For decades, Egypt was the juggernaut of the Arab world. As the most populous and powerful Arabic country, it was Israel’s primary military foe. And its leader, the legendary Gamal Abdul Nasser, united Arabs and gave hope to the people of Palestine.
But in a peace treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize, let alone make peace with, the state of Israel. Immediately, its stature as leader of the Arab world was lost. Not only was it kicked out of the Arab League, an institution created in Egypt and based in Cairo, but almost every Arab state severed diplomatic relations with it.
Although Egypt was eventually allowed back into the Arab League and restored its ties with other Arab states, it entered into a period of relative insignificance. Neither weak nor strong, economic growth sputtered along and the government failed to meet the demands of the country’s growing population.
So for some 30 years now, Egyptians have longed for the days of Nasser and Egyptian hegemony. But now, Egyptians may have a chance to change the status quo. As of Tuesday night, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still clinging to power – but just barely. The army has abandoned him, and it’s entirely possible that he could be out by the end of the week.
The real question, therefore, is not whether Mubarak will be overthrown, but who or what will take his place?
Some are afraid that a democratic Egypt will allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take charge. If so, the Brotherhood may arm Hamas in the Gaza Strip and threaten Israel, which would then be encircled by a strengthened Hezbollah in the north, an emboldened Hamas in the west, and the Brotherhood in the south.
However, a democratic Egypt is nothing to fear.
Egypt received $1.5 billion from the United States last year. It will probably receive the same amount this year – as long as it respects its treaty with Israel. And since the current protests have focused largely on economic issues such as inflation, unemployment, poverty, and wealth inequality, Egypt is not about to risk giving up that money.
Secondly, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has international credentials and is trusted by the West, has emerged as the leader of the opposition to Mubarak. As former head of the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, he worked closely with American and European leaders in their negotiations with Iran. There’s a good chance, therefore, that he’ll be able to oversee Egypt’s transition to a democratic state and may even be elected the country’s next president.
And finally, Egypt has no personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They’ve seen the consequences of going to war with Israel. And while it will certainly remain an important issue to Egyptians, they would rather rival Israel economically than militarily.
More important to Egyptians is this: Turkey is currently the most developed Muslim state in the Middle East. Egypt wants that title.