Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Geopolitical Significance of Egyptian Crisis

Special Comment: I wrote a “regular blog" for today about the State of the Union and U.S. Foreign Policy (you can look at it by scrolling down below this blog entry). After doing that I decided that the crisis in Egypt was just too important to let pass without comment. I am therefore offering these few comments on the potential geopolitical impact of the events taking place in Egypt right now.

I think it is time to discuss just why the crisis in Egypt is so important to the United States and the rest of the world. Many people, including myself, have been largely ignoring Egypt these past few years. This was because it was seen as reasonably stable, not particularly a hotbed of radical Islamist behavior (although there were a few notable exceptions) and an ally of the U.S. and European interests. This scenario could change dramatically depending on what ultimately happens in Egypt once Mubarak is gone. -And Mubarak's departure is one of the few almost certain outcomes of this crisis (either immediately or in the very near future).

Geopolitical Significance

Several of the potential outcomes for Egypt could be significant to the world. For the radical Islamists, the prospect of a radicalized Egypt would give them a major power base. For Iran, this outcome would not be as desirable. Iran is now the emerging center of radical Islamism; competition from Egypt for this position would not be welcome, though it may be content with an Islamist Egypt if it were to accept a “second place” position as an Iranian ally (something that can’t be guaranteed).

An Islamist Egypt would be a strategic catastrophe for the United States. Egypt is the center of importance in the Arab world. It would not only change the dynamic of the Arab world, it would reverse U.S. strategy since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Remember that Anwar Sadat’s decision to exchange Egypt’s alliance with the Soviets for an alliance with the United States not only undermined the Soviet position in the Mediterranean and in the Arab world, it strengthened the United States immeasurably. Additionally, the support of Egyptian intelligence after 9/11 was critical in blocking and undermining al Qaeda. If Egypt stopped cooperating or even become hostile, the U.S. strategy would be severely undermined.

Importantly, the greatest loser could be Israel. Israel’s national security rests largely on its treaty with Egypt. The demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula not only protected Israel’s southern front, it also meant that their very survival was no longer at stake. Israel fought three wars, in 1948, 1967 and 1973, where its very existence was at issue. The main threat was always from Egypt, and without Egypt in the mix, no coalition of powers could threaten Israel (excluding the impending possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons). In all of the wars Israel fought after its treaty with Egypt (the 1982 and 2006 wars in Lebanon) Israeli interests, but not survival, were at stake.

If Egypt were to disavow the Camp David Accords and reconstruct its military into an effective force, the threat to Israel that existed before would rematerialize. This would not happen quickly, but Israel would have to deal with two realities. 

There is also a scenario that would potentially strengthen the radical Islamists while putting the United States, Israel, and possibly even Iran at a disadvantage, all for different reasons. That scenario would require two things to happen. First, the Muslim Brotherhood must become a dominant political force in Egypt. Second, they must turn out to be more radical than most observers currently believe they are (or with power, they must evolve into something more radical).

If those advocating democracy win (and if they elect someone like ElBaradei) it is unlikely that this scenario would take place. The pro-Western democratic faction is primarily concerned with domestic issues and they are secular and would not want to return to the wartime state prior to Camp David, because that would simply strengthen the military. If they win power, the geopolitical arrangements would likely remain significantly unchanged.

Similarly, the geopolitical arrangements would remain in place if the military regime retained power, except for one possible scenario. If it was decided that the regime’s unpopularity could be mitigated by assuming a more anti-Western and anti-Israeli policy by playing the Islamist card, the situation could evolve as a Muslim Brotherhood government. In this case, as hard as it is to envision, there could be an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood designed to stabilize the regime. Stranger things have happened.

Egypt has always been a major consideration in the world’s Geopolitics. When Egypt was a pro-Soviet state under Nasser, the world was a very different place than it had been before Nasser. When Sadat changed Egypt’s foreign policy the world changed with it. If Sadat’s foreign policy changes now, the world will change again. 

Which outcome is most likely? I do not know but my guess is that the most likely of the outcomes will leave Egypt pretty much where it is. But the situation is, as they say, in doubt, and the outcome will not be a trivial one.

Live Long and Prosper....

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