamed senior Israeli official told Wall Street Journal on Friday that recent
developments in Egypt could affect Israel's ''security at a strategic level''.
The chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces General Sami Anan promptly
warned Israel against interfering with Cairo's plan to open the Rafah border
crossing with Gaza, saying it was not a matter of concern for Israel.
Again, the Egyptian military leadership's decision on Rafah reflects a
collective wish of the domestic public opinion which empathizes with the
sufferings and hardships of the people of Gaza. (A recent poll by US-based Pew
Research Center found that 54% of Egyptians want Egypt's peace treaty with
Israel to be annulled.) In the circumstances, what will worry Israel (and the
US) most is whether the surprise Fatah-Hamas agreement brokered by Egypt is
linked in some way to the Palestinian plan to push at the General Assembly
session in New York in September for UN recognition for a Palestinian state in
the West Bank and Gaza.
Such an apprehension is not unwarranted. The Wall Street Journal commented last
week, ''In the more than two months since … Mubarak abdicated … Egypt has
reached out to Iran, questioned the price on a contract to export natural gas
that is crucial to Israel's energy needs, and won major diplomatic victories
To be sure, the Israeli reaction to the Fatah-Hamas accord has been predictably
harsh. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, ''The Palestinian Authority must
choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. It cannot have both,
because Hamas aims to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.'' A group
of American congressmen also warned against the reconciliation plan. The US
House of Representatives foreign affairs committee's chairwoman Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that US taxpayers' money cannot be spent on
terrorists who threaten the US and its ally Israel. Netanyahu reportedly
endorses that view.
... no more backroom deals
However, Obama is keeping his thoughts to himself. It is apparent that while
the Arab spring shows no traces of ''anti-Americanism'' as such, the new
successor regimes are almost certain to be responsive to popular wishes and
aspirations and that is going to debilitate the US regional strategies.
At the very least, as Helena Cobban, a long-time expert on the region and
author, blogged, ''What is true as a general rule in the region is that the
kind of sordid backroom deals that regimes like Mubarak's, that of successive
Jordanian monarchs, or others have struck with Israel in the past - that is,
arrangements to quash Palestinian movements that go far beyond the formal
requirements of the peace treaties - have become considerably harder for these
Arab parties to uphold, given the long overdue and very welcome emergence of
strong movements calling for transparency and accountability from Arab
That is to say, any digressions in the nature of stoking the fires of
Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian passions may work only momentarily in the developing
regional milieu. This became amply clear when Egyptian Prime Minister Essam
Abdulaziz Sharaf chose the occasion of a meeting last week with the Kuwaiti
Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah to shrug off the paranoia about
Iran whipped up by Saudi Arabia and firmly asserted Cairo's resolve to expand
ties with Iran. He said, ''Egypt is trying to begin a new chapter in ties with
Iran, which is one of the world's important countries.''
Simultaneously, Egyptian government spokesman Ahmed al-Saman said Cairo is
determined to resume relations with Iran and no third party can pressure Cairo
into changing the decision. A visit by the Egyptian foreign minister to Tehran
could be on cards.
The Saudis resurrected the specter of a Shi'ite crescent under Iran's
leadership. But it takes two to tango. Iran prefers to set its eyes on far
higher goals than the leadership of a Shi'ite world. Damascus, Cairo and
Baghdad - the heart, brain and soul of Arab politics - aren't falling for the
Saudi clarion call, either, that Salafism is in mortal danger from militant
Meanwhile, not only for the Saudis but for all Arab governments, the crunch
time comes if and when they are called upon to recognize a unified Palestinian
state under a ''unity'' government, which would mean a number of things -
recognition of Hamas; adjusting to a major Israeli-Egyptian rift and the new
Egyptian-Iranian-Syrian proximity; and daring a strategic defiance of the US.
The stunning geopolitical reality of the ''new Middle East'' is that the
Egyptian intelligence brokered the Palestinian reconciliation without
consulting the US and Israel - or Saudi Arabia.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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