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The Struggle for Middle East Mastery

BERLIN – The last illusions about what was called, until recently, the “Arab Spring” may have vanished. Egypt’s military coup has made the simple, depressing alternatives for the country’s future crystal clear: The question is no longer one of democracy versus dictatorship, but rather one of (Islamist) revolution versus (military) counter-revolution – dictatorship or dictatorship.

This applies not only to Egypt, but to almost all of the wider Middle East. And, because both sides have opted for armed struggle, the outcome will be civil war, regardless of what well-intentioned European Union foreign ministers decide in Brussels. The Islamists cannot win militarily, just as the generals cannot win politically, which all but ensures the return of dictatorship, significant violence, and a series of humanitarian disasters.

For both sides, full mastery and control is the only option, though neither has even a rudimentary understanding of how to modernize the economy and society. So, whichever side gains the upper hand, authoritarianism and economic stagnation will prevail once again.

In Egypt, the army will be the victor, at least in the medium term. With the support of old elites, the urban middle class, and religious minorities, Egypt’s military leaders have clearly adopted an all-or-nothing strategy. Moreover, financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states has made the army impervious to outside pressure.

Thus, Egypt is reenacting the Algerian scenario. In 1992, with the Islamic Salvation Front poised to win Algeria’s general election, the country’s military staged a coup and immediately canceled the election’s second round. In the subsequent eight-year civil war, waged with appalling brutality by both sides, up to 200,000 people lost their lives.

Military rule in Algeria continues de facto to this day. But, with the role of political Islam still unanswered, none of the country’s fundamental problems has been addressed seriously, and its leaders have been unable to take advantage of promising opportunities (for example, in contrast to Egypt, Algeria has large oil and gas reserves).

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s older generation is accustomed to prison and life underground, but there are many reasons to believe that its younger adherents will respond with terror and violence. Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and soon perhaps other countries in the region will serve as fertile grounds for a new, more militarily oriented Al Qaeda, which will become a more powerful factor in the Middle East’s cacophony of interests and ideologies.

The West in general, and the United States in particular, has little influence or real leverage. So it will complain, threaten, and deplore the horrors to come, but ultimately will follow its interests, not its principles. For example, Egypt, with its control of the Suez Canal and its cold peace with Israel, is too important strategically to be simply abandoned.

Taken in isolation, the Egyptian situation is bad enough; but it is by no means a unique case. Rather, it is part of a regional drama characterized primarily by a massive loss of order. The US-backed order in the Middle East is breaking down, yet no new order is emerging. Instead, there is only a spreading chaos that threatens to reach far beyond the region’s borders.

Following the spectacular failure of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, with their neoconservative go-it-alone illusions, the US is no longer willing or able to shoulder the burden of being the last force for order in the Middle East. Having overstretched its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and facing economic retrenchment at home, the US is withdrawing, and there is no other power to take its place.

Withdrawal is one of the riskiest military maneuvers, because it can easily degenerate into panicky retreat and chaos. With the upcoming withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan, the potential for turmoil in the region between North Africa and the Hindu Kush will increase significantly on its eastern edge.

What we can learn today from the prolonged crisis in the Middle East is that regional powers are increasingly trying to replace the US as a force for order. This, too, will fuel chaos, because none of these powers is strong enough to shoulder the American burden. Moreover, the Sunni-Shia divide frequently leads to contradictory policies. In Egypt, for example, Saudi Arabia is supporting the military against the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas in Syria the Saudis are backing Salafists against the military, which receives support from Saudi Arabia’s main enemies, Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

But the region’s struggle for power and its sectarian-ideological antagonisms also create an opportunity for cooperation once scarcely thought possible. Seen from this perspective, any US-Iranian talks over the nuclear issue in the wake of Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election could have much broader significance.

In Egypt, the military counter-revolution will prevail, but the Islamist revolution eventually will return as long as its causes have not been eliminated. At the moment, there is virtually no indication of progress on this front. So, when the Islamist revolution does return, it is likely to be even more powerful and violent.

A similar dynamic is evident in European history, particularly in the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, the legacy of that dynamic was fully overcome in Europe only two decades ago. Now it seems to be recurring, largely unchanged, in the Middle East.