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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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