The new Egypt flexes its muscles

Early signs point to Egypt as a revived Arab force, albeit one divorced from the West.

The recent Egyptian-mediated rapprochement between the Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, followed by the re-opening of the Rafah border of the Gaza Strip are historic moves. The former will unify and strengthen the Palestinian cause while the latter indicates the first major shift in Egyptian policy post-Mubarak.

Under Hosni Mubarak's US-backed dictatorship, Egypt was a primary facilitator of Western policy in the Middle East -- upholding Israel's blockade of Gaza from 2009, and violently quashing Islamist uprisings during the 1990s.

Now however, the interim military junta is clearly seeking to distance itself from such pro-West policy and towards a more expansive, independent outlook.

Back in February, Egypt began its new era 12 days after Mubarak resigned by allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, reportedly the first transit of its kind since 1979. When questioned about this by the Washington Post, foreign minister Nabil el-Araby was oblique, but eventually stated that despite previous tensions "Iran is not an enemy" -- firmly putting clear blue water between the old and new Egypt.

Since then Egypt has been swift to make its position on other key issues known, especially the Palestine question. As a result, Egypt has curried the favour not only of Hamas, but also that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who praised them for releasing two imprisoned members and for breaking the siege on Gaza.

Egypt's new political leverage with two of the Middle East's largest and most influential Islamic organisations holds the potential for further historic moments. Indeed, Egypt is moving steadily into a position where it may be able to negotiate the sorts of concessions needed to re-start the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Further, regaining its position as an Arab leader, Egypt could eventually gain the power to steer Hezbollah and Hamas away from Iran, which could then be used to promote substantive democracy in countries like Syria and Lebanon, both of whom are currently under considerable Iranian influence.

At the moment, the Egyptian elite is remaining prudent -- being careful not to alienate any important international actors. However, a recent Pew Research poll betrayed Egyptian grassroots sentiment, showing that 54 per cent of Egyptians want the Camp David Accords with Israel annulled. Though Nabil el-Araby has since stated that this will not happen, it would not be surprising if some Egyptian political parties began campaigning for it anyway, prior to September's parliamentary election.

Such actions would strain the prospect of peace rather than nurture it, and provide Israel with yet another excuse to continue with its policy of belligerence and stubbornness with the Palestinians. The recent detention of an alleged Israeli spy in Cairo accused of trying to incite sectarian tensions and manipulate the security vacuum will only serve to make relations between Egypt and Israel more fraught, and could be the pretext for a policy of bellicosity with Israel.

The Egyptian economy remains a concern. A Gallup poll suggested that 53 per cent of Egyptians believe that economic conditions are getting worse. Barack Obama recently announced an aid package for Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, but Egyptians are cynical of this, and may not wish their new democracy to be immediately saddled with debt to the World Bank and the IMF. Nonetheless, Egypt must work on reducing poverty and inequality, which were some of the main factors leading to the revolution.

Many have speculated on the Islamisation of Egypt, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood's party, Freedom and Justice. Recent clashes between Christians and Muslims provide a stark picture of re-emerging sectarian divides, but the values of the revolution appeared overwhelmingly secular, and it would be hard to imagine Islamic fundamentalists ruling Egypt as a result. Even if Freedom and Justice did win a majority, Egypt would not be like Iran, and would still have opposition politicians, scheduled elections, and the right to protest. It is also useful to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood is not on the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list and has long officially renounced violence.

Egypt may find itself caught in an awkward position in the coming months as it attempts to carve out its new standpoint. It must balance the interests of various conflicting international powers with the desires of its own citizens, and also restructure its economy. Democratisation will certainly not be easy, but the early signs are pointing towards Egypt as a revived Arab force operating on its own terms with the potential to have a large say on issues like the Israel-Palestine peace process and Iran. Nevertheless Israel's cooperation is necessary on the former issue, and at the moment it looks like its reaction to the new Egypt is tepid at best.

Still, the new Egypt, divorced from the West, could actually prove a more positive actor in the long run.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that most firefighters are not Corbynites. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.