Monday, May 02, 2011

Emergence of a resurgent Egypt

What is becoming apparent is that Egypt is reclaiming the regional influence it abjectly surrendered when it became a poodle of the US and a collaborator of Israel following the 1979 peace treaty. The spokesperson of the Egyptian foreign ministry told the New York Times, ''We are opening a new page. Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.''

The profundity of the shift in the Egyptian policies is that the military is spearheading the process with the full realization that this is also the collective wish of Egyptian society, its elites and professionals as well as the working class, and the secular-minded as well as the observant Muslim masses. Even the strategic community, as practitioners of realpolitik, feel enthralled that an independent path bestows flexibility to Egypt's policies and earns respect for the country as a regional power when Cairo speaks or acts.

Ali Akbar Salehi
The New York Times noted, ''Egypt's shifts are likely to alter the balance of power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe and creating distance between itself and Israel.'' No sooner than the news appeared about the Fatah-Hamas accord, Tehran scrambled to welcome it. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the agreement is the ''first great achievement of the great Egyptian nation on the international scene''.

The Egypt-Iran rapprochement has indeed gained traction. Starting with the granting of permission (disregarding US and Israeli protests) for the unprecedented passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal in February, Cairo moved purposively and by the beginning of April, Egyptian Foreign Minister was already reaching out for closer diplomatic ties with Iran.
Israel's worst fears about the meaning of the Egyptian revolution seem to be coming true.
The latest Egyptian announcement in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas accord, that it will reopen the Rafah crossing with Gaza permanently, has set alarm bells ringing in Israel. (An Egyptian security team is preparing to visit Gaza). An unnamed senior Israeli official told Wall Street Journal on Friday that recent developments in Egypt could affect Israel's ''security at a strategic level''. The chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces General Sami Anan promptly warned Israel against interfering with Cairo's plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, saying it was not a matter of concern for Israel.

The Egyptian military leadership's decision on Rafah reflects a collective wish of the domestic public opinion which empathizes with the sufferings and hardships of the people of Gaza. (A recent poll by US-based Pew Research Center found that 54% of Egyptians want Egypt's peace treaty with Israel to be annulled.) In the circumstances, what will worry Israel (and the US) most is whether the surprise Fatah-Hamas agreement brokered by Egypt is linked in some way to the Palestinian plan to push at the General Assembly session in New York in September for UN recognition for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Such an apprehension is not unwarranted. The Wall Street Journal commented last week, ''In the more than two months since … Mubarak abdicated … Egypt has reached out to Iran, questioned the price on a contract to export natural gas that is crucial to Israel's energy needs, and won major diplomatic victories with Hamas.''

At the very least, as Helena Cobban,
a long-time expert on the region and author, blogged, ''What is true as a general rule in the region is that the kind of sordid backroom deals that regimes like Mubarak's, that of successive Jordanian monarchs, or others have struck with Israel in the past - that is, arrangements to quash Palestinian movements that go far beyond the formal requirements of the peace treaties - have become considerably harder for these Arab parties to uphold, given the long overdue and very welcome emergence of strong movements calling for transparency and accountability from Arab governments.''

Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jabir al-Sabah
That is to say, any digressions in the nature of stoking the fires of Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian passions may work only momentarily in the developing regional milieu. This became amply clear when Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Abdulaziz Sharaf chose the occasion of a meeting last week with the Kuwaiti Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah to shrug off the paranoia about Iran whipped up by Saudi Arabia and firmly asserted Cairo's resolve to expand ties with Iran. He said, ''Egypt is trying to begin a new chapter in ties with Iran, which is one of the world's important countries.''

M K Bhadrakumar in Asia Times. Here

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