- April 21, 2009
Egypt, Iran, the United States: All politics is local
After several years in which Egypt seemed to have ceded the mantle of Arab leadership to Saudi Arabia (and even to small states such as Qatar), the octogenarian Husni Mubarak has become reenergized in the last few months. He came out swinging against Hezbollah last week, charging the Lebanese group with efforts to destabilize Egypt via terrorist attacks. He has pressed harder recently for a deal in Fatah-Hamas talks (see this article by Khaled Hroub in the Arab Reform Bulletin for more on the struggle between Egypt and Hamas). He took a forceful position in the Gaza crisis, despite deep opposition in Egypt and throughout the region.
What has changed? Has the Iranian threat to Egyptian interests finally become clear to Mubarak? Mubarak has lashed out at Hezbollah leader Nasrallah several times in the last few years, and perhaps views the current episode as a way to expose the dangers Hezbollah presents—and to get back at Nasrallah for his calls to Egyptians to rise up against Mubarak during the recent Gaza affair. Regarding the Iranian dimension, Mubarak has always been strongly suspicious of the Islamic Republic. Just last year he rebuffed the latest of repeated attempts by Iran to reestablish diplomatic relations, broken 30 years ago.
While Iran is a continuing worry, what seems to be motivating Mubarak now are two interests—one in foreign policy, one domestic—that are closely related. Mubarak’s renewed assertiveness suggests that he views the advent of the Obama administration as an opportunity to reestablish his worth as a U.S. ally. By serving as the principal channel to Hamas, Mubarak has placed Egypt at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, important to the Obama administration. And by taking on Hezbollah strongly, he has placed Egypt squarely on the correct side of the regional divide between allies of Iran and allies of the United States.
The curious thing, however, is that Mubarak does not really need to try this hard. The Obama administration came into office focused on rebuilding relationships that were tested by the policy disagreements and freedom agenda of the Bush era, and already has given signals of friendly intentions toward Cairo.
This brings us to the domestic Egyptian dimension of what Mubarak is up to. The next two years promise to be interesting and challenging ones in Egyptian politics. In autumn 2010 there will be parliamentary elections, which are likely to be at least as controversial as those of 2005 (in which the Muslim Brotherhood won over 20 percent of seats, in spite of government interference). In September 2011, Mubarak’s current presidential term finishes, and (assuming he is still with us) the 83-year-old president will have to decide whether to run again for another six-year term, step aside and encourage his son Gamal to run, or step aside and encourage someone else (perhaps a military or security figure) to run. What those three options have in common is that all will be deeply unpopular with the Egyptian public, because there is no expectation that the election will be freely contested.
While there is no reason to expect that opposition in Egypt will be strong enough to force Mubarak’s hand regarding presidential succession, it certainly would be helpful to him to have unambiguous U.S. support for whichever course he chooses. Also, keeping the Muslim Brotherhood cowed and defensive (whether through direct measures against the group or against its regional allies and ideological bedfellows) helps Mubarak clear the decks for whatever he plans to do. Playing the regional power game has its value, but keeping hold of power at home is the bottom line.