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Wooing Cairo

CairoEveryone now wants to be friends with Egypt, to put it differently, everyone now wants to push Egypt to remake itself in a way convenient to them: Riyadh and Tel Aviv missing the nice, safe old dictatorship, Tehran searching for entrée into the Mideast community without having to bow down to Washington, Ankara looking to buttress its position as leader of the moderate middle. Meanwhile, Cairo’s face is properly veiled, as she considers her options.

The Suitors. Riyadh crassly flashed its wealth, first allegedly threatening economic punishment of Egypt were Egypt to pursue Mubarak and then offering a big ring (economic aid) at a price (“security”) that could be read as an insulting attempt to interfere in Egypt’s delicate domestic affairs, where the issue is not security but liberty. Riyadh also allowed Mubarak to make a speech on Saudi TV that widely irritated Egyptian reformers; Cairo’s investigation of a Saudi billionaire’s land deals in Egypt suggested a lack of proper deference to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Tel Aviv’s influence over Cairo remains palpable, but a cautious Cairo has slightly softened its own blockade of Gaza (which still buttresses that of Israel), and a Cairo-sponsored Hamas-Fatah deal that leaves Tel Aviv out of the loop is breaking news. With the collapse of the Hamas-Israel ceasefire, it seems unlikely that Cairo can continue to keep the Gaza issue on the back burner. A newly free Egyptian populace demonstrated against Israel’s attack on Gaza on April 8 and again on April 12, and the newly independent Egyptian daily Al Ahram reported the events. Indeed, an Egyptian diplomat has reportedly stated that changes in Egyptian rules governing the Rafah border crossing, now that long-time critic of Mubarak’s Gaza policy--Nabil El-Arabi--is the new Egyptian foreign minister, are imminent. Tel Aviv needs a zero-based foreign policy rethink.

The tone of ties with Tehran has already improved, with the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal in February and Foreign Minister El-Arabi’s recent public advocacy of the reestablishment of official relations. But Ankara has already traveled this path with Tehran, obtaining few Iranian concessions in return. Tehran needs to decide if it wants inclusion in a new Mideast that may be less dependent on Washington but still hardly “on Tehran’s side” or whether it prefers the status of remaining outsider and troublemaker.

Ankara faces both an opportunity and a trap. As Davutoglu’s discussions with the new Egyptian civilian leadership on April 10 illustrate, Turkey and Egypt can cooperate to resolve a host of regional problems, with Gaza perhaps the key test, assuming they can avoid falling into the trap of competing for leadership of a moderate bloc at the expense of substantive accomplishments.

Cairo’s Calculus. Egypt now has the opportunity to step into the limelight, with all those suitors precisely when Washington, having overplayed its regional hand, is nursing its wounds, struggling with the effects of mismanaged imperialist adventures and a mismanaged domestic economy. Whatever Egypt may lack in terms of money, oil, or military power, Egypt now has pride, stands center-stage with de facto leadership of the emerging bloc of post-dictator states, and has more flexibility than any other regional state: Cairo’s moment has arrived.

The mere hesitation of Cairo to commit herself creates a new regional fluidity: where diplomacy in the old Mideast tended to be zero-sum, it can now be positive-sum. Done carefully, Cairo can have her cake (independence) and eat it too (cooperation with Iran and Turkey, continued U.S. aid, peace with Israel, pride, status, and regional influence). Extremists, from Zionist expansionists to Salafi jihadists, won’t find such an outcome to be “positive-sum,” but all regional societies eventually will.

Ankara needs help making the case for a policy of good neighborliness to replace the old confrontationalism. Tehran needs the security guarantee of friendly ties with a major Sunni state to break the Arab-Israeli-U.S. front that has been opposing it. Saudi Arabia may find that it too has needs – the support of an independent regional power, rather than just a handful of sheikdom clients. Washington needs the cooperation of a Sunni power that is moderate, democratic, popular, and successful: what better antidote to jihadi terror could one imagine?

Storm Clouds.

So the storybook romance, in this case, is that the beautiful girl should marry no one, date everyone! But storm clouds darken the horizon:

Gaza. Israel has been playing Nazi Germany to Gaza’s Warsaw Ghetto. That approach is not working. Gaza, both literally as an incubator of extremism and figuratively as a global symbol of oppression, is a terrorism factory. If a new Egypt actually does emerge (not yet certain), Gaza will be an intolerable contradiction with an obvious “solution:” opening the Rafah border crossing. Can Cairo manage the instability that might result?

The Egyptian Economy. If Egypt’s revolution produces a democracy without economic progress, the democracy will quickly give way to chaos, zenophobia, fundamentalism, chauvinism or some other process of desperation. Total GNP and corporate profits are not the issue; payoff for the population is.

Egypt’s Governance. Notwithstanding all the bravery by Egyptian democracy protesters over the last five months, the prospects of Egypt achieving responsible governance remain dim. With military aid pouring in from Washington and economic aid pouring in from Riyadh, the temptation on the part of the “temporary” military dictatorship to hold onto political power will be hard to resist.

Iran’s Neo-Cons. What highly factionalized Tehran really wants remains unclear. Although working with Ankara and Cairo might be a deal attractive to Tehran national security types, it would also come at a domestic political cost to the anti-Saddam war generation of “Iranian neo-cons,” a political clique exploiting Palestine’s plight to pad their own resumes. An Ankara-Tehran-Cairo partnership could trim Israel’s sails, but such a partnership would require Tehran to make hard choices.

Bahrain. Repression of dissent in Bahrain will empower hard-line Iranians, making more likely sectarian violence and an Iranian-Saudi military clash. Riyadh’s Bahraini chickens will come home to roost, undermining efforts to promote regional compromise.

Revenge of the Fanatics. Fanatics, extremists, those who believe that only those who obey are “friends,” will seek to punish Cairo for moderation; Egypt will need to get its own house in order quickly in order to keep its balance.

Yemen. Yemen is a disaster unfolding before our eyes and a potential trap that could once again entangle a reactionary Riyadh with a progressive Cairo. Alternatively, a post-Saleh Yemen could conceivably join Egypt and Tunisia in a new progressive bloc that, given well managed coordination with Turkey, could revolutionize Mideast politics.

Cairo’s Tipping Point.

Washington can play a critical supporting role by guiding rather than opposing change. It should stake out a position in support of Bahraini democracy that will offer Bahraini dissenters an alternative to putting themselves in the hands of Iran. Washington needs to demonstrate that ties with the U.S. can translate into a better life for a mistreated population and, specifically, for a Shi’i majority. Equally urgent is a solution for Gaza that would remove Israel from the equation, accept Hamas as the political party currently in charge, and provide Hamas with the means to govern well in return for mutual security along the Gaza-Israel border. Washington’s standards for interacting with Damascus and Sana’a also need to be brought into sync.

Whether Washington helps or hinders, Cairo now finds herself at a tipping point. She can try to hand victory back to the counter-revolution, thereby encouraging empire-builders and advocates of the Zionist garrison state while empowering both Iranian rejectionists and militant Sunnis to whom many embittered moderates will feel forced to turn. The rising frustration of Tahrir Square activists at the self-appointed Cairo military government’s agonizing crawl toward democracy, Cairo’s endless toying with a pro-Palestinian policy regarding its joint border with Gaza, and Cairo’s acceptance of a massive economic aid package with God knows what secret strings attached from arch-conservative Riyadh all illustrate the obstacles facing Egyptians who advocate change. Clearly, the danger of Egypt tipping back into dictatorship remains very real.

Alternatively, Cairo can make Egypt the center of a new moderate, democratizing movement to offer the Mideast a positive-sum vision of progress for all of Egyptian society and for the whole Mideast. Cairo can tip toward a combination of domestic democratization and foreign policy independence based on Arab nationalism.

May she choose wisely.


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