martes, 5 de abril de 2011

Artículo No. 45 Asia Times 2.4.11 Egypt moved by deep waters By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - By and large, the international media lost interest in Egypt even before former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted. ''The problem with the Egypt story,'' wrote The Globe and Mail columnist John Doyle on 10 February, ''is that most American and Canadian viewers don't actually care much about Egyptians".

Subsequently, as Libya, Japan, Bahrain and Yemen exploded, many pundits were also overwhelmed. Meanwhile, transparency is on the decline in both domestic and foreign Egyptian policy, and several major crises are taking shape down the road. The future is precarious, and it is a time when Egypt needs all the attention, and pressure for transparency, it can get.

On Wednesday, 11 days after Egyptians voted in their first referendum on amendments to the 1971 constitution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has held the lion's share of power in the country since the ouster of Mubarak, issued an ''Interim Constitutional Declaration'' (ICD). In an ironic twist, the referendum and the declarationpitted the old enemies - the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) - against the liberal youth movement.

The liberals were particularly disappointed by the ICD, pointing out that the declaration includes 80% of the old constitution, including ''an outdated socialist quota'' stipulating that half of the seats in the parliament are reserved for workers and farmers. A lot of ambiguity remained concerning when and by whom a more permanent constitution would be drafted, and what that would look like. ''Any modification or amendment of the current constitution will not achieve the aspirations of the people'' said Ayman Nour, one of the leaders of the youth movement and former presidential candidate, in a recent interview with AsharqAl-Awsat.

At this point, the ICD was not a major surprise: the declaration followed, with some additions, the amendments considered at the referendum. Tension has been brewing for some time now, and another leader of the liberals, Mohamed ElBaradei, was physically attacked by Islamists during the voting. The ''25 January Revolutionary Youth Coalition,'' including ElBaradei and Nour, largely voted ''No'' in the polls, over concerns that the changes were insufficient and would not allow enough time for the opposition to organize for the elections.

The amendments, which opened the way for parliamentary and presidential elections this summer, benefited unfairly already established parties such as the NDP and the MB, the liberals claimed. The ''25 January,'' on the other hand, considers itself a movement, and lacks grassroots party structures that are of vital importance in elections. It has threatened to organize a new ''million-man protest'' on Friday, April 8, if broad demands, including tougher measures against former Mubarak regime officials, are not met.

Previously, I projected that the army and the Muslim Brotherhood may prop up a secular democratic government with hopes of using it as a scapegoat when the economy takes a turn to the worse, the political reforms stagnate, and disillusionment sets in. [1] Despite the spike in tensions, this is still a possibility, and it is important to note that the three main presidential candidates so far, Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, are representatives of the liberal opposition. Moussa, who is Secretary General of the Arab League and a former Egyptian prime minister, is considered the front-runner in the still-informal race; his approach to the amendments has also been the more conciliatory than that of ElBaradei and Nour.

A government without a real power base is a disaster for democracy at a minimum, and most likely for the general well-being of society as well. The alternatives are not very good - or clear - either. Meanwhile, sectarian violence is soaring. Thirteen people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo on March 9, an incident that came on the heels of several deadly attacks against Copts (who make up at least 10% of Egypt's population) in the last months. More recently, on Sunday a group of terrorists attacked the Egypt-Israel natural gas pipeline for the second time in two months; the bomb they planted failed to explode.

Other worrisome internal developments include reports that women protesters were subjected to torture and humiliation by the army last month, including pseudo-scientific forced virginity tests. [2] Overall, Dina Guirguis' analysis, published by the Jerusalem Post, appears to capture the situation very well: ''In Egypt's transition, one step forward and two steps back.''

Egypt's recent foreign policy choices raise many questions as well. Most analysts have argued that Mubarak's ouster was beneficial for a more active Egyptian involvement in the region, and indeed there are signs of activity, but these are confusing and worrisome signs.Egypt announced that it would not interfere in Libya ''for reasons linked to our internal security and the large number of Egyptians present," but consistent reports are coming in that Cairo is deeply involved in supplying weapons to the rebels in Benghazi. Moreover, in the beginning of the Libya crisis the prestigious American think-tank Stratfor cited sources claiming that Egypt's special forces had repeatedly entered its western neighbor.

Meanwhile, at least prior to the unrest in Syria, a detente of sorts had started to take shape between Egypt, on the one hand, and Iran and Syria, on the other. According to a report in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Egypt's de facto ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, sent a letter to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad last month, expressing his hope ''to open a new page in the relations between Syria and Egypt on the basis of the ties that existed in the past and those we hope to maintain". Assad responded positively. Weeks earlier, in late February, two Iranian warships were permitted to pass through the Suez Canal, for the first time since 1979.

This development is confusing for several reasons: firstly, in light of the Libya crisis. There are indications that while the exchange of letters was going on, Syria assisted Gaddafi militarily whereas Egypt supported the rebels. The link suggests a double-game played by both. Unconfirmed reports claim that a major objective of Syria and Iran might have been the weapons stockpiles (perhaps including chemical weapons) that fell in the hands of the opposition and which they wanted for Hezbollah and Hamas. If this is true, it is uncertain what Egypt's role might have been.

Secondly, a warming of relations between Egypt, Syria, and Iran complicates things enormously for Israel. Egypt's rulers have repeatedly asserted that they intend to uphold the peace treaty with the Jewish State, but some have called for revisions. When violence between Israel and Gaza militants escalated last week, Egypt leaned forcefully on Israel not to respond harshly.

Simultaneously, however, Egypt pressured Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well. Gaza has enjoyed a relative easing of the blockade since Mubarak left, but for the militants there a detente between Egypt and Syria is not necessarily a good thing. Hamas had carved a niche for itself by playing, to a certain extent, Cairo and Damascus off of each other. Israel often plays the role of a wild card in this relationship. Last week's violence may well have had something to do with that. Stratfor speculates that it came about because ''certain Palestinian factions were making a concerted effort to provoke Israel into a military confrontation that could have seriously undermined the position of the military-led regime inEgypt and created a crisis in Egyptian-Israeli relations".

All this was further complicated by the unrest in Syria, which most likely will hurt relations with Egypt. A brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime would make it harder for Egypt's military rulers to support it. Moreover, some analysts have speculated that Assad aimed to divert the international attention away from the unrest in his country; and this would be atEgypt's and Israel's expense.

For Egypt, unrest in Syria also highlights its regional rivalry with Turkey. "Turkey is deeply concerned by the Syrian disturbances: Damascus has been the cornerstone of Ankara's ambitious Arab policy,'' Patrick Seale writes in Foreign Policy. ''Turkey's loss, however, may turn out to be Egypt's gain."

Turkey and Egypt are two major Muslim powers in the Mediterranean, and have historically competed for influence over the Arab and Muslim world. Some have speculated that their rivalry might lead them to intervene in other countries in the region that are experiencing unrest, and thus to step in for the United States whose influence is in decline. How exactly their relationship will develop is uncertain.

Independently from these other crises, Egypt is facing a challenge to its south. On Wednesday, Ethiopia announced plans to build a large dam on the Nile despite Egypt's andSudan's claims to most of the water of the river. The latter claims are based on treaties that date back to colonial times, and six upstream countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda Tanzania and Burundi - have for years called for these treaties to be revised. The dispute is particularly bitter in light of the severe water crisis that is plaguing the entire region, and, according to Reuters, there are ''concerns'' that it ''may spark a war".

Overall, Egypt is facing formidable challenges, both in its domestic and foreign policy. Elements of the old regime are deeply entrenched in all spheres of social life, and a genuine transition to democracy would require a high level of transparency and consensus-building in the political processes that is not currently happening. Internationally, too, Egypt is struggling to find its place in a region engulfed in turmoil, intrigues, and profiteering. While it could use some of the attention that helped topple its authoritarian former president, the world is looking the other way.

 More strife in store for Egypt, Asia Times Online, Mar 2, 2011. 2. Egyptian Women Protesters Forced to Take 'Virginity Tests', Amnesty International, Mar 23, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv. 

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