Taking sides in the Battle of the Nile

This Friday, people power in Egypt will face its ultimate test. After a week of euphoria, intimidation and careful government wooing, it will be seen whether the opposition supporters still have the grit and emotion to do the kind of rally we saw last Friday.

That’s beyond my ability to predict, but I think it’s worth noting who overseas has come out in favour of the Mubarak regime and who has not – and why. The way different government have divided is not as clear cut as one would expect.

For example, the United States and Israel, two otherwise closely allied democracies, have come out on opposite sides. Jerusalem has even criticized Washington for being prepared to dump Hosni Mubarak. There are other seeming contradictions. The Palestinian Authority, one of the few democratically elected Arab governments however weak and parlous, is also backing the Egyptian dictator. Semi-repressive Iran and democratic Turkey have come out on the same side – in support of the demonstrators.

What is driving this jigsaw breakup?
It isn’t really about democracy vs dictatorship. I would argue it’s really about status quo versus change and which of these states a government sees is in its interest.

So who would prefer Mubarak or at least see his continuation as a lesser evil?

Consider these two examples.
Israel, because they fear the peace agreement with Egypt may be endangered by a government that would include the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood (for the record, the Palestinian branch of the Brothers is Hamas). That’s big for them, so best stay with Mubarak.

Saudi Arabia, for completely different reasons, is in the same boat. Mubarak has been their main Sunni Arab ally in their geopolitical balancing game against Shia Iran. Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been the key members of the coalition that opposes Iran’s attempts to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world stretching from Morocco to Muscat. Mubarak clearly took this line. It’s not clear a fragmented opposition government would follow his lead.

And who would prefer that Mohamed ElBaradei and his coalition of 30 or so parties rule?
The United States would even though Mubarak has been a loyal and steadfast ally. Why? The answer I would argue is the neoconservative legacy – a belief that democracy is the best solution to the militancy and terrorism leaking out of the Arab Muslim world. The Bush administration wanted to implement this by military means. The Democrats, it seems, don’t disagree with the neocon diagnosis, just the prescription. Invasion no, but supporting an indigenous democratic movement yes.

Turkey and Iran are interesting. Traditionally, the Sunni Arab world would hold these two countries, ethnically different and in Iran’s case religiously apart, in grave suspicion. But the Arab angst has been such that both have made viable bids to be leaders of the Arab Street.

To some degree, both are happy with Mubarak staying in power. His decrepit and corrupt regime has ensured that Egypt cannot assert its historical role as the natural leader of the Arab world, helping leave the door open for them.

So why have they agreed to support the revolt?
I think they believe, as do most governments, that Mubarak is finished. If they want to continue wooing the Arab Street they need to be seen as being on the side of the street-dwellers. Back the winners (something influencing US policy as well). In any case, any new government will take a decade to stabilize so Egypt will not pose a challenge for sometime.

In the long run, however, I believe they are wrong. If democracy does come to Egypt and spreads elsewhere, the Arab world could well awaken from its half-century of torpor. If so, both Turkey and Iran will find their bids for leadership running into the sand. But that will be decades away, if at all. How a country perceives its stakes in Egypt actually tells you quite a bit about that government’s worldview. How much, for example, it can feel it can gamble on the future and how much it prefers to not rock the ship of state in any way.

India doesn’t really have a dog in this fight. But Mubarak never won many points with New Delhi. Under him, Egypt often positioned itself against India in multilateral fora, especially when it came to nuclear and UN reform issues. Its not necessarily true that his successors would be any better, but for New Delhi change is worth a gamble.

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