Ok, so what would you do?

A major theme  in the Egyptian press (which contrary to public perception in the US is actually pretty free)  is that the Government has “misplayed” its hand vis a vis Israel-Palestine.  The critique goes something like this:  

 “instead of sticking up for Arab interests, the government has supposedly “sold-out” to the US and Israel.  Or it doesn’t work hard enough to resist US-Zionist imperial designs on Palestine and if Mubarak had played his cards better, the Palestinians wouldn’t be in the sorry position they are now in Gaza.”     

Here’s a typical piece from an English-language Egyptian blogger called Baheya: 

Like many others, I’ve been watching in disbelief as the Egyptian government enables the Israeli destruction of Gaza. This time, Hosni Mubarak and his foreign policy muwazafeen have entirely thrown in their lot with Israel and the U.S., blaming Hamas, admitting that they can’t lift a finger without Israeli permission, and hoping that Israel will get the job done this time and extinguish Hamas once and for all. But as obscene and repugnant as his current stance is, Mubarak’s behaviour is of a piece with his foreign policy posture since he succeeded Sadat. That posture is based on a simple formula: “realism”, which translates into equating his interests with those of Israel and the United States, in exchange for scraps of economic rent; and revamped authoritarianism, which translates into repressing anyone who dares to challenge his realism and imagine alternatives…..

 In my view,  this  criticism is  based on the Egyptian tendency to wildly exaggerate their country’s influence in the international arena.  “Mother of the world” (as Egyptians call their country) may have been a regional power during the era of traditional Arab-Israel wars, but when that period ended (with Camp David), so did serious Egyptian influence over the peace process.  It was inevitable.  Egypt has no other cards to play besides the threat of war, being the largest Arab military.  Now, its a poor, drastically overpopulated third-world country.  Its not a case of Mubarak misplaying his cards, but of Egypt having very limited cards to play with in the first place. 

Its easy to write op-eds calling the government a sell-out but none of these critics provide an alternative.   I’m waiting for Egypt’s  arm-chair diplomatic corps  to provide any serious ideas about how they would play their cards differently, especially considering Hamas can’t bring itself to make basic commitments to negotiations and recognition of Israel,  instead of just lobbing insults at Mubarak and Co. 

UPDATE: For a good solid English-language defense of the Egyptian approach read this post by the former Egyptian ambassador to Washington.

UPDATE II:  Here’s the  transcript of a 1/13 Al-Jazeera ‘Whats Behind the News” debate between two Egyptian journalists from Al-Ahram, one supports the government policy and one opposes.  The supporter raises the key point:   as long as Hamas refuses to make clear it supports the peace process  and can’t bring itself to say its goal does not include the liberation of ALL of Palestine, it is NOT in Egypt’s interests to work with it. So how do Egypt’s critics of Mubarak’s policy respond to this point:   Why should Egypt work with a group that is advocating an approach that runs fundamentally counter to its interests?

3 Responses

  1. Couldn’t Egypt open up its Gaza border to humanitarian aid much more than it has been? That would render Israel’s blockade irrelevant.

  2. “Egypt has no other cards to play besides the threat of war, being the largest Arab military.”

    It does have serious influence over Gaza, though, and it has sort of monopolized the mediator role in Israel-Hamas negotiations, for whatever that is worth.

    That said, I agree with your main conclusion, about Egyptians wildly exaggerating their influence on the I/P conflict.

  3. Alle,
    No doubt it is a critical mediatior. But when one of the groups, Hamas, advocates an approach that fundamentally contradicts Egyptian state interests, what choice does the Egyptian government have?

    The state of Egypt can not suddenly abrogate 30 years of treaties to try a new approach that includes violent Resistance to Israel with no certainty of ever recognizing it.

    My problem with the criticis like Bayeha is that they dont at least acknowledge this point and present an alterantive. What would she do if she was in charge of egyptian diplomacy, keeping in mind 30 years of treaties which limit the approach Egypt can take? Her article, like most of the critics in the Egyptian press, doesnt even adress this point.

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