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The Egyptian Intrigue

January 31, 2011 by  
Filed under Analysis, foreign policy

Until 25 January 2010 we gave little attention to Egypt while attempting to see through the events in Tunisia and then Yemen. While we guaged the general drift of the “revolutions” against the established petro led autonomous monarchies, there was a lot we dod not know. Unravelling some of these mysteries through Huffington Post and other media houses including Twitter explains the ramifications of what is going on in the Arab world.

Quick Recap

Established in 3100 B.C., Egypt today has a population of approximately 79 million. Its people speak Arabic and 99% are Egyptian. The country staged its first modern revolution in 1919 and established independence in 1922. Continued instability due to remaining British influence led to a second revolution in 1952 and the creation of the Egyptian Republican in 1953.

The Current Facts

First off, Egypt is the most populous Arab country with the strong financial and political backing of the U.S. On its own accord, courtesy its own powerful influence, Egypt is a major power broker in the Middle East. As the Economist puts it, “With its strategic situation, its cultural influence and a population double that of any other Arab country, Egypt has for three decades now been the linchpin of a precarious but enduring regional Pax Americana.” If Egypt were to fall into chaos, not only the nation, but also the region, would be deeply affected.

Secondly, Egypt has been a key ally for the U.S. in the region since the 1970′s, and is currently the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (after Israel). TheObama administration — from Joe Biden, who refused to call Mubarak a dictator, to Obama himself, who emphasized Egypt’s role as an ally — has been loathe to fully distance itself from Mubarak, and finds itself in a difficult position, as per the Atlantic.

Third, Egypt has served as a key arbitrator in the Israel-Palestine peace process. As one of the few Arab interlocutors in the region, the Mubarak regime has been a powerful go between. According to the Voice Of America, “Israel is extremely concerned about the situation in Egypt because President Hosni Mubarak has preserved the peace treaty between the two countries for 30 years. Israel considers the treaty a strategic asset, and it fears that a regime change in Egypt could put the peace agreement in danger.”

Fourth, the current protests are not being organized or dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s powerful Islamist opposition group. However, the BBC reports that there are fears that given a power vacuum created by the removal of Mubarak, these forces could try to step in and exert control. According to the BBC, “[The Muslin Brotherhood] are not in front. They are trying to catch up. But the situation is volatile. New leaders – nationalist or Islamist, civilian or military – could emerge if the country is engulfed in chaos.”

Fifth, the protestors have said that they were inspired by the successful revolution in Tunisia, which ousted authoritarian President Ben Ali. Since the protests began, there have been similar protests in Yemen, and Jordan has been mentioned as another possible target for popular protests. If Egypt were to fall, it could give momentum to popular uprisings throughout the region. According to Foreign Policy, there are many young, angry Arab populations ready to protest: “The unhappy youth in Tunisia are not alone in the Arab world. On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the pavement in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in a generation. Other crowds have shaken the streets of Sanaa, Algiers, and Amman. And rather than the Arab world’s usual suspects — bearded Islamists or jaded leftists — it is young people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity available to them, who are risking their lives going up against police forces.”

Sixth, since the protests began, Egypt’s stock market has plummeted, and nearby Saudi Arabia’s stock index dropped 6 percent on Saturday, reports the AP. Additionally, oil prices have already jumped due to fears over access to the Suez Canalreports Forbes.

Anti Americanism to the fore

The logic of U.S.-Middle East policy has run into the hard realities of political alienation, limited economic opportunities, and raw anger at the corruption and arrogance of Washington’s allies. When the dust settles Egyptians will be taking stock of the Mubarak period and the relationship with Washington is not likely to be a bright spot.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most organized opposition group and one that does not share Mubarak’s moderate, pro-U.S. agenda or approve of relations with Israel, may be best poised to fill a power vacuum. This calls for a drawing a parallel with Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Although Iran’s was a Shiite revolt and Egypt is predominantly Sunni, there are similarities. Iran in the 1970s, like present-day Egypt, was a major U.S. ally whose support of American goals was criticized. If “void” as per Clinton is allowed to surface the consequences may be dangerous for the West.

“We do not want to see a change toward a regime that would actually continue to foment violence or chaos, either because it didn’t exist or because it had a different view that it wished to impose on Egypt.” “We also don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy, but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” she has said without calling upon Mubarak to step down.

Egypt’s society is a deeply Muslim one, and the very success of this non-political religious project has negated the need for a confrontational Islam. Egyptians know their religious identity is not under threat. ElBaradei, for example, joined in Friday prayers before going out into the streets. Whether Egyptians identify with political Islam or secular democracy, their Arabness and Islam tend to be mutually supportive, and certainly not incompatible.

Where there is a danger is that if the United States does not come out explicitly in favor of the people, subsequent events will become more confrontational, and may even see the introduction of a more cultural and civilizational rhetoric. The Shah monopolized power and sought to erase a culture. Mubarak, for all his brutality, has had no such grandiose presumption.

Steven A Cook’s assertions appear right when he argues that “the natural inclination in Washington will be to seek some way to influence the process of change so that it is less damaging to U.S. interests. Forget it. There is nothing Washington can do. Change is coming to the Arab world because of its own internal problems and contradictions. Arabs are writing their own narrative and Washington would do well to make a strong statement in favor of the democratic aspiration of the people and then back off. Washington should expend its diplomatic efforts accommodating itself to the realities of a changed Middle East, not trying to change it.”

Ramifications for India

India and Egypt share a 2500-year old diplomatic relationship. The Nehru – Nasser relations were instrumental in creating the Non Alignment Movement. Through decades the two countries have worked to improve the South South relations. In 2007, in recognition of India’s growing role as an industrial and economic power, Egypt  allowed India to set up an “India Zone” along the Suez Canal development area. This was to create an India-specific industrial corridor for collaboration with Egyptian companies to capture the European and African markets. The Indo Egyptian trade then stood at $30 billion, including investments in the oil and gas sectors, automobiles, and major presence in the IT sector. Expansion of economic engagement and partnership and work on greater synergy in third world initiatives, was part of the bilateral agenda for sustaining mutual growth.

Major Egyptian exports to India include raw cotton, raw and manufactured fertilizers, oil and oil products, organic and non-organic chemicals, leather and iron products. Major imports into Egypt from India are cotton yarn, sesame, coffee, herbs, tobacco, lentils, pharmaceutical products and transport equipment. The Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum is also currently negotiating the establishment of a natural gas-operated fertilizer plant with another Indian company. In 2004 the Gas Authority of India Limited, bought 15% of Egypt Nat Gas distribution and marketing company.

President Mubarak of Egypt visited India in 2008. During the visit he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  India supported the sovereignty of Egyptian borders, against the Sudanese.

Egypt exports to India primarily include oil and gas. Both countries however seem inclined towards renewable energy sources. India at present produces 8% of its energy from renewable sources and hopefully, in the future it’s aspiring to achieve 20%.  Egypt too shares the same vision as India.  Going forward, the two countries might work together in the energy domain. Both countries are even looking forward to work together on Egypt’s nuclear aspirations. There are no confirmed figures available to the author but the trade between the two countries is pegged at $ 3 Billion as of 2010 figures.

Cultural ties between the two nations have always been on a high. Egypt has always stood for Indian cause to the Arab world

Will all this change?

The first and the most plausible scenario is takeover by a non radical group. If this happens the relations between the two countries are not likely to suffer unduly.

Second scenario represents a bloody takeover by fundamental forces under the Muslim Brotherhood or other hard line groups. This would have serious repercussions on the relations and the trade and transit arrangement between the two countries might come under strain. Deobandis have already raised a call for the voice of Islam to prevail over the Arab World. More radical groups are likely to support this call. If a void is created by a prolonged struggle for the change of regime,  political Islam will gain the upper hand. These would be the same voices which condemned US invasion of Iraq.

Third, there may be a ” in between” scenarios where the moderate voices may allow the colours of Political Islam to flavour the scenario by a mix of the two. However, here, the voices for a secular democracy may appear on the horizon permitting Egypt to continue as the moderate face of Islam with greater focus on employment and economy. This would be the most appropriate outcome for the world and the people of the Arab World.

India has to balance its act by supporting the pro democracy movement in keeping with the aspirations of the people of Egypt and count on a positive change sweeping the Arab world rather than sitting on the fence. It is time to support the Egyptian call of , ““Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.”


2 Responses to “The Egyptian Intrigue”
  1. D Khara says:

    The Indian Diplomacy will move through the cautious approach and dither till the camel sits the wrong way. The time to support democratic forces is now lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of the fence. Just this once let us espouse the right cause.

  2. Team SAI says:

    Stratfor’s options on 1 February

    There are four outcomes possible. First, the regime might survive. Mubarak might stabilize the situation, or more likely, another senior military official would replace him after a decent interval. Another possibility under the scenario of the regime’s survival is that there may be a coup of the colonels, as we discussed yesterday. A second possibility is that the demonstrators might force elections in which ElBaradei or someone like him could be elected and Egypt might overthrow the statist model built by Nasser and proceed on the path of democracy. The third possibility is that the demonstrators force elections, which the Muslim Brotherhood could win and move forward with an Islamist-oriented agenda. The fourth possibility is that Egypt will sink into political chaos. The most likely path to this would be elections that result in political gridlock in which a viable candidate cannot be elected. If I were forced to choose, I would bet on the regime stabilizing itself and Mubarak leaving because of the relative weakness and division of the demonstrators. But that’s a guess and not a forecast.

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