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The Mideast paradox unfolds

The outlook cannot be more serious for the region — nationalist and sectarian ideologies are handing countries over to foreign powers and interests

Image Credit: Gulf News archive
Egypt's Mohammad Mursi
Gulf News

Egypt faces a serious and complex situation. Large crowds have taken to the streets and violence has broken out again. Clashes between opponents and supporters of President Mohammad Mursi have left several dead and hundreds more injured.

It should have been different. Egypt should have been moving towards democracy and political stability, but the two years that have passed since January 25, 2011 — the date of Hosni Mubarak’s fall — have witnessed increasing turmoil and confusion. Islamists and secularists at each others’ throats, the emergence of the literalist Salafists, the shadowy role of the armed forces in addition to direct and indirect foreign involvement, have all combined to block the country’s attempts at normalisation and the effort to complete the revolutionary cycle. In fact, never have democracy and stability seemed quite so far off as they do today. Even tracking rapidly evolving events and shifting strategic alliances has become quite a challenge.

However, by closely examining several key factors, we can make educated guesses about short and long-term developments. Clearly, certain forces — particularly the Salafists, by their actions before and after the elections as well as during the debate on the constitution — are doing everything in their power to divert the country from democracy. Elements of the former regime, not to mention the armed forces and the secularists working from behind the scenes, are increasing tensions and undercutting the new government headed by Mursi, a former Muslim Brotherhood official. Their aim is to bring the political transition to a halt. President Mursi, when he mentioned pressure tactics, plots and manipulation in his last speech, was accurately describing the tangible reality of Egyptian public affairs. Some of his opponents are using manipulation and destabilisation tactics; others, populism and mass agitation.

Even then, that would not be reason enough to overlook some disturbing facts with possible serious consequences for the nation’s future. When, in August 2012, following violent incidents in the Sinai, Mursi dismissed the head of Egypt’s intelligence services, followed by the president of the Scaf (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), Field Marshall Mohammad Hussain Tantawi, and Chief of General Staff, General Sami Anan, a delighted population interpreted the president’s move as an “anti-military counter-coup”. The new president — so the story went — had courageously pushed back against the once-powerful Egyptian Army and as a result enjoyed several weeks of significant symbolic popular support: An over-optimistic interpretation not supported by facts, though. In fact, Mursi moved not against the armed forces, but in concert with its most influential leaders; the idea being to give the military a new role at the heart of a state now governed by civilians. The Mursi government, mindful of its legitimacy, as well as internal and international security, had no alternative. It had to come to an understanding with the military leadership and placate the American administration that has steadfastly supported that leadership for decades. This support has not lessened in recent months. Still, it was startling to see the US so readily accept the good offices of the Mursi government during Israel’s latest attack on Gaza. And it is equally startling to see the Netahyahu government agreeing so readily to allow Egypt’s Islamist Interior Minister (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and organisationally close to the very people whose leaders were being summarily executed) to enter Gaza! Surprising, as well, was the presence in Egypt of an Israeli delegation to sign the ceasefire agreement. The Mursi government had scored symbolic victories against the armed forces and Israel, with all the domestic and international recognition that they imply. Yet, let us not jump on to conclusions.

Strengthened by his new-found legitimacy, President Mursi attempted to speed up the pace in his quest for stability at home. He knew that opposition forces were active and that the judiciary was apparently preparing to call for new presidential elections. However, the decree granting him temporary discretionary powers (which he was finally forced to annul last Sunday) and the adoption of a new constitution to be submitted to a referendum enraged the opposition and brought large numbers of people into the streets. Would Mursi have gone, as far as he did, had he not felt that he was protected? Or did he already know it? Scrutiny of events, and of the text of the draft constitution, give a clearer view of who is protecting the current government and who that government is pledged to protect in the future. While tens of thousands of demonstrators massed in front of the presidential palace, the Republican Guards and units of the armed forces were drawn up to protect both the building and those inside. The commander of the armed forces appealed for “calm” and called for dialogue between the administration and the opposition to avoid “a catastrophe”. Rumours of a possible coup were quickly denied by the military, but the mere reference to such an eventuality was a message to the opposition — a warning not to go too far. The draft constitution is even clearer on the role and prerogatives of the armed forces. It establishes a 15-member National Security Council, confirms the military’s administrative autonomy, its ultimate responsibility for such vital measures as declaring war and the competence of military courts to judge civilians (in cases related to military matters) — powers that give the armed forces a determinant role in Egypt’s new political configuration (even more than under Mubarak’s regime).

In truth, the configuration is hardly a new one; and now it has insinuated itself into the very process of democratisation. The US, Europe and Israel can only breathe a sigh of relief — political power has remained firmly in the hands of their long-time partners. Furthermore, the assumption of power by the Islamists may well offer them even more opportunities than those available under the former dictatorship. While little fault can be found with the pragmatism demonstrated by the Islamists in recent years, their abandonment of some principles of political ethics has been eye opening. The latent power of the Islamist movements as an opposition force has turned to weakness on taking power. Their obsession with recognition and national and international credibility have forced them to make multiple compromises and trapped them in contradictions that have sapped their strength. The West, like Israel, has apparently realised that it can use the Islamists in power to their advantage, a conclusion recent events seem to bear out.

In Turkey, apart from a few bold, symbolic steps taken against Israel, the formation of an Islamist government has had virtually no impact on the balance of political power in the Middle East. Quite the contrary: Turkey has quickly and with a high degree of efficiency integrated the free-market economy and adopted western security policies as its own. At the same time, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the latest useful “threat” brandished to justify a policy of interference in Iraq, to shift the centre of gravity of risk to the Middle East (from the Israel-Palestine conflict to Tehran that is) and to magnify the Sunni-Shiite split. A policy of fear-mongering and sanctions have successfully isolated Iran, as it has the Islamo-militarist regime of Sudan, where the separation into separate northern and southern entities is an old western dream come true, while concealing the true impact of Israel’s African policy. The list grows longer. The capture of power in Gaza by Hamas has undermined both unified resistance and support from outside backers. Israel, playing on Palestinian divisions and the Islamist danger to pursue its strategy of colonisation, has been the major beneficiary. Today, the pragmatism of the Islamists has drawn them, in an almost identical manner, into compromises, contradictions and loss of credibility in Tunisia and Morocco, as well as in the corridors of power in Jordan and Yemen and at the heart of the Syrian resistance.

The paradox is striking: Yesterday’s dangerous and strong opponents to power may well become the objective and weak allies, while in power, of today’s strategic and economic policies. The Islamists might be used to act as protectors of western and Israeli interests. Weakened by authority and wielding objectively limited power, they find themselves facing political forces (Salafists or secularists) and institutions (financial and/or military) that undermine their potential competence to reform their respective countries and societies. The outlook could not be more serious: Not only has there not been an Arab Spring, not only has the Middle East demonstrated no awareness of transnational political imperatives, but the exact opposite has occurred. Nationalist and sectarian ideologies are handing countries over to foreign powers and interests.

The West can be blamed for employing Machiavellian tactics in pursuit of its goals, but what else did we expect? Israel aside, the US has no friends, only interests. Israel’s strength is the weakness of the Arabs. The key question is one of political conscience — the obsession with power that reduces governance to a struggle among individual interests, outsized egos and narrow, if not entirely empty ideologies. The Arab world needs visionaries, leaders dedicated to ideas and ideals, politicians motivated by values, attentive to unity and diversity. The Arab world has proven to the world at large that it could say “no”. the time has come for it to demonstrate that it knows how to say “for what?” and “how?” with dignity.

Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.