14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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After peace, there's still a chanceBy Osama El-Ghazali Harb
President Sadat's visit to Israel in November 1977 initiated the peace process and determined the role Egypt was to play. From the Arab perspective, Egypt maintained a virtually identical position throughout the '70s and '80s. The mobilisation of political and military forces for the liberation of Kuwait after its invasion by Iraq, however, drew other Arab parties into the peace process, eventually leading to the Madrid Conference in 1990. By virtue of the role it played in addressing Iraq's assault on Kuwait, Egypt's influence increased further during the latter stage of the peace process, when other parties -- namely Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon -- became involved. Egypt was involved not only on the bilateral and multilateral levels, but in a consistently effective and dynamic way. Its current efforts to reach a settlement on the Palestinian-Israeli track, or its position on the Syrian-Israeli talks and the developments on the Lebanese scene, need no further elaboration.
Now that a comprehensive settlement appears inevitable, we must ask ourselves what role Egypt will play when peace becomes reality. First, we must distinguish between the Arab-Israeli conflict and peace-making efforts, on one hand, and the Egyptian role at the regional and international levels in general on the other. Egypt's role on the regional and international levels is widely recognised, and is wider in scope than its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt was indisputably well qualified to play its outstanding role in the settlement. Still, its influence may have given the impression that Egypt's regional and international leverage is confined to the peace process, and that it would therefore be marginalised once the peace settlement is concluded. This impression is wrong.
Nasser defined Egypt's international role in the mid-20th century. For him, Egypt had both Arab-African and Islamic-"Southern" (in the Non-Aligned Movement) roles. In the past five decades, its played its various roles with varying degrees of intensity, depending on both its ability to mobilise and fluctuations in the regional and international environment. While Nasser succeeded in enhancing the country's Arab role and gearing its efforts to lead the Third World under the banners of positive neutrality and non-alignment, the 1967 defeat devastated the country. In fact, it nearly destroyed Egypt's Arab role. Sadat succeeded in restoring Egypt's credibility, but his adventurous visit to Israel made it possible for critics to undermine Egypt's Arab presence for a time.
Under Mubarak, Egypt undertook to recover its position in the Arab world, and to reinforce its fundamental role in peace-building in the Middle East. This role is defined by two decisive elements. First, its domestic achievements in the economic, political and military fields, and its ability to reap the dividends of peace. Egypt's role will benefit from its ability to advance on the path of economic reform, attract foreign capital and improve its production of commodities and services to competitive levels on world markets. For this to come about, the country must also advance along the path to democratisation, political partnership and respect for human rights. These achievements must be combined with a strong, modern military force capable of supporting and guaranteeing peace.
The second element relates to the international system prevailing during the post-peace stage. It may be difficult today to envisage the emergence of another world power to challenge the US's position. Globalism may be the most conspicuous, but it is certainly not the only feature of the new environment. In the context of the new international system taking shape, Egypt is expected to reformulate inter-Arab relations, on one hand, and relations between Arabs and their Middle Eastern neighbours, on the other, after half a century of conflict. Such consolidation is in keeping with the role it played at the end of the 20th century. The challenge here is to ensure that coordination on the regional and Middle Eastern levels will not undermine collective Arab action, or the dream of Arab unity. Middle Eastern coordination must be twofold: political and security, being the logical and realistic basis for any projects or approaches towards "economic cooperation." At the Arab level, prospects are open, but the effects of the Gulf crisis must be eliminated before coordination can be effective.
The second perspective is primarily economic, as envisaged in the context of the South. The objective of such a role is to reinforce cooperation among developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and to formulate more equitable relations with the developed countries of the North. Such a role must also be envisaged as a logical extension of Egypt's Third World leadership, in a context of non-alignment remodeled to accommodate the shift in the international system from an East/West (ideological) to a North/South (economic) system.
A third perspective is cultural and civilisational. Egypt is compelled to minimise conflict between cultures and civilisations (the necessary partner of globalisation and the communications and information revolution). Converting conflict to dialogue is a logical extension of Egypt's action within the Islamic sphere. More importantly, it is necessary if we are to address narrow views of Islam propagated by Western thinkers and politicians, along with "Islamists" who resort to violence and reject modern civilisation. In the Islamic world, Egypt alone is qualified to mediate in this way. Iran may aspire to take its place, but the specificity of Shi'ite Islam hampers its endeavours.
Egypt's geographical, historical and cultural characteristics alone do not guarantee or justify its regional and international role, however. There must be a demand for this function, and Egypt must be able to fulfil it.
Until the early 1990s, demand for Egypt's role was linked to the importance of the Middle East as the world's largest oil reservoir, its proximity to the Soviet Union, and Israel's presence. These three elements have changed, of course, but this does not imply that the Middle East will lose its importance. It is still a vast market. It will remain unstable due to political, social and cultural conditions, which tend to be unusually static, resistant to democratic and secular development and reinforced by economic and other problems generated by waves of immigration to the Mediterranean region in particular. The water crisis, still in its embryonic stage, threatens to become a critical problem in the future.
Hence, international demand for an Egyptian role can be expected to persist even if peace prevails. Egypt's intervention between Syria and Turkey, its efforts in the Gulf and in mending relations with Libya, Sudan or Iraq show that its role transcends the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On a purely international level, the South will continue to need Egypt when addressing the negative effects of globalisation, increasing pressure to open up national economies and the complete liberalisation of trade. In all of these areas, Egypt has played a fundamental role since the Bandung Conference, held in 1955. In international terms, too, globalisation has made any country qualified to mediate between clashing civilisations indispensable.
As for Egypt's ability to fulfil demand, it depends on whether peace will contribute to building Egypt as Egypt has contributed to building peace.
The conflict with Israel has served to justify postponing or dismissing the question of democratisation. The elimination of the conflict and the creation of a more tranquil atmosphere, therefore, has prompted Arab regimes to seek more sustainable sources of legitimacy, rooted in the constitution and the law, and more in keeping with the spirit of the age. Political liberalisation thus became possible after 1973; similarly, the adoption of the economic open-door policy and the pursuit of financial reform would never have been feasible without the early glimpses of peace.
These political and economic transformations imply Egypt's enhanced ability to play the role it has been assigned. Still, many problems hamper the development of its capabilities. The investment environment must be improved; it must optimise its ability to attract foreign capital, and develop further its legislative and educational capability. There is also an urgent need for this country to keep up with the great advances in the field of information. Finally, democratisation and transparency must be promoted, corruption checked and information flows guaranteed. Only in this way will Egypt advance in reality, and not merely in the dreams of its intelligentsia.