US Policy Regarding the Upheaval in Egypt: Endangering the Strategic Foundations of Regional Stability

By February 7, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 128

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The dream of turning Cairo 2011 into “Berlin 1989” is a chimera; the challenge is to prevent “Tehran 1979.” Obama Administration policy, however, threatens to widen the crack in the strategic foundations of regional stability that has served as the indispensable basis of peacemaking since the mid 1970s.

Judging by reactions in the West, the massive demonstrations in Egypt appear to evoke for many people the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed without a shot being fired. Indeed, many of those calling for regime change in Egypt are driven by a reformist agenda and this really does constitute a moving scene. However, despite this emotional resonance, “Berlin 1989” is not on the cards; in fact the focus of attention should be on preventing a repeat of “Tehran 1979” – the Iranian revolution.

In 1989, the revolution was led by established pro-democracy organizations that were inspired by Western democracies, which in turn provided a very supportive environment for the transition to democracy. At the same time, the main alternative ideology, Communism, and its sponsor, the Soviet Union, collapsed, disappearing from the pages of history. All of this was a massive strategic boon for the West, leaving it in a position of unassailable ideological and strategic dominance.

In 2011, although many of the demonstrators are driven by the demand for reform, the only real alternative to the current regime is Islamist. The Islamists are more popular and inestimably better organized than the reformers. Moreover, in the region as a whole the pro-reform forces are dwarfed by the forces of radical Islam.

The really worrying precedent is “Tehran 1979,” when a pro-Western dictator, the Shah, was overthrown by an alliance of reformists and Islamists. Shortly after the fall of the Shah, the Islamists smashed the reformists, establishing an anti-Western regime that sponsored terrorism and radicalism throughout the region. At the same time, seeking to take advantage of an apparent power vacuum, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein decided to launch a war against Iran using rockets and non-conventional weapons; that war lasted eight years causing massive bloodshed.

Indeed, the events now taking place in Egypt may well be the most significant regional development since the Iranian revolution. Aside from Israel, Egypt has the most powerful military in the region, and it is the leading Arab state. As such, Egypt’s pro-Western strategic orientation and its peace with Israel form the cornerstone of regional stability. By taking both Israel and Egypt together under the American wing in the 1970s, the US cemented a pro-Western balance of power in the region, while simultaneously making another all out multi-front Arab-Israeli war, which might threaten Israel’s existence, an extremely remote possibility.

The current demonstrations in Egypt are causing this strategic cornerstone to begin to crack – as a result, the region is beginning to shake.

According to the best-case scenario, Mubarak will be replaced by “a safe pair of hands” from within the regime, like newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, who could be counted on to maintain Egypt’s strategic orientation. He would bring reformist elements into the government in order to institute serious but incremental reforms. Even in such a scenario, Israel’s strategic situation would probably be worse than before, because the regime would be weakened and thus less inclined to act in unpopular ways – which would include co-operation with Israel.

But this is much better than the worse-case scenario: descent into chaos or an eventual Islamist takeover in Egypt. In such a situation, radical forces in the region will be emboldened. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt would be dissolved and the knock-on effect would almost certainly cause the dissolution of the peace treaty with Jordan as well. At the same time, pro-Western regimes in the region would come under enormous pressure from Islamists who will be tempted to use force, which in turn could inflame the entire Middle East.

No one can say for sure whether either of these scenarios will come to fruition. But US policy can certainly influence the outcome. It is with this in mind that the Obama administration’s call for the “immediate” replacement of Mubarak and the inclusion of “non-secular” groups in the new government is cause for grave concern. The administration, sensitive to its standing in Arab public opinion, wants to be seen to be supporting a popular movement. It wants to banish its unpopular image in the region as an “imperialist” power that props up repressive governments. According to media reports, the administration seems to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is “okay” because they believe that the Brotherhood has generally operated without violence in the domestic Egyptian arena. (Never mind the assassination of Sadat by an Islamist).

This emerging US policy is potentially very dangerous. The “peaceful” Islamists would most likely hollow out any reformist government that they are part of. Their anti-Western stance is deeply ideological; it is not related to the specifics of American policy. Once released from the constraints imposed by the current regime, they are likely to become a lot less peaceful. In the meantime, the behavior of the US is straining America’s relations with other key regional allies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, America’s apparent willingness to abandon its allies and embrace the Islamists will damage American credibility, harm the standing of its Arab allies and strengthen anti-Western Islamists across the region. It is no good winning a popularity contest today, if you lose the region to Islamists tomorrow.

Paradoxically, the outbreak of demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt serve to undermine the intellectual foundations of much of Obama’s approach to the Middle East. The Obama administration has a tendency to believe in the power of negotiation to resolve conflict by addressing underlying political grievances. Especially since Vietnam, an assortment of various liberal Leftists and conservative Realists have argued that hostility to America in the Third World is primarily a function of over-bearing American interventionism (“imperialism”). Were America to change its policies, intervene less and “make nice” with local forces opposed to it, hostility to the US would melt away. In the case of the Middle East, influenced by the traditional Arabist view in the State Department, the Obama administration has tended to view the core Arab/Muslim grievance against America as relating to the plight of the Palestinians. If only America focused on pressuring Israel to reach a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on Arab terms, so they say, regional stability would ensue and anti-Americanism in the region would dissolve.

Historically speaking, this orientation has tended to grossly underestimate the political power of non-rational forces in politics – like Islamism – whose deep ideological antagonism toward Israel (and Jews per se) is not amenable to rational compromises that generally lead to mutually acceptable conflict resolution. In this regard, it is worth paying attention to the memoir of the former British Islamist Ed Husain. His book, entitled The Islamist, includes a nuanced portrayal of the ideological and political distinctions between the various Islamist groups. On one issue however, they were effectively unanimous: the legitimacy of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

The Obama administration has greatly overestimated the centrality of the Palestinian issue to regional stability and the realization of American strategic interests. The demonstrations in Egypt, the largest in that country for over 30 years, which are shaking the very foundations of the American-sponsored regional order, have not been triggered by rage at Israel. They have occurred at a time of relative quiet in Israeli-Palestinian relations, not during a period of intense violence like the Second intifada, the Second Lebanon War or Operation Cast Lead. In fact, they have occurred at a time of rising food prices and their objectives are overwhelmingly domestic.

As such, this crisis hints at some real sources of instability and anti-Americanism: the lack of legitimacy for pro-American regimes, the democratic deficit, economic stagnation and a rising tide of Islamism. All of this is set against the growing power of Iran and its regional allies, the threat of which, as Wikileaks revealed, keeps pro-Western Arab elites up at night.

The great irony is that the Obama administration has generally adhered to a Middle East policy informed by the motto “anything but Bush.” It (rightly) castigates its predecessor for being unrealistic regarding the promotion of democracy in the Arab world, when Bush’s support for democratization led not to democracy but to the rise of Hamas in Gaza in 2006. Yet, now Obama is in danger of repeating Bush’s mistake in Egypt, a far more significant, nay pivotal, strategic arena.

American policy could serve to widen the crack in the strategic foundations of regional stability that has served as the indispensable basis of peacemaking since the mid 1970s. America’s underwriting of the regional order and its strategic support for Israel lent reassurance to Israel, allowing it to trade strategically significant territory in return for peace agreements. Given the cold nature of Israel’s peace with Egypt, it is highly unlikely that a stable peace could have been maintained without the American role. But now the Obama administration is acting in ways that are damaging its credibility with its regional allies, including Israel. Israel will have to start worrying about the potential military threat from Egypt, and overall this could lead to the destabilization of Israel’s southern border, with grave regional ramifications.

For Israel, all of this is a sobering reminder that the peace process with the Palestinians cannot be disconnected from the vicissitudes of a dangerous regional strategic environment. While a Palestinian state standing alone may not present an existential threat to the country, a Palestinian state which serves as a staging ground for wider hostile regional forces would most certainly constitute just such an existential threat. Consequently, any arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians will have to take this into account.

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

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(Photo Credit: The White House)

Prof. Jonathan Rynhold
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a senior lecturer of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and director of its Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Email: [email protected]

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