The Egyptian uprising has caused a stir in the world’s capitals. The most important signs of concern were in the United States where there has been unusual interest both in the media and in official circles. Washington has dealt with many popular uprisings in the past, especially in Eastern Europe, where the regimes were anti-American and American interests converged with the street movements calling for reform. At the time, Washington undoubtedly wanted the popular movements to topple those regimes, with the immediate result being the extension of American influence into those countries.
In Egypt the conditions were different and the Egyptian regime has been a strong ally of the United States. Its removal or change means the loss of US influence in the country; by definition that would be a strategic loss because Egypt has a strategic position in the entire Arab world and the wider geo-political context. Thus, America’s reaction to the events across Egypt has been marked by a strange conflict of methodology.
On the surface, America appeared to put pressure on the Egyptian regime, instead of supporting it. Washington did this openly with apparent orders to the regime to do this and that, and to do it fast. Outwardly, the US looked sympathetic with the Egyptian street. But in essence, these American orders indicated great concerns about the collapse of the Egyptian regime and deeply-held fears about losing influence in the country. Hence, the US resorted to a new tactic that can be summarised thus: Washing called upon the Egyptian regime to change personnel, replacing old faces with young faces and insisted that it dealt positively with the democratic demands of the Egyptian people in order to bring the crisis to a close swiftly. That would allow the Mubarak regime to retain power and assume a semblance of acceptability and coherence, because it would have responded to some of the popular demands. All of this was intended to cut the popular revolution short and ensure that the situation did not get to a stage whereby the regime would be toppled and Egypt’s political direction changed.
Two obstacles appeared before this American tactic: the first is that ordinary Egyptians on the street do not share this vision; they have already announced their basic demand for a change of regime – people as well as political institutions. The second obstacle lies in the fact that the Egyptian president has refused the logic of quick downfall and the idea of exile, to the extent that he told American President Obama, “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture”. Then he announced a policy of limited reforms that would allow him to serve out his term in office, thereby making some cosmetic changes while retaining the same regime; in reality, that’s Washington’s ideal end result, despite its outward concerns to the contrary.
The Egyptian regime implemented its strategy in two ways: First, it initiated a “pro-Mubarak” movement using its own security forces in plain clothes. The resultant violence and the sudden appearance of men on horse- and camel-back confirmed the belief that this was all stage-managed. The men largely responsible for the brutality of the regime were out in force to counter the people demonstrating against that brutality.
Second, the vice president became more involved to demonstrate to doubters that the ruling regime is still there and is stable. Having listened to the demonstrators, it was now time for them to go home and leave the regime to fix the problem. This way the Egyptian revolution could look as if it was dealing with a simple demonstration about a specific issue rather than a full-scale revolution of the people calling for reform. Once again, this strategy fits well with America’s wishes. However, the cat was let out of the bag on Thursday and was followed by demonstrations under the slogan “Friday of Departure”; the first Friday of the uprising was called “Angry Friday”. In this way the masses announced their intention to continue and that they could see through the regime’s attempts to deceive them. The confrontation is set to continue and widen; there will be no return to normality unless the radical changes demanded are realised; this is what Washington fears in private.
At this point it is worth asking where Israel stands in relation to all of this. The basis of US relations with Egypt is its success, ever since the Camp David agreement thirty years ago, in forcing Egypt out of the Arab-Israeli conflict and reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Egyptian regime. The US is interested nominally in the Egyptian situation but only in terms of the benefit or harm to Israel.
Officially, Israel maintained a discreet silence apart from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreeing with the Americans and warning that the collapse of the Egyptian regime will mean that an Islamic regime, like the one in Iran, will emerge. He called on America to understand the importance of putting pressure on any new Egyptian regime to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.
Israeli public opinion displayed somewhat more clarity of vision and analysis. Prominent Israeli political writer Aloof Ben said, “The fall of the Egyptian regime will keep Israel without any strategic ally, after its previous alliances with Iran and Turkey had cooled.” According to Ben, this will mean that Israel’s isolation in the region will increase. He even went as far as saying that the weakness of the United States in the area has become apparent, and that Israel will have to look for an exit whil trying to forge new alliances. This, however, would not include the Palestinian Authority, which “will not be a replacement for Egypt.”
Ben’s fellow Israeli writer Areeh Shafeet went even further: “There are two huge operations going on right now; the Arab freedom revolution from Tunisia to Egypt which will change the Middle East and reduce western influence; and the fall of the west’s deterrent capability, which will lead to changes across the world. The end result will be the fall of NATO dominance, in years not decades.” He added that the era of western dominance is fading away. The Tunisian and Egyptian situations are, according to Shafeet, reminiscent of the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987. Such analysis reflects deep Israeli concerns, beyond current events towards their effect on the future of the region.
Sitting on the sidelines, meanwhile, are the Palestinians; which way will they move and how will their situation, in Gaza and the occupied West Bank be affected, if it at all, by what is happening in Egypt? Cairo has been trying to broker national reconciliation between Palestinians; if Mubarak is no longer in power, who will take his place, and will the new president, whoever it is, be willing to take on such a role? Time will tell.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in France. This article, originally in Arabic, first appeared in the Al Sharq Al Awsat publication on 6 February 2011.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.