Praising and pummelling Egypt
Praising and pummelling Egypt
By Linda S. Heard, Special to Gulf News
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's recent tÍte-ŗ-tÍte with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went off surprisingly well considering two Egyptian policemen had earlier been shot by the Israeli army when they strayed over a common border between the two countries. Olmert not only apologised and agreed to a joint investigation, he also lavished praise on the Egyptian President.
"I see in you Mr President a real partner to bring peace to our region," said Olmert. "I plan on consulting you and working closely with you in order to advance the peace process?"
Not that Olmert, currently plugging his Conversion plan, which entails the unilateral delineation of Israel's permanent borders, has any intention of advancing the peace process.
Washington is rather less glowing, wagging its finger at Cairo over the jailing of opposition leader Ayman Nour, the way that political demonstrators are treated and the alleged torture of prisoners.
You must admit in light of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, ghost flights, secret gulags and Haditha, the White House isn't short of chutzpah. Reversal in policy
Washington has made no secret of the fact it wants Egypt to democratise and for a while the country appeared to be making moves in that direction.
Recently, though, there has been a reversal in policy with the 1981 emergency law extended for another two years, and judges who criticised last year's election process subjected to a disciplinary hearing. Why the turnaround?
There are numerous reasons why the government has chosen to close its fist. I cannot condone many of its hardline policies, but it is easy to understand what motivates them.
Firstly, the country has suffered several terrorist attacks, the latest in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm Al Shaikh, which claimed the lives of 88 innocents.
Second, there have been several clashes between Muslims and Copts at the Mediterranean port town of Alexandria; once over a DVD distributed by a church that was deemed offensive to Muslims and on another occasion a knife attack on churchgoers by someone whom the government wrote off as mentally deranged.
Most importantly, Mubarak's National Democratic Party was taken aback at the spectacular election successes of Muslim Brotherhood candidates, who ran as independents because the group is officially banned.
Although the Brotherhood only fielded challengers in a limited number of areas, it managed to win five times the number of parliamentary seats it achieved during the 2000 ballot.
Like Hezbollah and Hamas, Brotherhood leaders are dampening down the rhetoric in an attempt to become a mainstream political party.
In the meantime, the group seduces poorer members of Egyptian society with food as well as cash to help with medical expenses and schooling.
Washington makes little secret of the fact it champions Nour's Ghad (Tomorrow) Party but in reality Nour has very little grassroots support throughout the country, and only garnered a tiny proportion of the vote.
Before the publicity revolving around his court case for forgery, few Egyptians, apart from elites and intellectuals, knew anything about him.
So by advocating unfettered democracy in Egypt, Washington could well be shooting itself in the foot, just as it did when pressuring the Palestinian National Authority to ensure a free and fair vote when the result was Hamas.
What would happen if Mubarak were to truly open up the political system by legitimising the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus allowing the group to campaign freely?
What if the Brotherhood collected a majority of seats? Would the Bush administration rush to send the new Egyptian leader an invite to the White House? Or would it declare Egypt a pariah state and the Brotherhood "a terrorist organisation"? Certainly, Egypt's almost $2 billion US aid package would be at risk.
And in such event what would be the reaction of Israel?
There is no doubt an Islamist government in Egypt with probable links to Hamas and Hezbollah would strain relations and it is likely that Egypt would no longer be trusted to police the border with Gaza, causing increased Palestinian hardship.
What would be the outcome for Egypt? The likelihood is both local and foreign investors would be scared away, while wealthy secular Egyptians would be seeking second passports. Moreover, what impact would an Islamist government have on Egypt's 15 million Copts?
The bottom line for most Egyptians is a better standard of living. There are some who feel comfortable with the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Others would prefer a pro-Western government made up of technocrats. But most are not prepared to accept a dynastical arrangement whereby Mubarak's son Jamal Mubarak would stand in his father's shoes.
As things stand, Mubarak has not appointed a vice-president, which fuels suspicions that Jamal, a well-educated and sophisticated young liberal, is being groomed for the top job.
His recent visit to the White House where he was warmly welcomed by George Bush has done nothing to quash those.
Mubarak's eventual successor is the country's best-kept secret, although some insiders believe he will have to be blessed by the military and could well emerge from its ranks.
One thing is for sure. Egypt's political system is complex enough without foreign powers putting in their two cents.
Washington should be careful what it wishes for because the outcome may not be to its liking, especially if it wants to hang on to its military over fly rights and fast tracking of war ships through the Suez Canal.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. http://www.gulfnews.com/opinion/columns/region/10044940.html