RubinReports | By Barry Rubin
Egypt will hold its presidential election May 23-24 with a possible run-off on June 16-17. It is impossible at this point to predict what’s going to happen but I can make a good guess. Eight weeks from now Egypt will be led by either a radical anti-American Islamist who wants to wipe Israel off the map or by a radical anti-American nationalist who just hates Israel passionately.
Let’s review the background and then analyze the likely events to come.
Since Egypt’s revolution began a year ago five propositions have monopolized the Western debate and coverage, all of which were wrong:
— That Egypt was going to become a real democratic state in which human rights and civil liberties would be respected.
— That this state would be dominated by moderate and modernist secular groups.
— That the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate and a bulwark against the really radical Islamists.
— That the army is simultaneously the main enemy of democracy in Egypt that should be opposed and yet also the force that would keep Egypt stable and pro-Western.
— That the new Egypt would remain an ally of the United States and at peace with Israel.
Only the second has been reluctantly dropped by governments and mass media. All the others are still in place today! Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the substitute moderate democratic hope. This blindness ignores all the daily evidence to the contrary.
The “moderate democratic” forces up until now have defined the military as their main enemy. Perhaps they still do so. But they also woke up to realize that a constitution written by a vast majority of Islamists wouldn’t be a great thing for them. So they followed the classical Arab mistake of boycotting the constitution-writing process, thus ensuring that the Islamists will have even more power.
Two Islamist candidates — the Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater and the Salafists’ Hazem Salah Abu Ismail — and one secularist — Omar Suleiman — have been disqualified. The Brotherhood simply substituted Muhammad Mursi, leader of its Freedom and Justice Party, for al-Shater, who returned to his job as deputy head of the Brotherhood. Morsy told a news conference, “We intend to make the Palestinian issue our main issue.”
The other main candidate is the radical nationalist Amr Moussa. His stances have varied depending on whether he thought he could hope for the Brotherhood’s backing. Since his main rival is the Brotherhood-backed Morsy, Amr Moussa is in a relatively anti-Islamist phase. And that’s not to say that Moussa, albeit the lesser of two evils, is any great prize, though he is certainly preferable.
There are now a total of 23 candidates though it is possible there will be a few more before registration closes April 26. Aside from Mursi and Moussa they include two other Islamists, three moderates, and a leftist.
In all of this, there is a hugely important point that’s been generally missed: Unlike the Brotherhood, the radical Salafists have not yet produced an alternative candidate. A lot of its members are endorsing Mursi. Now the Salafist al-Nur party has genuine differences with the Brotherhood, tough more over timing and the desire for power than anything substantive. Still, al-Nur may be splitting over the party’s support for Mursi. But if the dissidents don’t have a candidate at all, who will the 25 percent of al-Nur’s supporters in the parliamentary ballot support?
In theory, then, Mursi can depend on 75 percent of the electorate — the Brotherhood and al-Nur voters — based on the parliamentary vote! He won’t get that many because a lot of those who voted for Islamists may want some balance in the government or just happen to like Moussa, whose anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israel credentials are strong.
Still, will enough switch to Moussa to tilt the balance? Moreover, in a run-off between Mursi and Moussa, the former should be able to depend on stronger support from any al-Nur supporters who are ambiguous about how they will vote in the first round.
So nobody can predict the victor. Still, overall, one might better assume that Egypt is going to have an Islamist president and parliament just eight weeks from now, to be followed by an Islamist constitution.
As far as I can tell — and amazing as this might seem — there has been no preparation in the West for such an outcome. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed we can read:
“What is poorly understood in the West is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of their countries. As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region.”
Of course, there is a grain of truth in what Ruel Gerecht said in his op-ed. If Islamists weren’t allowed to participate there couldn’t be fair elections. And if they do participate and win, one can call the resulting system democracy.
Yet does this mean that “fundamentalists” will make the region more democratic and liberal! The moral status of these countries will rise — assuming your definition of morality is the Islamists’ interpretation of Islam — and the countries will have “rejuvenation.” Rejuvenation means to grow young again and these countries will surely be about 1000 years younger for sure.
Here’s my favorite quote on the wonderfulness of the situation in Egypt and it comes from the Guardian, Britain’s left-wing, pro-Islamist, and periodically antisemitic newspaper which is still favored by the intelligentsia there:
“Egypt’s presidential election is suddenly a contest of moderates after a decision by the country’s supreme election commission to bar 10 candidates from the race….”
So that refers to a nationalist wild man demagogue who was the hero of an Egyptian pop song entitled, “I hate Israel” or a Muslim Brotherhood leader dedicated to expelling the West from the Middle East and destroying Israel.
Imagine an Egypt committed to wiping out Israel and antisemitism; to suppressing women and Christians; to an irresponsible populist economic approach that will run the country into the ground but keep the people happy with demagoguery and dictatorship.
Oh, by the way, the Egyptians have now said they will not sell natural gas any more to Israel. The pipeline that had been providing 40-50 percent of Israel’s natural gas and has been attacked numerous times by Islamist attackers in Sinai, will be closed permanently. The $460 million invested in the pipeline project, mostly by Israeli, is gone forever, plus Israel will have to find a substitute source until its own offshore wells come online.
While this is supposedly a commercial decision, it is obviously a response to public pressure and the sabotage campaign that the Egyptian government doesn’t care enough to stop. The New York Times dishonestly reported that the issue is just a “payment dispute.” Well, let’s see. Natural gas wasn’t delivered most of the time so Israel didn’t pay. Egyptian leaders and media said the gas shouldn’t be sold to an enemy and that to do so was treason. Sounds like a threat to those operating the natural gas industry there. The pipeline was attacked almost a dozen times and put out of commission without a major effort by Egypt’s army to defend this national economic asset. And they also demanded that Israel pay more than had been agreed, thus violating the contract. But by the time the Times’ article finishes the problem is made to sound as if it is all Israel’s fault. Just wait until Egypt escalates anti-Israel actions and the Times blames Israel for those also.
There are two important lessons here. First, any commitment made to Israel by an Arab partner is easily deemed invalid by the latter (and that would include any potential Israel-Palestinian peace treaty). The United States may soon have the same experience in Egypt. Second, while a key Egyptian complaint has been that they wanted higher prices, Egypt will now lose the income from the pipeline, make investors reluctant from fear that their deals might also go up in smoke, and the country will be materially worse-off.
Ideology trumps economics because the difference can be made up through ideological zeal, repression, stirring up xenophobic hatred, and foreign adventures. Those are the things coming after a transfer of power is made in Egypt.
A lot of people are astonished that I say Egypt, not Iran, is the big problem that is going to shake up the Middle East this year. Yet Tehran is still a ways from getting nuclear weapons and U.S. policy, along with Europe, is content to let Iran stall for time. In Egypt, the West has no control over the pace of events.
This is a world-class crisis in the making. Since this is the centennial of the Titanic, we could say that Egypt is a rather big iceberg that is about to collide with the smug captains of the West.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, “Israel: An Introduction“, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include “The Israel-Arab Reader” (seventh edition), “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East” (Wiley), and “The Truth About Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.