Turkish-Egyptian Possibilities

Does a little anti-Israeli PR from Cairo when the Egyptian government obviously needs to calm down its population really matter?

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry website reports:

On receiving the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr affirmed the importance of exerting all possible efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon and protecting it from all regional developments which might be negatively reflected on the country and the importance of excluding any political actor from the Lebanese equation

Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counselor Amr Roushdi stated that the Minister stressed that the main guarantee for Lebanese and regional stability is the immediate halting of the daily Israeli violations of the Lebanese airspace and respecting the Lebanese sovereignty over its space and soil.

In the context of a world nearly united in favor of the recognition of a Palestinian state, the popular Egyptian calls for an end to the Egyptian-Israeli alliance, the collapse of Israeli-Turkish ties, and the utter loss of U.S. credibility as a peace broker, yes, it matters.

While it is likely that no one would anticipate immediate Egyptian military moves to protect Lebanon, the mere launching of a diplomatic initiative focusing attention on Israel’s belligerence against Lebanon changes the Mideast political environment. It says that now, suddenly, Israel no longer has the essentially unchallenged (except by Iran) right to do what it wants. (It also says that Iran no longer “owns” the issue of supporting Palestinians, something Washington should applaud.) Already on the defensive over the U.N. campaign by Palestinians for recognition of a Palestinian state and over its attack on the international delegation trying to bring aid to Gazans, Israel will now be preoccupied by a third embarrassing diplomatic battle.

Will Israeli FM Lieberman advocate support for anti-Egyptian terrorism, as he did with Turkey? (One might well wonder why Israel would want to legitimate the use of terror as a tool of state policy…) Indeed, Lieberman’s threat suggests more clearly than anything else the disarray of the Israeli government. Israel’s free ride during the post-9/11 years may be drawing to a close.

Given the obsequious attitude of Washington toward anything desired by the Israeli right, the military side of the whole issue of the Israeli campaign of Lebanese border violations seems likely to be minor, although the imminent transfer of Turkish warships to the Eastern Mediterranean with the apparent intent of protecting future popular efforts to break Israel’s Gaza Ghetto blockade raises the possibility of a future military response on behalf of Lebanon.

For now, however, the real significance of Cairo’s statement is its perfect timing in support of Erdogan. Erdogan will get off the plane today in Cairo knowing that his trip is already a success: Cairo is now publicly committed to raising the heat on Israeli transgressions of international law. Moreover, Cairo has selected an issue, very possibly after careful secret discussions with Ankara, that can only make Israel look bad and in response to which Tel Aviv probably will not be able to do much. Beating up on helpless Lebanon only accomplishes one thing: it legitimizes Hezbollah. A real friend of Israel would so inform them, but Israel’s lackeys in Washington are not, in the end, such friends.

So Tel Aviv must watch helplessly while Cairo and Ankara bask in the strong, warm sunlight on the high moral ground. After all, who can object to the integrity of international borders?

One caveat is important: the whole idea of a military alliance between Turks and Egyptians is, well, shall we just say “sensitive” and leave it at that? I mean, all that U.S. military aid in limbo, and Turkey probably does not want to be expelled from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty for Protecting Israel Organization). Then, there’s all that historical baggage…I mean, let’s just say that Cairo and Ankara do create a military alliance and do emerge supreme in the Mideast. Down the road a bit, sure, but let’s just say they do. Then what? Will the land of Nasser, the Custodian of the Three Holy Pyramids play second fiddle to the new Ottoman Empire? Will the neo-Ottomans, who used to rule Egypt, play second fiddle to an impoverished country dependent on U.S. aid?

So, over the long run, many sensitivities will need to be managed. Nevertheless, for now, even a tiny step toward serious Turkish-Egyptian military cooperation in the context of worsening relations between each and Israel constitutes a tipping point. The weakening regional position of the U.S. only underscores this. Arguments over how many centimeters down the slippery slope this carries the Mideast are beside the point. The momentum has shifted. Instead of a dominant dynamic of U.S.-Israel-Saudi control of the Mideast, one now sees the potential rise of dominance of a new dynamic: political initiative shifting to a moderate (primarily peaceful and supportive of international law) coalition with real military power and popular support that will challenge Israel’s right to play by special rules. Washington of course remains free to continue supporting everything Tel Aviv does, but only at the cost of harming U.S. national security a little bit every single time it does so.

And Erdogan? All he has to do is shake hands with Egyptian leaders, congratulate them loudly on their foresight, proclaim Ankara’s strong support, visit the pyramids, and go home. That will suffice to change the dynamics of Mideast affairs. Anything beyond that will be icing on the moderate Islamist, moderate nationalist cake.

And that raises the question of what further steps Cairo and Ankara might indeed take in the context of an Egyptian call for Israel to respect Lebanese security, a Palestinian campaign for statehood, and Ankara’s announcement that its warships will start patrolling off the coast of Israel and Lebanon.

Syria and Palestine. A strongly worded joint call for peaceful resolution of domestic conflict that lays out a set of principles to be applied equally in Syria and in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would put Cairo and Ankara nicely on the moral high ground.

Lebanon. A joint statement supporting the territorial integrity of Lebanon would be a minimal step. Joint naval patrols off Lebanon’s coast would add substance. Holding discussions on possible joint military aid to Lebanon and leaking the story to the media would go a step further. If they want to be really creative, Cairo and Ankara could announce support for the principle of the integrity of “all regional state borders,” specifically including the borders of Bahrain, Lebanon, a future Palestinian state, and the 1967 borders of Israel.

Gaza. And then, there’s Gaza. Some initiative regarding the right of Gazans to participate in international trade, fish off their coastline, receive the income from any hydrocarbons in Gazan territorial waters, and travel into Egypt is the absolute minimum that must come out of the Turkish-Egyptian summit in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Whatever else the two sides do, Cairo must figure out a way to start extricating itself from its complicity in the Gaza Ghetto.

The amazing thing about Erdogan’s visit is the abundance of possibilities on the Egyptian-Turkish table.


Emerging News: Egypt Warns Israel Over Lebanon

Cairo has reportedly warned Israel to cease its constant violations of Lebanon’s border with its warplanes. On the eve of Erdogan’s summit visit, this is an interesting initiative for Cairo suddenly to take. If Cairo wants to make progress toward a military alliance with Turkey, what better issue for joint action could have been thought up than a diplomatic move to protect poor, nearly helpless Lebanon?

If this report is not true, it should be. Is Erdogan kicking himself for letting Cairo take the obvious first step, or might they have jointly decided to allow the Egyptian military dictators to get the credit for it? Keep watching. This could turn into something.

Building a Mideast Strategic Triangle

Erdogan’s hopes for a new Mideast have been given a boost by…Israel! But as the dispute deepens, its long-term impact becomes more difficult to calculate.
Insisting on its right to murder opponents in international waters, Israel dismissed Turkish demands for a clear apology. What did Israel care? It was supreme in the region. Then, the Arab spring cracked the foundation of Israels strategic plans. Ignoring the shift, Israel killed several Egyptian policemen. What was Israel thinking that they were just Lebanese? So now Israel finds itself having wrecked ties to Turkey precisely at the moment it has infuriated Egyptians, nicely setting the stage for the Turkish-Egyptian summit, where Erdogan wants to discuss a possible Turkish-Egyptian alliance that could reshape the Mideast.
Cairo surely wants to avoid angering Washington, its U.S. military aid being treasured far more than justice for eight dead Turks. But the protesters are in the streets tearing down the wall Israel put around its Cairo embassy, not attacking the military rulers of Egypt, and the rulers of Egypt would just as surely like to keep it that way. Israel has made Erdogans task much easier than it might have been.
And Israels response? Just to ensure that Erdogan does not lose momentum in his campaign to unite his country behind him, Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman is planning a revenge campaign of supporting anti-Turkish terrorism! Responding to diplomatic moves by launching a terrorist campaign may be a bit much even for Netanyahu, but Liebermans brilliant reposte is now openly known so the point made by Israels piracy against the Mavi Marmara has been underlined: cross Israel and you will be attacked.
While Israels tactics may at first glance appear curious, they do have at least one logical explanation: provoking international tensions can be relied upon, as always, to freak out Israelis and win votes for the extremist ruling clique, not to mention even more military aid from the obedient U.S. Congress. The hidden agendas, both at the party and individual levels, contributing to the rising state-to-state tensions will make controlling Egyptian-Israeli-Turkish relations increasingly difficult.

Wouldnt it be interesting to be a fly on the wall when Erdogan sits down with the Egyptian generals!

Freeing Palestinians…to Save Israeli Democracy

A Palestinian state would not only offer justice to Palestinians but restore Israel’s weakening democracy and consolidate Israel’s security by strengthening the emerging Arab center.

Those Israelis concerned about threats not just to Israeli security but also to Israeli democracy, which finds itself increasingly undermined by rising domestic racist sentiment and apartheid-like behavior, should be begging Cairo and Ankara to get together and make a face-saving compromise proposal for a just two-state solution.

Israel would be able to strengthen its democracy and minimize Arab hostility. Israel would also strengthen its ties to an American public that is becoming increasingly aware of the great strategic cost to the U.S. of maintaining an alliance with an Israel ruled by an uncompromisingly expansionist right-wing faction in an era of Arab democratization. Israel would suddenly look very decent if it accepted a moderate compromise proposed by the new leaders of Mideast good neighborliness. Palestinians would get their state. Egypt and Turkey would get a regional diplomatic victory that would greatly enhance their respective positions as leaders of regional moderation. As for Obama, he would get rid of the most irritating foreign policy problem on his plate, freeing him politically to create a rational policy toward the Mideast without paying an unbearable political price at home.
For the moment, a moderate Arab center is emerging that offers an historic opportunity to Israelis seeking safety in the Mideast. This moderate center could collapse as fast as the Weimar Republic, opening the door to Arab chauvinist militarism, Muslim jihadi victory, or economic collapse. Any of the three would constitute a disaster for Israel.
But support for the emerging moderate Arab center–something hardly seen since, perhaps, 13th century Andalusia can facilitate a victory for Arabs that would also be a victory for peace-loving Israelis. The potent combination of Turkey and Egypt simultaneously moving toward moderation, economic development, and democracy offers a real chance of changing the Mideast:
  • How better might Palestinians be guided toward democracy than by following the rich experience of Turkish and Egyptian societies, with their rapidly growing civil society sectors?
  • How better might Palestinians develop their economy than by integrating it with Egyptian infrastructure and the rapidly progressing Turkish economic powerhouse?
  • What political, religious, and cultural centers are both more acceptable to Palestinians and acceptable to Israelis than the modernizing and Westernizing and democratizing societies of Turkey and Egypt?
Israeli politicians who exploit “existential threats” to maintain their hold on power would of course scream in righteous indignation. In the words of a former Israeli foreign minister:
Binyamin Netanyahu’s furious rejection of US President Barack Obama’s proposal to use the 1967 borders as the basis for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – frontiers that he called “utterly indefensible” – reflects not only the Israeli prime minister’s poor statesmanship, but also his antiquated military philosophy.
But Cairo and Ankara have an answer: these two large states together have the ability now both to sponsor the development of a stable Palestinian economy and to offer a peacekeeping force more than large enough to guard Israel’s legal 1967 borders (not to mention the illegal Israeli settlers temporarily residing in Palestine), if right-wing Israeli politicians truly want to stand up in public and claim that the Israeli armed forces no longer have the capability to defend Israel’s security.

Rafah: Opening the Gate to Mideast Change

Cairo has just taken the initiative, upping the ante for all those trying to woo her: Rafah will be opened. Now for the devil in the details: let the bidding begin.
There is a world of difference between allowing Palestinians to visit local Egyptian towns in the Sinai to do their shopping and offering them access to the whole world via Egyptian ports and airport. There is a world of difference between allowing Hamas to control international trade and filtering it through Egyptian border guards. Cairo has signaled that it will be listened to but has left everything else open to negotiation.
Nonetheless, the fundamental shift to a “permanently” open border sets something new in motion: Tel Aviv has lost the initiative, and how it is to regain that initiative through its usual brute force is unclear. Gaza, it seems, will in principle at least no longer be a ghetto. Instead of the principle of a ghetto, with occasional exceptions, the reverse will be true: in principle, Gaza will have access to the world, with some exceptions. That shifts the initiative to Hamas. Will it be able to play the international negotiation game?
More, what will Cairo do the next time Israel attacks Gaza? When faced with 1.5 million refugees walking through an open gate, it will need a plan it can put into effect instantly: offer Gazans defensive military aid, set up a very costly refugee city, close the gate and return to the status of Israel’s lapdog…That looks like a very unpalatable set of choices for Cairo.
The alternative is to develop a preemptive policy. Thus, the opening of Rafah will pressure Cairo to continue moving toward the creation of a logically complete policy of resolving the Palestinian issue in a way that will be acceptable to Palestinians. That logic, powered not so much by morality as by very practical political concerns for any Cairo regime, will promote continued change. By a low-keyed shift in border regulations, Cairo will shift not so much the “situation” as the “dynamics” of Mideast politics. 
A small change on Saturday will quite likely transform via multiple,positive feedback loops into an ever more influential political movement as Cairo defends its decision by supporting Hamas and Hamas moderates to facilitate its new cooperation with Cairo and as Tel Aviv blunders from insult to injury, forcing Hamas and Egypt ever closer. The more Cairo starts looking like Arab nationalism’s new champion, the more beleaguered Riyadh will feel, with the likely impact being rising Saudi support for Palestinian justice as it struggles with its cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and ally of Israel.
Opening Rafah can thus be expected to break the Palestinian-Israeli logjam. Rather than constituting a new definition of stasis, it seems likely to launch a process the end of which is invisible but almost sure to require significant strategic repositioning by all the players.
  • Israel will become increasingly isolated and its policy of reliance on superior force increasingly irrelevant.
  • Hamas has the opportunity to become the unquestioned leader of Palestine but will have to reinvent itself to do so.
  • Saudi Arabia and Egypt will begin a tug-of-war to see which can influence the other the most. Riyadh just cut a deal with Cairo to give it $4 billion in aid. Whatever the terms of that deal, it did not prevent Egypt from announcing the opening of Rafah, suggesting that Saudi wealth will have a tough time trumping Egypt’s spirit of reform, size, and new-found confidence.
  • The U.S. alliance with Israel will become steadily more counter-productive and harmful to U.S. national security, though Israeli firsters in Congress will remain in denial.
Two processes are now promoting Mideast change: the Arab spring and Egyptian relations with Palestine, with each reinforcing the other. Egyptian democracy will promote Arab nationalism, which will promote a desire for justice for Palestine, which will further promote Arab nationalism. Whether or not that reinforcing feedback loop will in turn promote Egyptian democracy will depend on many other factors, including economics and the broader international environment, but over the medium term, the two forces for Mideast change will intensify each other. The Cinderella story of peaceful protest gave way in March to the Saudi-sponsored counterrevolution. Now Cairo is reinvigorating the forces of change by using its joint border with Gaza, a tool that Israel will have trouble countering.

Wooing Cairo

Everyone 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?

Positive-Sum Vision on Palestine
“With this united Palestinian [government] Israel can negotiate for real, can carry through the implementation of UN Resolution 181 of 1947 which called for an Israeli and a Palestinian state”
[ Israeli National News.]

Zero-Sum Israeli Policy
My sense is that if Israel continues to ignore international calls for achieving peace on a just basis, and allowing the Palestinians to establish their state, there will be more and more bitter and negative feelings towards Israel, and the difference now, after January 25 [when the uprising began], is that no government in Egypt will be able to ignore those feelings” [Hossam Zaki, senior advisor to Egyptian foreign minister]
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.

Start With the Military Council
You want a revolution in Egypt? You can’t have one with Tantawi as the leader.  An Egyptian revolution would require the removal of the Egyptian military council which serves by order of the US/Israel.  You want to remove all appointees of Mubarak?  Don’t start with the Ministry of Agriculture.  You will get there later. Start with the Military Council.”  [, Angry Arab News Service.]

The Army is Fooling the People
Tahrir Square protests are starting up again, amid rising condemnation of Egypt’s self-appointed military dictatorship. According to a protester, “The army is fooling the people.” [Heba Fahmy, Daily News Egypt.]

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.

*My thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing a shorter version of this article.


Tehran’s National Security Opportunity

<!–[if !mso]> st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Tehran has done an impressive job of managing its national security challenges over the last 20 years. Can it now put the icing on its national security cake by teaming up with Arab moderates, especially the new Egypt, and isolating Saudi Arabia in embarrassed league with Israel?
One of the major questions regarding the long-term state of Mideast affairs is how Tehran will react to the simultaneous Arab democratization wave and sectarian Saudi challenge. By itself, a democratizing wave would not seem likely to attract very serious Iranian support nor offer Tehran’s hard-line leadership much opportunity, since it contradicts the militant foreign policy and domestic repression dominant in Iran. However, the Saudi counterrevolution makes Riyadh the leader of the region’s anti-democratic forces, and the brutal, obviously sectarian approach of Riyadh offers Tehran an opportunity to enhance its regional image, enhance its national security at low cost simply by supporting the newly emerging moderate Arab regimes. These regimes, to a discerning and patient Tehranian eye, could be seen as legitimate partners over a fairly long period on the simple basis of their desire for foreign policy independence. The more Tel Aviv and Riyadh team up to undermine Arab liberty, the easier it will be for Tehran to strike a tactical deal with any neutral, democratic Arab regimes that may emerge.
Whether such a deal actually transforms Iran into just another Turkey or in the end proves little more than a cloaking device for hard-line Iranian nationalism devoted to establishing a new world order is a question that will only be answered years from now, and will depend greatly on how things work out in the meantime: the answer is not preordained. Tehran kept its cool in the face of the flood of the U.S. military into its backyard and smoothly emerged the victor in the 20-year-long war between Washington and Saddam, while simultaneously maintaining its independence and avoiding Israeli attack. Now, Tehran has an opportunity to improve on this impressive record by “joining” an emerging Arab moderate center and thus isolating Israel and Saudi Arabia far off in right field. In five years, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and perhaps a couple other regional states could be comfortably tied by a booming hydrocarbon network of priceless strategic value to Western Europe and thus also of priceless strategic value to Iran. As the source of most of the gas, Iran could become, in European eyes, “too big to fail,” and thus protected from Israeli attack.
The big payoff for Washington would be if Tehran decided that the energy superpower game was more attractive than the game of leading the campaign to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political system.
The first move is up to Tehran, and so far, it is choosing the road of moderation and cooperation. Tehran has responded only with words to Riyadh’s brutal repression of Bahraini Shi’a, but simultaneously Tehran is moving steadily to shift regional strategic relations by pulling Egypt away from the Saudis. By ineptly interfering with the democratization process in Egpyt, the Saudis are only facilitating Iran’s way forward. Trading Egypt for Bahrain can hardly be a wise strategic move for Saudi Arabia.
The next move is up to Cairo and seems likely to come in Gaza. An Egyptian move to bring any significant measure of justice to the people of Gaza would simultaneous cause a fundamental rift with Riyadh and pave the road to normalization with Tehran.

Saleh’s Ultimate Weapon: Apres Moi, C’est al Qua’ida!

With exquisite timing, “Yemen’s army repelled an attack…by al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to Saleh’s regime, as Saleh ran out of all options for maintaining his dictatorship except waving the bloody flag of “terror” in Washington’s face. Why not? It has worked for him so far, and, indeed, might, with a grain of salt, even just possibly be true, but could al Qua’ida be so shortsighted as to pick this moment to make its move, giving Saleh precisely what he wants?

True or not, the “attack” came in the nick of time to bolster the fortunes of a leader who has few friends left outside of Riyadh and some corners of Washington. Needless to say, some in the U.S. mainstream media bought his claim hook, line, and sinker (e.g., CNN).
Meanwhile, as clashes erupt between pro- and anti-Saleh military units, tanks in Yemen’s capital are taking the nearly unprecedented step for an Arab country of protecting (!) the people. The West should note this precedent: government military forces being used not to protect politicians but to protect the people. What is this world coming to…
What it may be coming to is a struggle between military dictators and democrats. After all, the military is still running things in Egypt, the military is increasingly running things in Iran, Israel is transforming itself from a pioneering democracy into a garrison state, Bahrain has turned to its and its neighbors’ militaries to stifle popular aspirations, and Gaddafi is relying on military power to defeat his adversaries. As for Yemen,
What Ali Muhsin is doing is setting himself up for a post-Salih future and further limiting who will have to go.  His statement today – and it is important to note that he didn’t say he was joining the protesters, only supporting and protecting them – puts him in position to head the military or military council under the next government. [Gregory Johnsen.]
As with Egypt, the rise of the military to overt political control is the same old gang playing musical chairs. The attack on El Baradei appears to be one example, and the pro-regime bias in the media (something that will shock Americans, I’m sure) may be another. It remains to be seen how much influence the changing socio-political context will have on governmental structures or the behavior of rulers.

A Return to Sectarian Conflict?

The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain risks re-igniting the sectarian warfare provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

The Saudi decision to play Metternich will have ominous consequences. First is the possibility that Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh have decided to push for war against Iran. That is a bit of a leap from the evidence. Let’s hope it is not the case, but even if it is not, the momentum is now moving in that direction. The temperature of the Persian Gulf has just risen, and in Bahrain a first small explosion has occurred; today more effort will be required to prevent a Persian Gulf meltdown than would have been required last week.

Aside from the danger of war with Iran, Riyadh has now split the Arab world. Note, for example, how events clearly show coordination between the crackdown in Bahrain and the crackdown in Yemen. Perhaps the old guard will win, as Metternich did after 1848, and succeed in repressing all Arabs again, but that will not turn the clock back. The Arab world has changed; millions have voted with their feet and faced down police goon squads. That is empowering.

The Meaning of Empowerment
On my daily afternoon walks, I overhear Saudis of all ages and walks of life analyzing the events that led to the overthrow of the Tunisian regime. Everywhere I go, people are hypothesizing on whether the same could happen to “them,” referring to the possibility of a Saudi Arabia not headed by the Al Sauds. Although most concur that it is highly unlikely, they are nonetheless more convinced than ever of the power of the people to bring about change.–Khuloud on Jadaliyya

If repressed, the next time the people will have learned that peaceful demonstrations do not work. For an analogy, 1848 will turn into 1917. That is of course just an analogy; it should not be read as implying that communism is in the Mideast’s future but simply that political radicalization is becoming more likely by the minute. Iran, al Qua’ida, and militant Arab nationalism will all be invigorated. A new Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen should come as no surprise, and Saudi-Iranian competition in Iraq will intensify.

The Logic of Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen
Egypt is now standing tall; no Egyptian ruler will aspire to crouching behind Saudi Arabia. Expect competition for leadership of the Arab world regardless of whether the Egyptian army succeeds in establishing a new military dictatorship or democracy is established. Egypt, however haltingly, is moving toward modernization, Saudi Arabia is looking backwards. Their interests will clash. Meanwhile, the Yemeni regime has been radicalized by the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and many of those supporting the protesters in Yemen must surely have very bad memories of the Saudi military attack on the Houthis. Civil war now appears far more likely than it did a month ago, and it is hard to see how Riyadh will watch Saleh go down to military defeat without trying to help him. At that point, Cairo will face a fateful double decision: stand aside and give regional preeminence to Riyadh or take action; support democracy advocates who copied those in Egypt or turn its back. No matter who is in charge in Cairo, governments like legitimacy, and legitimacy for an Egyptian regime will not be found in a policy of bowing down before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

The other change is truly tragic. The Arab democracy revolt was unifying and secularizing: more liberty for everyone. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention, in contrast, not only splits the Arabs but risks sparking sectarian conflict. Bahraini democracy protesters are going to have a very hard time remaining united in the face of what looks very much like repression of the Shi’a. Admittedly, it also looks like repression of civil liberties, which it surely is. The key to the story may well lie in the struggle between these two conflicting dynamics: patriotic and democratic resistance to Saudi troops enforcing repression vs. the natural tendency to interpret events as Sunni vs. Shi’a. Moqtada al Sadr’s initial sectarian reaction (justice for Shi’a rather than justice for Bahrainis) exemplifies this tendency, and al Qua’ida will surely be examining the situation in a search for opportunities.

Provoking Sectarianism
Bahrain TV has been giving a voice to extremists among government loyalists, with one caller reportedly offering demonstrators a “return to the days of Saddam, how he [Saddam] dealt with his Shia population.” —Jadaliyya

Nuclear war with Iran might be down the road, but a more likely result of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain is a repeat of the horrifying sectarian conflict provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

After Mubarak…the Army

Amidst rumors that Mubarak will finally “step down,” it is important to realize that the removal of an aged dictator who has already appointed his clone to replace him is no victory. It is certainly not defeat, and the protesters did an impressive job of behaving with vastly more legality and decency than did the regime, including the army with its illegal arrests and torture of opponents and innocents alike and its repulsive non-action while Mubarak’s goons attacked the people. Nevertheless, the vicious Egyptian security state remains astride the population, for the good of U.S. empire, Israeli mini-empire, and its own greed.

The significance of Mubarak’s removal is the degree to which it is perceived by Egyptians–and the rest of the Muslim world–who are not yet in the streets as evidence that victory for democracy, civil rights, and a government based on law with the consent of the governed is now possible. Mubarak’s removal would not be victory, but it might well provide the protesters with a winning hand.

That winning hand, in turn, could lead to the emergence of a new type of Muslim politics. Given the sophistication of the Egyptian and Tunisian transformations, a genuinely innovative combination of Arab nationalism, Islam, and Western civil rights just might be in the process of emerging and taking power in the Arab world. Precedents already exist in Indonesia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Pakistan, but moderates have almost always been on the defensive, pinned between the Scylla of imperial extremism and the Charybdis of Islamic extremism. The removal of Mubarak would be a big step in the direction of a most welcome combination of Arab moderation and justice, but that victory remains far from assured as the world awaits the decision of the Egyptian military high command.