The horrific bloodshed in Syria, claiming over 50,000 lives, coupled with the somewhat manufactured drama regarding the possible use of chemical weapons by either the Syrian dictator or the rebels, tend to divert attention from the bigger, much more significant crisis unfolding in Egypt.
To be sure, no situation involving so much violence and misery as the current mayhem in Syria is to be dismissed as insignificant, as people losing their lives in a gallant struggle against evil is always a human and political story of immense magnitude. However, in terms of the overall situation in the Middle East, Syria may be the bloodiest arena of activities, but not the most important.
In his classic book on Arab politics in the 1950’s, The Struggle For Syria, Patrick Seale claimed that this country was the focal point of inter-Arab relations and super-powers rivalry in the Middle East. Seale gave a fascinating, colorful picture of the Middle East situation, but he was wrong. The focal country was Egypt, it was Nasser’s war with the West that mattered, and Syria – like Jordan and Iraq at that time – were just the playgrounds. This time, again, it is Egypt that counts the most; the new Middle East is being shaped in the streets of Cairo, not the killing fields of Syria.
It is so for a plethora of reasons, historical as well as immediate political ones, let alone the implications for the future. Egypt being the largest Arab country of the Middle East, was the leader of the anti-Imperialist struggle against Western domination, the bearer of messianic Pan-Arabism and, in particular, the Arab crusade against Israel. But it was also the first radical Arab country to shift its support from the Soviet Union to the US, and then to make the historic peace treaty with Israel – the one event that changed the political landscape in the Middle East more than any other in the last three decades, which were marked by so much turmoil.
Possibly, on top of all that, Egypt is the birth country of modern day Islamic revival, the country where in 1928 a certain Hassan Al-Bana, Al Murshid Al Am (the Supreme Guide), established the Muslim Brotherhood movement (the Ikhwan), the mother movement of virtually all the Jihadist movements that we hear so much about these days.
It was in Egypt, where after 80 years of struggle the Ikhwan took over in a democratic election, following a popular protest that they were not the chief instigators of. The entire Sunni Arab world is now watching the situation in Egypt with a mixture of fear and hope. The demonstrations of many thousands of nationalist-Nasserites and liberal-minded middle class Egyptians are the envy and hope of many Arabs in other countries, including Syria and Jordan, who want to replace repressive regimes with democratic ones.
A success in Cairo, will be a sign for others to try and shape the future of their countries along democratic lines. A failure will send opposite reverberations all over the Middle East, including in the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, who view the Mursi regime with suspicion. They all know, what a leading role Egypt has had in the Middle East, so an emboldened Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo could be the catalyst to an even greater Islamic revival than what we have witnessed so far. Greater than the Islamic Iranian Revolution, which failed to penetrate the core of the Middle East, being Iranian and not Arab, Sh’iite and not Sunni.
The struggle in Cairo is far from over, but the odds are that the Muslim masses once thrown to the streets by the President will carry the day. There may be tactical retreats by Mursi, whose performance until now far exceeded early expectations, but after 80 agonizing years of waiting, he and his followers will not give up on their goal of further Islamizing Egypt. The opposition is definitely conducting a commendable struggle, but they lack the numbers. Their real hope is for military intervention, but then, if that happens, this is again a lesson for the rest of the Middle East, and not in line with the aspirations for democracy – the ones that fuelled the hopes of those who started the revolution in Tahrir Square.
And then there is the peace treaty with Israel, and the entire fragile strategic equilibrium in this volatile region. The Arabs cannot conduct an effective war against Israel without Egypt, that is a truism that has showed itself to be the case since Sadat’s historic visit in Jerusalem. Muhammad Mursi is more interested now in solidifying his grip over power in Egypt, and Israel is not his main priority – and surely not that of the Egyptian military – but once firmly in control, who can tell. Even without an actual war with Israel, Egypt could exert enough pressure on the latter so as to dramatically curtail its freedom of action. Many in the Middle East, clearly in Israel, and also in the international community are tuned to the Egyptian situation on account of this possible, highly undesirable scenario.
And back to Syria and the implications of the situation there. It obviously can serve as a further destabilizing factor in an area of the world already plagued by so much uncertainty, but there too the end political result will be an Islamic takeover, and the Syrian Islamists will also look to the big neighbor to the South for guidance, if not outright leadership. It is another reason, why it is Egypt that will determine the next stage of Middle East politics.