Regional Ramifications of Unrest in Egypt

By February 6, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 127

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: While it is uncertain at this point what Egypt’s fate will be, it is clear that whatever happens, it will have a domino effect on the entire Middle East. The current unrest is unlikely to result in a newly democratized nation; rather, the ongoing political turmoil will likely strengthen the radical forces in the region, such as Iran and its proxies, the Turkish AKP and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The US position, which favors the protesters is highly troubling and may lead to greater instability in the region.

It is not yet clear whether the current Egyptian pro-Western regime will be able to stay in power. It may well weather the crisis by suppressing the opposition, but it will be a weakened regime. Egypt has a pivotal role in Middle East international politics. It is the most populous, strongest Arab state. Whatever happens there will have widespread reverberations throughout the region.

The naïve voices in Washington, and elsewhere in the West, demanding a transition to democracy are ignorant of the fact that in Egypt the only alternative well-organized political force to the ruling government is the Muslim Brotherhood. The admirable hopes of the masses for a more open system will almost inevitably be hijacked by the politically better organized Muslim Brotherhood, whose commitment to democracy is nil. Moreover, Egyptian society is deeply attached to its Muslim traditions and will not rapidly adopt a liberal-democratic ethos.

Democratization is a long and complex historic process that the Arab world is just beginning. US President Barack Obama’s administration appears to be afflicted by the Carter syndrome that helped bringing down the Iranian Shah in 1979. American mismanagement of the current crisis could contribute to the demise of Mubarak’s pro-Western regime, with dire consequences for the entire Middle East.

The first to gain from the unrest in Egypt is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which perceives Egypt as a rival for regional hegemony. An Egypt beleaguered by domestic problems will have little energy to concentrate on countering Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Indeed, Iran is openly encouraging Egyptian demonstrators to topple the military-based regime. It should not surprise us to find Iranian agents fomenting trouble in the streets of Cairo – Iran tried to destabilize the Mubarak regime about two years ago by sending Hizballah terrorists via Hamas ruled-Gaza into Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is also reaping the benefits of the current political strife, increasing its own strength as the traditional army-based regime becomes weakened. Incredibly, the Muslim Brotherhood is getting much positive publicity in the Western media as a moderate Muslim political organization. This superficial media coverage papers over the Brotherhood’s extreme anti-Western, anti-modernist positions and its rabid anti-Semitism. The current bon ton is the desire to include this radical organization into the political system, ignoring its subversive character and its potential for establishing an Islamic republic in Egypt.

The troubles of the Mubarak regime are being enjoyed by the Islamist ruling party in Turkey, the AKP, as well. Egyptian-Turkish relations have been marred by the greater Islamic coloration in Ankara’s foreign policy. Under the AKP, Turkey has distanced itself from the West and joined the Middle East radical axis, supporting Hizballah, Hamas and Iran. “Strategic blindness” has caused Western capitals to misperceive the AKP as “moderate Islam,” similar to the inaccurate label that is now being applied to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, is another beneficiary of the crisis. The Mubarak regime has been a bitter opponent of Hamas, and cooperated with Israel in an attempt to isolate and weaken Hamas rule over Gaza. If Egypt falls to Islamic rule, Hamas will be able to break out of the Egyptian-Israeli imposed quarantine. Moreover, as Cairo and other important cities absorb greater numbers of Egyptian security personnel, the Sinai desert is becoming less policed and more amenable to arms smuggling into Gaza.

The unrest in Egypt is unquestionably another coup for the Iran-led radical forces in the Middle East. This follows closely the takeover of Lebanon by Hizballah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, which nullified several years of American and European attempts to strengthen the pro-Western, pro-democratic forces there. The greater prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its seemingly greater international acceptance will bolster the cause of the radical Islamists everywhere.

The fall of Egypt could elicit a domino effect whereby Arab governments succumb to Iranian pressure, particularly after the American desertion of their long time friend – Mubarak. In any case, the ripple effects of the Tunisian and Egyptian crises have effectively paralyzed the foreign policy of Arab states and made strategic cooperation with the US more precarious. This consequently creates a regional environment where Iran’s freedom of action is enhanced, making it easier for Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold.

Israel is following these recent developments with great concern. It is astute enough to realize that the demonstrating mobs are unlikely to lead to democratization, but rather – radicalization. The popular sentiment in the Arab world is largely anti-Western and of course anti-Israeli. Moreover, the potential for a domino effect in the region is fully recognized. The slim chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are becoming even more remote, with the Palestinian Authority under increasing pressure from a more powerful Hamas. Indeed, Hamas and Hizballah, both encouraged by the developments in Egypt, might adopt a more aggressive posture toward the Jewish state.

The Middle East is a rough neighborhood that might become even nastier and more brutish in the wake of the current turmoil in Egypt. Most Israelis recognize this reality and will be ready to spend more money on defense needs if necessary.

What truly frightens Jerusalem is the Western lack of sound strategic judgment, particularly in Washington. Courting favor with the demonstrating crowds is unlikely to foster democratization, but rather will likely undermine regional stability and pro-American Arab regimes. America projects weakness and confusion.

The utter confusion of American foreign policy is best exemplified by the fact that Obama kept quiet during the brutal repression of demonstrators by the mullahs in Iran in the summer of 2009, yet he has voiced his support for the mobs demonstrating against Mubarak, an American ally, a year and a half later. Israelis must ask themselves whether the current US administration is a reliable ally that can help the Jewish state meet its considerable national security challenges.

Obama’s leadership appears, unfortunately, quite dangerous to America’s friends. Unless there is a change of course in Washington, very few of its friends will be able to survive these tumultuous days.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.