Change in Egypt could restore its centrality to the Arab world

For centuries, before its steady decline of recent decades, Egypt was the center of the Arab world; Cairo its focus of learning, culture and political power. Now, the country suddenly is changing again in ways likely to reshape the region for years to come.

The implications encompass religion, the role of the military and the meaning of citizenship in authoritarian societies. The changes will complicate relations with Israel and pose challenges for U.S. foreign policy. They will affect rising non-Arab powers such as Turkey and Iran.

“Egypt is the heart of our world,” said Ebrahim Sharif ElSayed, an opposition activist in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. “It’s either the sick man of the Arab world, or it could be the healthy man that could take us to new heights.”

The overthrow of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in Tunisia last month lighted a tinderbox of political grievance and economic frustration now burning across the region. But Francophone, secular and middle-class Tunisia has long been an anomaly in the Arab world.


Egypt is different. It’s not just that the nation of more than 80 million is the most populous of the world’s 22 Arabic-speaking countries and broadly reflective of all their major trends — from the increasing outward piety of its young women to the spiraling alienation of its young men.

It is the site of Al Azhar University, the Islamic world’s most influential religious institution, and the headquarters of the Arab League. It has long been the incubator of the Arab world’s greatest talents in the arts, media, law and science. Arabs joke that “we are all half-Egyptian” in reference to the movies, music and television series on which many were raised.

“What happens in Egypt happens in Yemen,” said Abdullah Faqih, a political scientist in Sana, the Yemeni capital.

Egypt was the first Arab nation to begin building a modern state in the 19th century. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in the middle of the 20th century inspired similar uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

Authoritarian Arab leaders understand Egypt’s importance. While Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is trying to cling to power in the face of an outpouring of public rage, leaders in Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere are scrambling to implement reforms.

Mubarak kept the peace with Israel forged by his assassinated predecessor, Anwar Sadat, as well as his strong security partnership with the U.S., but had little of Sadat’s vision. He gave up on dreams of regional influence, apparently believing that relations with Israel and the U.S. were enough to maintain Egypt’s role as a regional player.

But that approach “turned Egypt into a feudal plantation,” according to Mohammed Masri, a political scientist in Amman, Jordan.

The Arab world fragmented after Egypt signed its peace deal with Israel. North African neighbors drifted away from Egypt. Iraq invaded Iran and Kuwait. Syria invaded Lebanon.

Clerics long trained in the relative moderation of Al Azhar began gravitating toward the Arabian Peninsula, which promoted the puritanical Salafist strain of Islam that inspired Al Qaeda.

“When Egypt led the Arab world, the dominant theme was Arab nationalism, and it was a fairly secular leadership,” said Paul Salem, a Beirut-based scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Saudi leadership has been emphasizing Saudi Arabia’s Islamic credentials.”

Turkey, meanwhile, has become the much-touted model of how Islam and democracy can coexist. Iran projects its power and interests across the region with its armed surrogates and nuclear program. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, not Egypt, host the Arab world’s most influential television news channels.

The struggle on the streets of Cairo is not only about how and by whom Egypt will be led. It is also about how Egypt might lead people of other Arab countries hungry for direction. And although the exact outcome of the revolt is uncertain, it is clear that something fundamental has changed.

An emboldened Egypt more closely reflecting the aspirations of its people could decide to end its peace with Israel.

Even as the U.S. pressures Mubarak to leave, Israel fears the U.S. is cutting ties to Mubarak too quickly. The Israelis doubt that Egypt can quickly become a true democracy.

While some critics in Israel chide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to back greater democracy in Egypt and other Arab countries, officials in Israel are well aware that elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories empowered two of its archenemies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Many Israelis fear Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, which would almost certainly be a player in a reconfigured Egyptian power structure.

But Bruce Rutherford, a professor of political science at Colgate University, said economics are more likely to be a determining factor. Even if the banned Muslim Brotherhood is a major player in a new Egyptian government, it will need to create jobs. The country’s strategic calculations are unlikely to be hugely influenced by its citizens’ sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

“They want jobs,” Rutherford said. “People are not calling for war with Israel. There will be a cooling of ties. But I don’t think there’s going to be hostility, or that there’s going to be war.”

Washington, positioned between its two main allies in the region, will have to work harder to manage that relationship.

Egypt’s resurgence also has implications for non-Arab and predominantly Shiite Iran. On Friday, religious figures in Tehran and Cairo offered competing narratives defining events in Egypt and the role of religion in Islamic society.

Iran’s supreme leader said the political upheaval in the Arab world represented an “Islamic awakening” and a defeat for the United States and Israel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei compared the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood said events in Egypt were nothing of the sort. “The Muslim Brotherhood regards the revolution as the Egyptian people’s revolution, not an Islamic revolution,” it said in a statement posted to its website. “The Egyptian people’s revolution includes Muslims, Christians and from all sects and political tendencies.”

The Egyptian unrest could have very different implications for Iran, where authorities brutally suppressed weeks of massive protests in 2009 over allegations of electoral fraud. A resurgent, democratic Egypt taking a stand on the Palestinian issue also could undermine Iran’s inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational stance against the West.

The most far-reaching effects could well be those that are now hardest to grasp.

The success of the Tunisian revolution and the longevity of the Egyptian protests have been made possible by the relatively professional behavior of the armies, which regard themselves as defenders of the nation rather than instruments of repression.

That is a novel concept in many countries of the region, where the strongman is often a military figure, or maintains close ties to a security apparatus that can quickly crush dissent.

The protests in Egypt and Tunisia were not led by Islamists demanding a greater role for religion, the poor demanding better wages or even the usual coterie of activists demanding freedom of speech. For once, the demonstrations represented a broad cross section.

Rutherford, author of a recent book on Egypt, said he was struck by something he saw in interviews with young Egyptian protesters posted on YouTube.

“In the past, the calculation of most people was that, yes there were problems, but there was no point in demonstrating. Now they are realizing that these things are worth taking risks for,” he said.

“They are rethinking who they are as citizens,” Rutherford said. “They are reasserting the idea that the government is accountable to them.”