June 05, 2007

Egypt: Taking a Backseat in the Middle East

Source: Stratfor
June 05, 2007 18 23 GMT


Egypt, once the leader in the Middle East, has been relegated to a supporting role in the region. While Egypt concerns itself with internal affairs and limited resources, Saudi Arabia has taken the wheel.


When history repeats itself in the Middle East, it often does so with dreary irony. Take the case of Egypt. Forty years after its humiliating defeat by the Israelis in the Six-Day War -- which started June 5, 1967 -- the leader of the Arab world has lost its pole position.

In recent months, Egypt has repeatedly taken a backseat to Saudi Arabia. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the trouble in Lebanon and -- most recently and most important -- the relationship between Arabs and Iranians, Cairo does not have the bandwidth to compete with Saudi Arabia, its traditional rival for Arab leadership.

It has been Saudi Arabia, not Egypt, hosting the fighting Palestinian factions. It was Saudi diplomats in Lebanon trying to mediate to halt the Israel-Hezbollah conflict last summer, and Saudis continue mediating the Lebanese political standoff to this day. It has also been Riyadh representing the Arab world in the U.S.-Iranian negotiations on Iraq; the Saudis might have reservations about any U.S.-Iranian deal on Iraq's future, but when it became clear that the United States and Iran would make the negotiations public, Riyadh moved to get directly involved in the talks and be the one at the table ensuring Sunni interests in Iraq. Egypt might still invite leaders for summits in Sharm el-Sheikh, but playing host does not equal setting the agenda.

Cairo still has a lot of leverage in the Middle East; many Arab states, including Jordan and Lebanon, and the Palestinian people still look to Egypt as a big brother. But, at least for the next six months or so, Cairo will let Riyadh take the lead in the region because it does not really have any other choice. The implications will reverberate throughout the region as other Arab states in the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa shift their orientation toward Riyadh. Those with disputes with Saudi Arabia -- like Qatar and Yemen -- will move to improve ties.

The reasons for Egypt's declining regional influence are simple: an inward focus and limited resources.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime has focused much of its energy on ensuring its continuation. Egypt has entered a period of political uncertainty; given Mubarak's advanced age (he turned 79 in May) and deteriorating health, the president could either die or become incapacitated in the course of the next year. Mubarak's absence would destabilize the country's political system, as questions would arise about his potential successor's ability to govern as effectively as he has. Thus, Mubarak is working assiduously to hand over the reins of power to his son, Gamal.

Gamal is named after late Egyptian revolutionary leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose Arab nationalist movement helped position Egypt as the leader of the Arab world. But Gamal lacks Nasser's legitimacy, military background and connections, and support from the Egyptian people.

Gamal has moved steadily to expand his political role, taking on the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party and increasing his public profile with regular public appearances. But it is far from assured that Gamal will even be able to maintain his current position when his father dies. Everyday Egyptians and a broad spectrum of the Egyptian elite oppose the idea of dynasty -- the handoff from father to son that is common elsewhere in the Arab world. Egyptian intelligence chief Omer Suleiman is Mubarak's most likely successor. The stage will likely be set for Suleiman this year when Mubarak nominates him as vice president.

The uncertainty surrounding the current president's fate has developed into a key issue as Cairo is under domestic and -- to a lesser extent -- international pressure to effect political reforms. The government could conduct a referendum on the constitution and expand the emergency laws that have been in force since 1981 as a means to sustain its hold on power and counter the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in the country.

To manage the home front, the elder Mubarak is spending less time on issues abroad.

Mubarak also is worried about losing U.S. support. A movement is growing within the U.S. Congress to cut the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The aid stems from the 1978 Camp David Accords and has long been Egypt's reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel. But U.S. lawmakers are trying to wield the aid as a weapon to push democratic reforms in Egypt -- and if Mubarak is to place Gamal in the presidential office, he cannot afford to lose the money and cannot afford to make too many reforms. The United States repeatedly uses the democratic reform and "human rights" issues whenever Egypt veers too far from Washington's policy plans for the region. The difference now is simply a matter of timing and context. Mubarak needs the continued support of his military, and the pipeline of cash from Washington is the best way to secure it. The United States is not likely to withdraw aid or even significantly reduce it, but Mubarak needs to keep his domestic opponents from using the threat of it.

Despite its current domestic troubles, Egypt must continue trying to shape events in the region -- or at the very least be seen as acting independently of Riyadh. Cairo took a step in that direction in recent days when it agreed to open talks with Iran. Both sides have agreed to discuss a normalization of relations, nearly 30 years after the two broke off diplomatic ties.

Iran knows this is the time to repair its relationship with Egypt, especially since Cairo is not likely to dismiss an overture when U.S. envoys are meeting with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad. Tehran tried repeatedly -- and as recently as 2004 -- to mend its ties with Egypt. Now the dynamic has changed, and Egypt cannot really say no.

Iranian-Saudi diplomacy has been in full swing for months now, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually visiting Riyadh in March. Egypt's move to renew ties falls too far behind the curve to affect the emerging shape of the Arab-Iranian detente. Rather, the move is more of a supportive gesture, demonstrating to the United States and Iraq that it backs efforts to find a solution to the chaos in Iraq. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazef, speaking at a June 4 press conference with visiting Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, said Cairo supports Baghdad's efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq. In other words, Egypt is on board.

And, in the short term, all Egypt can do is go along for the ride.

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