Sunday 4 December 2011

Egypt's Elections Produce a Surprise Package

The Arab Spring uprisings began exactly 1 year ago this month.  The demonstrations against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia began in December 2010, and resulted in him being removed from power 1 month later.  The Spring subsequently spread to many other countries in the Middle East, and has been encouraged by enthusiastic support from the western countries.  Ironically, the one voice of hesitation against the uprisings came from Israel.  At the time, it was difficult for many to understand why Netanyahu did not support the Spring whole-heartedly.  Now, a year later, his reasons are starting to become apparent.

Netanyahu's concern about the uprisings were most obvious when the demonstrations reached Egypt, and thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square demanding the head of President Hosni Mubarak.  It was clear that Mubarak had ruled with an iron fist in the 30 years that he had presided over Egypt.  He was never elected in a free democratic election, and he never repealed the emergency laws under which his government and his security apparatus were entitled to do almost as they wished, and which they used to maximum effect.  Most citizens around the world who have lived in a democratic system (as well as many who have not) felt some level of empathy with Egyptians as they demanded, and finally got, the resignation of their president.  Netanyahu's voice was a lone one during that time, and it seemed strange to many that the leader of a free and democratic country would express concern about the democratisation of another country.  There were silent whispers about whether the relationship between Mubarak and Netanyahu held more than what was publicly known.  There were mutterings about whether the gas deal that was struck between Egypt and Israel, and which Mubarak's family are reputed to have personally profited from, possibly held personal profits for Israel's leaders too.  All the while, Netanyahu was heard to speak out in understated tones about his concerns for the Arab Spring.

Fast forward 11 months since the day that it was announced that Mubarak had resigned from power, and how different the situation looks.  Egypt has undergone its first round of voting in its nascent democratic process, and things are looking distinctly worrying for Israel and the west.  Voting for the lower house of Egypt's parliament has revealed that Islamic extremist groups are likely to rule in the new Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood, which was held responsible for the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and which remained a banned organisation throughout the 30 years of Mubarak's rule, has emerged as the strongest party in the elections.  There are those who believe that this support comes as a result of euphoria over the unbanning of the Muslim Brotherhood, not unlike the euphoria which saw the ANC sweep to power in South Africa after it was unbanned.  There are those, however, who believe that this reflects a trend towards Islamic fundamentalism  that can be seen in many countries around the world.  This is borne out by the meteoric rise of the Salafist Al-Nour party which received the second highest number of votes in the first round.  The Salafists advocate greater Islamic fundamentalism than the Muslim Brotherhood, and wish to apply Islamic Sharia law to Egypt.  They make the Muslim Brotherhood look like amateur fundamentalists.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had strong showings in the elections in Tunisia and Morocco, is not nearly as concerning as the indications of the trend in Egypt.  Besides the fact that Egypt has a direct land border with Israel, Egypt also enjoys a strategic position both geographically and politically in the current fragile state of international diplomacy.  Is the election result in Egypt showing that some countries are not yet ready to cope with western-style democracy, as so many people claim?  Or is the truth that Hosni Mubarak's iron fist also worked to protect the west against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism?  Netanyahu seems to have been one of the only western leaders who understood this at a stage that it was still early enough to do something.  Unfortunately, his was very much a lone voice, and he had no prospect of stemming the tide towards the overthrow of Mubarak.

The Israeli establishment understood as soon as Mubarak left power that Israel's relationship with Egypt has changed forever.  There are some doubts as to whether the peace treaty signed between late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and late President Anwar Sadat will be respected by the new regime.  Even if it is, a new era has dawned for Israel and Egypt.  This will also manifest itself in Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a close ally of Hamas.  Whereas President Mubarak worked hard with the Israelis to try to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons into the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do the exact opposite.  This promises greater and more sophisticated attacks coming from Gaza, spelling real danger for southern Israel, and for the safety and security of the State of Israel as a whole.

It will be interesting to watch what sort of political system will manifest itself in post-Gaddafi Libya.  In this case, western countries were actively involved in overthrowing Gaddafi by supplying NATO air power to assist rebel forces against him.  Now, they will be forced to stand back to allow a new democratic government to replace the old dictatorship.  But who will be the new elected leaders of Libya, and could it be that the west may yet come to regret this too?  Sometimes, you need to be careful what you wish for.

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