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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.