Friday, May 6, 2011

Egypt Shifts The Region

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 06/05/2011 
Sometimes you can almost physically feel the political earth shifting beneath your feet. One of those moments occurred in Cairo a few days ago, when the main Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas signed the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement to reconstitute a single Palestinian government.

This will be seen in retrospect as a historic turning point in the contemporary history of the Middle East - not so much for what it means for the Palestinians, but more for what it tells us about the return of Egypt to its natural role in regional diplomacy. It is the first tangible sign of the return of sanity and dignity to the affairs of state and diplomacy in Cairo’s foreign policy, after decades of emasculation, subservience and marginalisation.

Others will follow quickly, including opening the Gaza-Rafah border, resuming normal relations with Iran, rational relations along the Nile Valley, more effective and realistic regional nuclear policies, and greater regional trade and economic complementarities.

(Egypt’s relegation to the sidelines of contemporary politics and diplomacy since the 1980s was due largely to its foreign policy being captured by a combination of money-obsessed conservative Arabs and narrow-minded ideologues in Washington who were almost totally under the sway of pro-Israeli zealots. That is a fascinating tale that deserves its own accounting another time, so that other newly liberated and relegitimised Arab governments can have a documented handbook on how to preserve sovereignty and not to conduct foreign policy in the future.)

The Egyptian government’s constructive and impartial mediating role that achieved the intra-Palestinian reconciliation stands in stark contrast with the pro-Fateh and anti-Hamas tilt of the Mubarak regime and its prime purveyor of political and intellectual dishonesty, former intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman.

The differences between Fateh and Hamas were all related to political and security matters that had logical solutions because they emerged from short-term political actions rather than long-term structural differences.

Israeli-American-Mubarak/Suleiman resistance to deal with Hamas in power and giving Israeli concerns greater importance than Palestinians’ rights prevented a reconciliation earlier on. The agreement now, so soon after Mubarak-Suleiman have left the scene, is a telltale indicator of where the problems really were. So was the speedy, almost Pavlovian, comment by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, within hours of the reconciliation accord, that Fateh could have peace with Hamas or peace with Israel, but not with both.

The implications of a unified Palestinian government and a reintegrated national political system for wider Arab-Israeli and Middle Eastern matters are enormous, and they will play themselves out gradually. The more significant development now is that Egypt’s resumption of its traditional role as a regional Arab power will slowly influence some of other key ideological and diplomatic confrontations that have defined the Middle East for decades, because the Palestinian-Israeli and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict remains at the heart of many of those regional and global dynamics.

Four main ones will now be impacted by the Egyptian shift back to a rational foreign policy: the Arab-Israeli, Arab-Iranian, intra-Arab, and Arab-Western conflicts, or at least recurring tensions.

The reactivation of Egypt’s regional role is also significant because it comes at a time when four other important developments are under way in foreign policy trends that impact the Middle East.

The first is the dynamism among some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, three of which (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar) unusually sent troops beyond their borders to engage in martial diplomacy in Bahrain and Libya. The second is the active global intervention in Libya through the UN Security Council, now aiming to overthrow the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi. The third is the increasingly important counsel and role of Turkey in the area. The fourth is the increasing regional and global pressure being brought to bear on the Syria-Iran-Hizbollah axis, combined with Damascus’ preoccupation with its domestic condition.

In this context of an ongoing structural reconfiguration of Middle Eastern foreign policy actors and influences, an Egyptian foreign policy refreshingly based on integrity, national interest and plain old common sense represents the first significant move towards redressing the most glaring imbalance in the region since Egypt slipped out of the Arab order around 1980.

The region’s security architecture since then has been defined by interactions among four non-Arab powers - Israel, Iran, Turkey and the United States - and this has left this area as a playground for their scheming and rivalries. A robust Egypt that may coordinate more closely with the equally effervescent GCC states, while Syria is preoccupied at home and the Palestinians present a unified face to Israel and the world, means we should expect important changes ahead in the four overriding regional dynamics that continue to link the Arabs, Israelis, Iranians and major Western powers in mostly uneasy relationships.

As pro-democracy revolts continue to spread around the region and install governments that more accurately reflect their public opinion, we should expect more such seismic shifts in regional and foreign policies, most of which will be welcomed by the Arab people who long for integrity, sovereignty and genuine national interest in their foreign policies.

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