Sunday, October 26, 2014
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The Middle East Turmoil Trap

MADRID – Instability continues to spread in the Middle East, with the military coup in Egypt the latest episode to trigger political tremors throughout the region. With its 85 million people and strategically vital location, Egypt is the most important country on the Mediterranean’s southern shore. Continuing the democratization process that began there in 2011 is urgent.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist government, led by Mohamed Morsi, demonstrated all too well its incompetence and incapacity to ensure an inclusive democratic transition. But the solution offered by Egypt’s military is far from ideal. Coups always tend to exacerbate problems, not solve them, and this one is no exception.

The first consequence is that Egyptian society is even more divided over the question of political legitimacy. Morsi’s supporters cite the legitimacy of his victory in a democratic election a year ago – and the illegitimacy of the army’s coup and detention of the deposed president – while his opponents defend the legitimacy of the massive, countrywide protests against him.

The Muslim Brotherhood tried to go too far too fast. Its Islamist agenda put crucial state institutions – namely, the army and the judiciary – on edge and clashed with the liberal, modernizing demands of its opponents. The Tamarod movement, which organized the protests that led to Morsi’s ouster, celebrated the military’s decision to intervene.

That precedent is, without doubt, dangerous for a fledgling democracy. The Islamists must have representation in order to ensure that they do not renounce the ballot box as a means of pursuing their objectives.

Neither the Islamists nor the military can build a new regime against the will of a significant part of the population. Despite Morsi’s poor performance in office – a year in which he presided over grave economic deterioration – a solution that served the cause of national and regional stability would have been preferable.

Instead, the coup, coming just one year after the formation of an elected government – and just a few months after then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Morsi to mark the end of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – could give rise to great frustration among Islamists across the region. Indeed, the region’s geostrategic situation has changed again since the Clinton-Morsi meeting, and the response of both the United States and the European Union (for which the Mediterranean is crucial) has been late and erratic. It is not clear who are allies and who are not. The EU, in particular, should engage the region with clearer, more coordinated, and more effective policies.

Aside from the domestic situation, Egypt has another urgent problem. Egyptians depend on the Nile River, and Ethiopia has begun construction upstream of what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. The project is being pursued in the face of strong Egyptian objections – military intervention has been threatened – yet it continues apace. If the dam is built as planned, the volume of water flowing northward could be reduced by 20%, jeopardizing Egyptian agriculture and the livelihood of millions of people.

The coup in Egypt may have serious regional consequences as well. Syria remains mired in a bloody civil war that has already caused more than 100,000 deaths. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has celebrated the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government, and is seeking to use Morsi’s failures and removal as justification for repression at home, making it even more difficult to find a political solution that would end the fighting.

The Syrian opposition, a crucible of widely different groups and currents – including Al Qaeda – will most likely become even more radical following Morsi’s ouster. For Hamas, strongly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the coup means losing Egypt’s support, which also implies that Israel is one of the countries that stand to benefit the most from the coup.

Qatar, which had been Morsi’s main protector (by offering a large credit line) and is in the midst of its own political transition, has remained detached from Egypt’s turmoil. The rift between the Gulf monarchies is becoming ever clearer, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates quick to finance the post-coup government.

Turkey, which had often proclaimed its Islamist democratic model as a goal for other Muslim-majority countries seeking democratic change, has also lost out as a result of the coup in Egypt. Turkish foreign policy had sought to create a regional order, with the participation of other Sunni Islamic regimes, in accordance with the country’s interests. Egypt was clearly the most important part of this strategy, and its political instability has raised questions not only about Turkey’s political model, but also about the security of its economic interests.

The future of Iran is another matter of great regional importance that remains unresolved, postponed until the new president, Hassan Rowhani, takes office. It is hardly encouraging that there has not been any serious gesture toward the country from the US or the EU since Rowhani’s election victory in June.

In short, the Middle East is sinking into deeper turmoil, and we are farther away from finding a solution in Syria, Egypt, and other key sources of regional instability. There is much handwringing, but too little serious thought about how to strengthen the region’s security, economy, and social model.

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  1. CommentedJohn Doe

    when is is demonstrated that Islam has tolerance for minority rights . . .

    well I'm not going to hold my breath

  2. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Promoting stability in Egypt seems prerequisite to establishing a broader stability across the region.

    Future stability, unlike the autocratic stability of the past, would seem to rest on the gradual establishment of working pluralistic and representative governing institutions, first in Egypt and then later hopefully in other countries.

    Future stability can probably only be sustained by democratic stability. But first the democratic part has to be launched successfully.

    Too many American policy "prescriptors" are urging too many elections too soon for this region. A gradual process must be designed and encouraged.

    If you want to fix Egypt, you might start with the Cairo city council.

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