February 17, 2011 | NOW Lebanon

The Army’s Regime

When commenting on Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, President Obama spoke about the Egyptian people’s “hunger for change,” which “bent the arc of history toward justice.” Perhaps. But for now, Egypt’s military will continue to run the show. The feel-good references to the American civil rights movement mask a worrying uncertainty over how the policies upheld by Egypt for the last three decades might now change, profoundly impacting US interests. While most observers are focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood as the agent of such potential change, it is the Egyptian military, and the course it decides to chart, that will be of the utmost consequence.

It was interesting to see how Western jubilation over the Egyptian revolution was shared – albeit for very different reasons – by the Iranian alliance system. The so-called “Resistance Axis” painted the events in Egypt and President Mubarak’s resignation with the brush of Egypt’s return as a “confrontation state,” joining in “resistance” against Israel.

At the Hezbollah-organized festival of “Egyptian Arabism and the path of Resistance,” the tone was delirious as self-professed resisters and rejectionists began discussing the reopening of the “southern front,” and calling on Egypt to “follow the model of the Resistance” and restore its leadership position in the “nationalist jihad” against Israel.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had called on the Egyptian military to join the people in embracing Resistance during the 2009 war in Gaza. This was in line with the Iranian doctrine of distinguishing between the region’s peoples and regimes, painting the former as natural and willing supporters of resistance, hindered only by oppressive pro-Western governments.

Of course, despite Mubarak’s departure, there has been no actual regime change in Egypt. The system has been dominated by the military for decades and looks poised to remain so. Therefore, the notion that, merely as a result of Mubarak’s resignation, the Egyptian military is on the verge of embracing the people’s allegedly natural resistance ethos, is overstated.

All propaganda aside, however, one must still seriously consider what the posture of the new Egyptian government will be toward its relationship with Israel – a main pillar of the US order in the eastern Mediterranean.

While most observers have framed this issue in terms of the possible rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the real question is how the military itself will come to view what everyone had heretofore believed it regarded as being its own fundamental interest. Specifically, will the military regime see a value in revising the policy it has upheld for the last 30 years, and if so, in what way?

There’s room for some speculation. The scenario of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated (or -penetrated) regime aligning with the pro-Iranian camp and revoking the peace treaty with Israel may not be the likeliest to come to pass. One can conjure several arguments for why that is the case. For instance, the deep regional divisions and rivalries are likely to kick in, and Egypt, seeking to preserve a leadership role in the Arab world, would not wish to play a supporting role in Iran’s production, à la Syria. And so, the Egyptians will likely not turn around all of a sudden and welcome Hezbollah and Iranian arms-smuggling cells on their soil.

But just as the inherent regional rivalries impose limits, they also raise the point of how the military will go about managing them in order to press Egypt’s prestige and project influence.

A key question is the value the military will now assign to maintaining the peace treaty, at least in the way it had up to this point.

It’s probably safe to say that the military is unlikely to abandon the peace treaty. However, thanks to the way the Obama administration handled the situation, it may now decide that its price has gone up. One way to recalibrate the bill could be through controlled proxy violence – the tried-and-true tactic of Arab regimes – and through reviewing Cairo’s Hamas policy, if only to refresh the Obama administration’s memory about the value of an ally that kept the peace for three decades, and pursued shared objectives with the US.

More broadly, and again as a result of the Obama White House’s mistakes, the Egyptian military might chart out a more independent strategy, signaling that they can no longer be taken for granted. And so, rather than fall in Iran’s orbit, Egypt could decide to pull a Turkey and exhibit ever-increasing triangulation, freelancing and disregard for US priorities, thereby making cooperation much more difficult – and much more costly.

US influence and prestige have been badly battered during this episode, due in large part to the administration’s poor performance. The US will now have to scramble to ensure that its key strategic interests continue to be shared by the Egyptian military, and that its regional security architecture isn’t bent beyond repair. For the Iranian camp too is hungry for change.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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