Egypt as crucible of Middle East tensions
By Victor Kotsev
The news and images coming out of Egypt are deeply troubling. At least 36
people have died since last Friday, and over 1,250 have reportedly been wounded
in clashes around Tahrir Square in Cairo (and in several other cities).
On Monday, the Egyptian government resigned and on Tuesday the military regime
offered further concessions, and yet the crisis goes on. There is much at stake
in the outcome of the confrontations, both for Egypt and for the Middle East as
To anybody who has been following the decline of the Egyptian economy and the
repeated failure of key sectors of internal security since the ouster of former
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February, none of this is surprising.
Neither is the
disappointment of the crowds surprising to any one familiar with the course of
the countless democratic and "color" revolutions in Eastern Europe over the
past 20 years; some of the latter - specifically the one in Serbia against
former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - inspired the organizers of the
Still, the timing of the unrest is important, as it started just days before
the parliamentary elections in the country that are scheduled for next Monday.
Moreover, it began at the same time as another crisis in the region (and
another episode of the Arab Spring), that in Syria, seemingly nears its climax.
These apparent coincidences are deeply suspicious, and suggest that either
external or internal forces (or both) may be involved.
The protests on Friday were organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, which rose up
against an attempt by the ruling military to pass a document that would
guarantee its authority over the future elected government. They were quickly
joined by pro-democratic activists and others.
Egypt's rulers, just as Mubarak's regime 10 months ago, attempted to clear
Tahrir Square by force, and failed; by Tuesday, the scenes in Cairo were fully
reminiscent of those in early February, with tens of thousand of angry
Egyptians braving tear gas and police assaults and chanting more or less the
same chants as back then, and calling on Egypt's de facto ruler, Field Marshal
Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to resign.
Tantawi, in a speech, responded by offering broad concessions, including a
power transfer by July next year and an investigation into the events of the
past days.  According to reports, the Muslim Brotherhood agreed to the
offer, but the crowd was not appeased. The New York Times writes:
crowd roared its disapproval when the deal was announced at 8 pm, fighting
spiked on the avenue leading to the Interior Ministry, and the number of
protesters continued to swell. Unlikely to satisfy the public demands for the
military to leave power, the deal may have driven a new wedge into the
opposition, reopening a divide between the seething public and the political
elite, between liberals and Islamists and, as events unfolded, among the
Islamists themselves. 
The danger of chaos is clear in this
report, and others; we can only imagine what a power vacuum in the most
populous Arab country would look like, and this specter has been drawing nearer
by the week since February, as Egyptian currency reserves have dwindled and the
Egyptian economy has continued to stagnate. Some analysts, such as Asia Times
Online's Spengler, have warned about this danger since the very start .
However, the exact timing of the protests suggests that something more than
economics and the inevitable popular discontent may be at play. It is hard to
tell what exactly stirs under the surface of Egypt, and this is as true now as
it was in early February, or over the summer, when Sinai gradually slid out of
control and angry mobs stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
In January and February, most international media offered a romantic portrayal
of what they described as a leaderless resistance facing a vast security
apparatus; it took a number of weeks until the first accounts appeared that
contradicted this framing, and even then the latter did not receive sufficient
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Tina Rosenberg, for example, provides a
fascinating description of the links between the April 6 movement in Egypt and
the Otpor movement against Milosevic in Serbia. 
A riddle that remains unanswered to this day is how come the formidable
security apparatus that Mubarak had at his disposal failed to locate and take
out the April 6 leaders in the early days of the protests against him.
In several reports over the past year, the think-tank Stratfor voiced suspicion
that the Egyptian military might be more deeply involved in the unrest in the
country than is openly acknowledged.
In this case, the protests were started by the Muslim Brotherhood, but it seems
that the Islamists quickly lost control. Whether the army was willing - or able
- to take a gamble and stoke the fire, after failing to put it out initially,
with hopes that the threat of chaos would justify putting off the transfer of
power further, is hard to tell.
The regional context in which the crisis occurred is similarly complex. The
crisis between Iran and its regional enemies (and their Western patrons) is at
an all-time peak. The Syrian regime, a key Iranian ally, seems to be on its
last legs, having defied days ago the most recent ultimatum issued by the Arab
League, and now facing an increasingly well-organized and well-armed uprising
as well as an ever-more hostile international community.
In a recent analysis, Stratfor argues that the ouster of Syria's President
Bashar al-Assad has become a key part of the strategy of the United States and
its allies against Iran. "If al-Assad survives," writes Stratfor, "Iran will be
the big winner."
Certainly, after the death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last month, Assad had
become the key villain of the Arab Spring; a distraction in the form of chaos
in Egypt could not come at a more welcome time for either Assad or his Iranian
In this line of thought, it is worth noting that high-ranking Israeli
intelligence officers have been warning for months now of an ongoing Iranian
infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood. While some of these claims are clearly
tendentious, it does not take a very high level of penetration to instigate a
riot in a situation that is fraught with tensions.
A certain amount of less sophisticated penetration of Egypt by pro-Iranian
elements is clearly visible in the Sinai Peninsula, which has become a terror
hub of sorts in the past months, and has reportedly turned into a major
smuggling route of Libyan weapons into the Gaza Strip.
Some of these arms go to the Hamas movement, which rules Gaza, and is an
offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; others go to more radical Islamists who are
even more closely dependent to Iran, such as the Islamic Jihad.
The relationship between the different Palestinian factions is a very
complicated topic in its own right. This status quo, too, is at stake in the
Suffice to mention that Egypt is the main patron of the ongoing Palestinian
reconciliation process, and a major force in Palestinian internal politics. And
while not much else is clear at this point, it can be said that if the Egyptian
elections are put off as a result of further violence, Palestinian elections,
also under discussion, will most likely be put off as well.