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Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak may have gone but did he matter anymore? Cairo’s ambassador to Washington, Sameh Shoukry, believed the Egyptian intelligence chief and vice president, Omar Suleiman, had become the “de facto” president, presumably with the full backing of the armed forces.

Mubarak always vowed that he would never step down and never leave Egypt. Because of this, his claim that he had set up a constitutional committee to implement reforms ahead of elections to be held in September failed to convince the crowds in Tahrir Square.

Now Suleiman, who has close ties with Israel, has handed power to the military, saying: “In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, citizens, during these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country.”

Mubarak has retired to his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, where he spent much of his time anyway.

So what happens now? Here are some possible scenarios:

– Suleiman will use the months leading up to the presidential election in September to consolidate his government, to seek a presidential candidate amenable to manipulation and acceptable to the United States and Israel. During this period, security forces would round up possible opponents.

– The armed forces install a secular Egyptian nationalist as president. This would represent more of the same for the Egyptians in Tahrir Square; it might conceivably lead to a break with Israel and a wave of Arab nationalism across the Middle East. Enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran become strange bedfellows in that they feel threatened.

– The Muslim Brotherhood, which has said it will not take part in the elections, will go back on their decision, or, if persecuted, go underground and resort to violence as it has in the past. Other secular groups may join them in armed rebellion.

– The Muslim Brotherhood wins elections and declares an Islamic state on Iranian lines, plunging the Middle East into uncertainty.

– Many Egyptians, witnessing fraudulent elections or a nationalist or Islamic coup, but who had simply sought change, modernisation and a better life, will be forced to emigrate.

– The best scenario is that Suleiman and the armed forces will keep their word and hold free elections as promised, banning no political movement from the democratic process. Egypt emerges, of its own volition, as a much stronger “beacon for democracy” than Iraq or Afghanistan will ever be.

<em>Picture: Ramy Raoof</em>

Picture: Ramy Raoof

The uprisings in the Arab world, as The Caledonian Mercury has suggested, (in words that are now being echoed
by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague) are a moment of opportunity that must be seized.

Hague is beginning to lean on Israel, subtly urging the United States to do likewise, for fear that Israeli intransigence at a time of profound change in the Arab world may jeopardise the possibility of any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question.

But how willing is Israel to listen? Not very, judging by the tone of a recent US diplomatic document put out by Wikileaks. The document suggests the Israelis are very comfortable with Omar Suleiman as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s vice president. Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, is Israel’s preferred successor to Mubarak, as the US document shows:

“In terms of atmospherics, [Israeli ministry of defence Arab affairs advisor David] Hacham said the Israeli delegation was ‘shocked’ by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech. Hacham was full of praise for Soliman, [sic] however, and noted that a ‘hot line’ set up between the [Israeli] MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use. Hacham said he sometimes speaks to Soliman’s deputy Mohammed Ibrahim several times a day. Hacham noted that the Israelis believe Soliman is likely to serve as at least an interim President if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated. (Note: We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.)”

Meanwhile, the Israeli media is reacting with predictable concern about the situation in Egypt, with some commentators urging the Israeli government to approach the Egyptian opposition rather than dismissi the entire Arab world as a sea of “blood eyed fanatics”. Others warn of a transition to yet another phase of fascism:

Bradley Burston, Haaretz

“There’s a distinctly uncomfortable but ultimately healthy humility, in realising that we have no idea what’s going on in the only region we seem to know anything about. I want to thank you [Egyptians] for that.

“It is beginning to dawn on my people, the Israelis, that freedom for Arabs may have nothing to do with annihilation for Jews. I have you to thank for that.

“Here and there, people are recognising that the Arab world, and this grand nation which is its cultural epicentre, is vastly more complex than this view of a vast sea of blood-eyed fanatics barely restrained by the brittle dykes of a heavily subsidised corps of despots.

“And there’s another lesson we need to learn, most of all.

“What is the common thread that ties Hosni Mubarak and Ehud Barak, that makes Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman increasingly resemble the rulers of unapologetically non-democratic Mideast regimes? Why has this Israeli government done its best to emulate in two years, repressive measures Hosni Mubarak took 30 years to refine?”

Seth Frantzman, Jerusalem Post

“To understand tyranny’s relationship with popular democracy, we must fast forward to the period 1917 to 1950. In that period almost all of the liberal democracies in Europe were brushed aside by popular fascist or communist movements. It began with Russia where a brief period of democratic government in 1917 was followed by the communist seizure of power.

“The fascists and their enemies used mass protests and chaos, including rioting, to secure power against weak democratically elected patricians who proved incapable of dealing with the street. Yet those who look to Egypt and admire the protesters don’t see that these types of mass protests, while they demand democracy, also walk hand in hand with dictatorship.

“It isn’t about the Egyptians being Arabs. It isn’t about Israel ‘integrating’ into its region. It’s about the fact that no one notices that what is going on in Egypt is not a sign of democracy, it is just a sign of chaos and mass protest. Mass protest may cause a government to implement democratic reforms.

“But as we have seen in Tunisia, when the government simply collapses and runs away, that doesn’t represent a ‘democratic transition’. Chaos, as there is in Egypt, has a much better track record of producing more tyranny and fascism, than it does at producing democracy.”

Ray Hanania, Jerusalem Post

“Today, there are two governments in the Palestinian territories – the religious fanatics who oppose peace with Israel, and the secular moderates who support it. In a stagnant political environment, time is not on the side of the moderates.

“Every day of stalemate sees Hamas gaining strength.

“Had there been no interference in Palestinian affairs, things would have worked themselves out. Voters would have eventually ousted Hamas. Its ridiculous religious extremist demands have already started to turn people off.

“To do the right thing, sometimes people need to see the wrong thing happen. But the meddling blinded the Palestinian public to the extremist fanaticism of Hamas, and Israel’s arrests of its leaders only fed the group’s popularity.

“Today, Hamas continues to feed off of the failure of the peace process.

“Democracy is the antidote to tyranny. It doesn’t always seem that way, but it is always better than relying on dictators. Didn’t America learn anything from its experiment with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War? The same choices are rearing their ugly heads in Egypt.

“Israel doesn’t want Hosni Mubarak out because it believes his successor would likely revoke the peace accord, or change the terms significantly, though that may well happen. But even if it did, in a democracy, Egypt would return to peaceful public discussion and debate.

“Egypt’s turmoil might prompt Israel to do the right thing and move forward with the peace process.

“What democracy needs are strong voices who believe in it – Palestinian, Israeli, Arab and Jew.”

Carmel Gould, Just Journalism

“Editorial boards across the spectrum of the [British] mainstream print press have been seriously challenged by this story. The dilemma was instantly apparent. Coming out in support of a democratic revolution in a notoriously undemocratic region feels instinctively right, but the outcome could mean the destabilisation of an already volatile region and, specifically, the rise of an extremist Islamist force in the Arab world’s most populous country.

“No-one wants their newspaper to come out on the wrong side of history.

“It should be obvious that Israel has reasons to be seriously nervous. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt represents 50 percent of the total number of peace deals it has with the 22 Arab countries in whose midst it exists. For 32 years that agreement has played an undeniable role in preventing follow-up wars to those of 1967 and 1973, which killed at least 24,000 people. It doesn’t take an expert to understand why Israel would want this relationship preserved and not reversed.”