The other day, I mentioned Hillary Clinton’s approval of a postponed date, sometime in 2013, for the Egyptian elections, a delay the pro-democracy movement in Egypt opposes. A column in Asia Times today gives insight into Hillary’s support of the decision by SCAF (Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) from the perspective of how the Hamas-Israeli prisoner swap ‘changed’ the geopolitical map of the Middle East.
First and foremost, Egypt is being widely applauded for its role in negotiating the swap deal and thereby it has moved to the center stage of regional politics, regaining its traditional leadership role in Arab politics. The fallouts are going to be immense in terms of its relations with the United States, Israel and its neighbors.
Conversely, the outcome of the current political transition in Egypt has transformed and has become a phenomenally significant thing for the entire region and beyond. In the process, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi may just have consolidated his power base and underscored his importance to Western powers, especially the United States. It stands to reason that the US played a behind-the-curtain role “dialoguing” with Tantawi over the intricacies of the deal and encouraging him to go ahead.
These two paragraphs are troublesome. If ‘Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi may just have consolidated his power base and underscored his importance to Western powers’, where does that leave the Egyptian democracy movement?
The goal of the democracy movement is not to endear itself to Western powers. It is to deliver the promise of self-determination in domestic and foreign affairs to the Egyptian public. In contrast, the chief fear of the US and other Western powers has been the potential ‘destabilization’ of the Middle East, meaning how the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian movement as its vanguard, might negatively affect Israel.
So the question pivots around the role of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi representing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.. The Supreme Council so far has shown several faces to the people of Egypt and the world, leading to the following questions. Will Tantawi turn real power in Egypt over to a civilian government? Or will an ‘elected’ parliament and civilian President become appendages of military rule as they did under Mubarak? Is there a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the US and Tantawi regarding Israel? What is the Supreme Council demanding and getting in return? In others words, is there a plan to continue the ‘status quo’ with a different dressing?
The military council in Egypt has positioned itself expertly. Internally, it fanned religious divisions between Coptic Christians and Muslims and used them as a reason to crack down on the democrats and postpone elections. On the other hand, it lifted the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, knowing the Brotherhood is the most organized electoral movement in Egypt and could win the majority in Parliament. How far has this relationship gone?
On the international front, SCAF has inserted Egypt into the middle of Palestinian-Israeli peace politics, first brokering a weak Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, then boosting Hamas with the prisoner exchange. The Supreme Council clearly has a more activist agenda than the Mubarak regime, which had become ossified and unable to navigate deep changes in the Middle East. SCAF’s shown it’s ability to ‘deal’ by allowing the Israeli embassy to be sacked by dissident Egyptians, then turning around to broker a prisoner exchange with Hamas that President Abbas and the PLA could not pull off.
That Clinton heralded Egypt’s role in the prisoner exchange and at the same time publicly called SCAF’s postponing democratic elections ‘appropriate’ is highly troublesome. We’ll see. The Supreme Council may be trying to do a deja vu Mubarak all over again and in the process, stamping out or co-opting the democratic movement. Or it may be teaching the civilian leadership how to navigate huge international interests. Either way Egypt is center stage as an object lesson in political maneuvering and high-stakes diplomacy.