February 10, 2011
By Zvi Bar’el
Alas, the stampede has begun. The planes of U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will soon land in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they will pull improvised banners out of their backpacks and shake their fists in the air – shouting alongside the demonstrators: “The world wants Mubarak gone.”
For a moment, though, let’s put the hypocrisy aside. After all, these are not the righteous gentiles, but the world leaders who have said nothing about the Saudi king, the sultan of Oman, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi or the Algerian regime, and who a moment ago considered Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a pro-Western island of sanity and as providing a major obstacle against Iran’s spreading influence.
Suddenly citizens’ rights top their priority list. Freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate are now the guiding light for those who staunchly opposed the results of the Palestinian Authority elections that gave Hamas power, and who are now witness to how Iraq’s wonderful “democracy” is handing the country over to Iranian control – dreading the moment the masses overthrow the king.
Revolution is romantic. It is exciting to watch women in hijabs protesting alongside men with yuppie beards, homeless people celebrating near the sons of the middle class, religious next to secular. This is indeed a civil revolution, in terms of the public manifesting its power; and academic studies are finally finding legitimacy on the Internet as a space for resistance.
But let’s not forget about the day after. One can shove Mubarak in the same tent as Gadhafi, Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; redefine the axis of evil; and decide that a country that does not respect human rights or occupies another amounts to a terrorist state. But what is happening in Egypt should raise concerns for anyone assessing the regional political map.
Mubarak’s Egypt failed to solve regional conflicts. It did not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the crisis in Lebanon. It also failed to prevent the war in Iraq. The power of Mubarak’s Egypt – the leader who lacked ideology and always sought to achieve a balance – lay in granting legitimacy to political/diplomatic moves or in rejecting them: The auspices under which Egypt brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; its struggle in favor of the Arab Initiative, which became an inseparable part of the Arab peace agenda; its support of the Sudanese referendum, which created a new reality in Africa; the backing it gave Jordan against the Israeli proposal of an “alternative homeland”; and mostly its uncompromising fight against Iranian influence, which set the borderline of Arab consensus.
If Mubarak leaves now, as a result of the revolution and not as part of an orderly transfer of power – even if it occurs at a later date than the demonstrators demand – the country will be a different Egypt, wild and self absorbed. As it will be busy with internal battles, with begging for donations to rebuild the enormous losses incurred over the last two weeks, and with assessing relations with the United States, another country will take its leading place in the region.
In the best-case scenario, this will be Saudi Arabia – a model democracy which relies on the United States for its protection, but who can also turn to China and Russia if the need arises. In the worst-case scenario, this country will be Syria – which will leverage the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian axis that, to date, encountered difficultly in setting the Middle Eastern agenda because it was blocked by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the help of the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar ).
Without Mubarak’s Egypt, the West’s ability to conduct an “Arab policy” will be seriously diminished. And while it’s true that such policy was always a bit fictitious, political theory has shown that if you succeeded in convincing Egypt, most of the remaining Arab states would follow.
Mubarak is not gone just yet, despite the stones being thrown at him from Washington. One can only imagine what he feels toward Obama, that same American leader with whom Mubarak resumed ties after boycotting George W. Bush for five years. But that is less important at this very moment. The question at hand now is how any potential Egyptian leader feels, or for that matter, every reigning Arab leader, toward Washington. What is the lesson learned by the Saudi king or the Qatari ruler? What are Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei celebrating?
Even though the Americans have suddenly taken note of the will of the Egyptian people, and even if they had no other political interest in the region, they must still push for a process in which power will be transferred gradually, as Mubarak is proposing. From his perspective it may be a matter of honor, but from Washington’s point of view – and that of the Mideast region – it is of strategic importance.