Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Uncertain times

New security hazards will definitely emerge while current sources of threat might develop new dynamics, warns Gamal Abdel-Gawad Sultan *

Identifying challenges to Egypt's national security in the coming decade is not a subject for speculation. The largest and main part of these challenges have been building up and taking shape during the past decade. But Egypt's current security challenges are already serious and lasting enough to continue daunting Egyptian strategic thinking over the next decade. Together with the emerging new threats, they make a longer and more serious list of security concerns than what Egypt has ever faced.

Challenges to Egyptian national security operate at three levels: national, regional, and global, among which the regional is the most serious. Egypt is a member of a regional system going through a period of turbulent transition. A number of forces could be identified in this regard.

DANGERS OF FAILING STATES: As any other regional system, states are the building blocks of the Middle East regional system. But the state in the Middle East is facing major challenges threatening the disintegration of a number of Middle Eastern states. The list of Middle Eastern failing states is already long and is getting longer. Somalia, the Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen are either failed or rapidly approaching that stage. Failing states leave behind power vacuums ready to be filled by the destructive forces of ethnicity, tribalism, organised crime, religious extremism and terrorism.

Egyptian interests and security have been hurt by the forces flourishing in failed states. Piracy off the Somali cost has hurt Egyptian interests both directly and indirectly. Egyptian vessels have been seized in the Gulf of Aden. Vessels approaching the Suez Canal incur additional cost to cover rising insurance and security bills which have affected the Canal's revenues. In addition to the economic cost, seizing Egyptian vessels cause much embarrassment to the government of Egypt.

Hijacking Egyptian and foreign tourists by criminal groups operating freely in the unguarded region along the Sudanese and Chadian borders is another manifestation of the security threats emanating from failing states. The civil strife in Darfur and western Chad limits the respective states' ability to provide security for themselves and for their neighbours alike.

Failing states provide safe havens for extremist and terrorist groups. Islamic extremists in Somalia openly and explicitly express allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Yemen is another place where Al-Qaeda enjoys considerable freedom. Allowing terrorists a stronghold is not a comforting development.

Non-state actors are flourishing in failing states. Middle Eastern non-state actors are not the typical civil society and business actors known in developed societies. They are rather armed non-state actors who challenge the states' monopoly of the use of force. Para-state actors such as Hizbullah and Hamas further complicate the security environment in the Middle East.

THE IRANIAN CHALLENGE: The challenges facing states in the Middle East are multiple. In the post-colonial era Arab ruling elites managed to consolidate their states and ensure the survival of their regimes through the intensive use of security measures and the expansion of networks of patronage and clientelism at the expense of effective policies of inclusion and national integration. Such policies of state and regime consolidation worked for a while, but apparently time has come to pay the overdue bills of neglected inclusion and national integration. The increasing demands made by ethnic, national, and religiously marginalised communities in many Arab states expose them to tremendous pressure. The post-Cold War period and the world of globalisation have granted minorities considerable moral and political strength as part of the empowering-the- underdogs effect of globalisation. Many Arab states are already feeling the heat of minority demands but have yet to develop effective means to accommodate them.

The rise of Shia demands, in particular, has additional significance in that regard. Shia are the largest marginalised community in many Arab countries. In Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kuwait, Shia are becoming politically assertive in ways challenging to the political arrangements in place. In addition to the typical burden of minority demands, Shia demands have a strong regional dimension. The presence of a regional and global centre for Shia, that is Iran, further complicates the Shia question in the Middle East.

Iran is actively manipulating the Shia grievances around the Middle East for its own advantage. Becoming the champion of Shia demands grants Iran additional asset towards hegemony in the Middle East. The fingerprints of Iran can be seen in countries with significant Shia communities from Iraq and Lebanon to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The recent Iranian involvement in the civil conflict in Yemen is the most recent development in that regard.

Manipulating the Shia question in the Middle East, Iran is in the business of playing a double-edge sword. There is a trade-off between speaking in the name of Islam and the name of Shia at the same time. Islamic Iran can mobilise the support of many Muslims in the region. Shia Iran could provoke a strong reaction among the Sunni majority in the region. Iran is likely to continue riding the two horses at the same time and is already unleashing the reaction of Sunnis around the region. The renewal of the old Sunni-Shia rivalry is already taking place in the Middle East. It has already become among the reasons for tension and conflict in the region.

DECLINE OF THE US: The main regional dynamic dominating the current Middle East is the struggle for the Middle East between the US, the global power, and Iran, the challenging regional power. The power vacuum in the Arab world turns the Arab part of the Middle East into the contested object between the two rivals. This is particularly challenging for Egypt, the past hegemonic power of the Middle East.

Even though Egypt surrendered its hegemonic position in the Middle East a long time ago, its foreign policy is designed not to allow the rise of a sole regional hegemonic power. Strong security and a political "alliance" between Egypt and the US have been a central component in Egypt's strategy of containing a would-be hegemon in the Middle East. The Egyptian role in the first Gulf war is an excellent example of this strategy put to work. The effectiveness of such a strategy vis-à-vis the Iranian challenge is doubtful.

The cost of containing Iran is too high and could prove prohibitive. Iran is successfully defying diplomatic and economic pressure. Military action against Iran is too risky to be applied in an orderly way. Only a disparate party, such as Israel, could opt for extreme military measures. The clean and orderly way through which Iraq was contained in the first Gulf war is not likely to be replicated against Iran. Disparate unilateral measures against Iran could unleash further challenges to Egypt's security in the coming decade.

A revisionist nuclear Iran is a serious challenge to reckon with in many respects. Nuclear Iran could bring further polarisation to the Middle East. The Gulf oil producing countries are likely to deepen their security dependency on the US to offset the Iranian threat. The assertive policies of the pro-Iran radical groups will be further emboldened. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will further weaken Egypt's position. Coping with this challenge would trigger a nuclear race in the Middle East, the signs of which are already abundant with all the implied security, political and economic hazards.

In the coming decade Egypt has to adjust to the declining US position both globally and regionally. Even though the US will continue to be the single most powerful country in the world for sometime to come, its ability to act with immunity and freedom is increasingly constrained by the rising new powers on the world scene. The effectiveness of the US as the ultimate insurance policy for countries in the Middle East during the next decade is questioned and other options need to be considered.

THE STALLED PEACE PROCESS: The Middle East peace process has never been an easy job. But things look much more difficult in the decade up ahead. The shattered hopes for peace over the past two decades have, to a great extent, undermined the prospects for future peace. The political capital that had been wasted seeking peace in the past deprives relevant parties from the political resources needed to put the peace process back on track. The divide in Palestine, the rise of right-wing parties in Israel, the discredited US and disbelief among Arab states make the revitalisation of the peace process a mission impossible.

The divide in Palestine is the most serious challenge Egypt faces. Palestinian reconciliation is not likely to be achieved in the near future and Gaza will continue to be Egypt's semi-state neighbour for years to come. The security hazards emanating from Islamist-run Gaza are not mere fiction. This is particularly the case if the current closure of the besieged strip is to continue. Disparate Gazans could cause a serious security headache for Egypt. Containing Gaza-based security hazards, while addressing the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, are two parallel lines of policy to be developed.

The Palestinian question has been the main vehicle for radicalisation and instability in the Middle East since the dawn of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. No other conflict in the region possesses the same level of negative spill-over effect to the region at large. The unresolved Palestinian question is likely to expose Egypt to tremendous pressure. Egypt is the country that has stuck its neck out for peace in the Middle East since the time of President Anwar El-Sadat. The peace process has been among the effective safety valves installed in the Middle East to contain forces of regional instability. The fading hopes for peace should put Egypt's regional credibility and role into question as well as unleashing destructive forces region wide. Egypt in the coming decade needs to either inject new blood in the dying peace process or develop new alternatives to it. Failing to do so could jeopardise Egypt's role regionally and the legitimacy of its ruling elite domestically.

THE AFRICAN DIMENSION: Egypt has been extremely preoccupied with the Middle East in the past decades. Tranquillity on the African front, in addition to ideological and institutional biases in Egypt, distracted Egypt's attention from its southern front in Africa, particularly in the Nile Basin. Egypt has taken Africa for granted for a number of decades, and the time for change has come. Worrying developments and orientations are no longer a matter of speculation. The changing geostrategic reality in the region is alarming. New states are forming and the rise of a few more cannot be excluded. More important are the pressing water needs in Egypt and the reluctance of the Nile Basin countries to cooperate. Egypt needs to re-establish itself in Africa or risk suffocating pressure on the southern front.

THE HOME FRONT: Addressing the pressing security challenges of the decade to come, Egypt is in dire need of a solid and cohesive internal front. A solid and sound internal front is a three-dimensional notion: a healthy economy, a consolidated political community, and a productive population. Egypt's increasing population is definitely a curse and a burdensome liability as long as the current quality of Egypt's work force continues to prevail. As poor in natural resources as Egypt is, human resources are the only available reservoir of wealth Egypt could draw upon if handled properly. The Egyptian economy needs to break the vicious cycle of bad years- good years and provide for sustainable economic growth through the enlightened application of market reforms. Politically, restoring the cohesiveness of Egypt's political community through the policies of inclusion, the restoration of public confidence in public institutions, and the enhancement of the regime's legitimacy are no longer a matter of choice.

* Director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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