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Egyptian turmoil stokes up fears in Gulf

By Imtiaz Gul

 Weekly Pulse, June 22, 2012

The stunning, though not unexpected, ruling by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court in Egypt Thursday that declared parliamentary elections null and void, followed by the actual dissolution of the parliament — which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamist parties — hardly sprung any surprise. It was a story foretold in view of the gradually escalating struggle between the Islamists and the remnants of the old pro-western ruling elite. The latter has been intent on blocking Islamists way to the power. The court also allowed the toppled government’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general, to run for president. 

Many analysts and activists interpreted the Constitutional Court’s ruling as a blatant attempt by the military-led ruling elite to deny the Islamists right to forming government, and re-establishes autocracy. 

Once the Islamists established their majority in the parliament, many had also almost foreseen what might eventually happen i.e. an attempt to deny them the right to rule. As of now, at least, this has happened, delivering serious blows to those who had hailed the Arab Spring as a real and genuine change. The continued turmoil in Egypt and Libya also prompts many to ask as to whether the Arab Spring really meant transition to peoples’ rule. 

A recent conference in Bahrain (June 12-13th), held to the context of the changes brought about by the Arab Spring, also resonated with issues that today confront some of the countries in the Arab Gulf. 

Titled “Regional Realities of Gulf Security and Transnational Concerns,” and organized by the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (DERASAT), the conference delegates were drawn from all over the world to discuss threadbare the consequences of the movement that has swept Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and is still causing ripples in Egypt while rocking Syria. 

Besides the singular external threat i.e. Iran’s perceived or real expansionist and influence-seeking policies, one of the themes that came through in unambiguous terms was the concerns arising out of the political development to the current political structures. Another subject that generated an overwhelmingly heated debate was the direction that the movement has taken in over a year. 

“I wonder whether the Arab Spring has been hijacked by Islamists or anarchists,” asked MsSouadMekhennet, a special correspondent for the New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel. To reinforce her question, MsMekhennet, who recently toured Libya and Lebanon, drew participants’ attention towards the political bedlam that currently rules Libya. 

Today, Libya is divided in heavily-militarized fiefdoms, said MsSouadMekhennet, recalling how the western-supplied weapons had weaponised the society and sank it into a dangerous state of lawlessness. 

“The proliferation of arms even in individual households is very alarming and the Libyan unity seems in tatters,” said the German journalist and also raised questions as to whether the western role is transparent in the Middle East, or whether the US friends and allies in the region are safe if the US all of a sudden turns its back on them. 

She also questioned the role of the media, including that of Al Jazeera, which she said, unfortunately, was taking (undue) sides in Syria – regardless of the veracity of events. 

Some of the local delegates agreed with MsMekhennet that the construct built over four decades as a result of the expedient partnership between US-NATO and Arab rulers was now under serious threat and the unfolding events in Egypt suggest that all stake-holders of the status quo in other Gulf region countries might also deploy the military option to protect this construct from disintegration. 

The Middle East is far from security and endemically instable, and this deserves a critical review of the western geo-political objectives, remarked Dr. Abdulkhaliq Abdulla, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of UAE. 

Dr. Abdulla said the creeping perception within the GCC nations that they are being encircled by Islamist governments - Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia – needs a careful consideration because, he said, this perception is likely to shape the future political discourse in the region, with a probable impact on the role of foreign powers as well. 

Dr. Abdulla also strongly advocated in favour of the winning parties in Egypt as a matter of principle, saying everybody must accept this reality. 

“These Islamists are not jihadists. They have reached power corridors through a democratic process, and not via backdoor. They deserve respect and consideration rather than rejection,” Dr. Abdullah underlined. All of us shall have to learn to live with them rather than demonzing them. 

Dr.Abdulla pointed out that the pending and urgent issue i.e. pressure for reform on the Arab rulers has moved to the core of the political debate, with lots of ripples through the ruling elite. Another issue arising out of the electoral empowerment of the Islamists was the growing apprehension about Islamists forming an alliance with Iran – just 120 km from Bahrain. “Even if there were a remote possibility of an alliance between Iran, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon, it would send chill down their spines.” Said Dr.Abdulla.

While some from within the ruling elite of the Gulf, including the Bahraini information minister Sameera Rajab, peddled hard positions vis-à-vis the Islamists in Egypt, most participants agreed that the Gulf countries as well as the western nations shall have to brace for the changes in the air, and recalibrate their rhetoric about regional security alliances, justifications for synergies of military and commercial partnerships (US-GCC).

That is why many within the region are advocating for developing regional defense alliances as well as building capacities for defense hardware so as to be independent of the reliance on the western and US hardware, which means massive business for the western military industrial complex, but sows more dislike, if not hatred, for the western arms industries.

Some of the speakers and participants sounded extremely critical and skeptical of the United States and the UK — the two lead countries in the 28-member NATO — saying their “self-serving and questionable narrative (we are here to keep the international trade through international waters flowing as well as to foster alliances with regional blocs in the security interest of the GCC) had only fueled and precipitated conflicts.”

Dr. Mohammad Noman Jalal, a former Egyptian diplomat who served as Egyptian ambassador to many countries, made some very insightful and probing observations during his presentation.

“The US and the UK come here on the pretension of our protection, but they certainly have their own axe to grind and are acting as regional policemen; it reflects their ambition for grandeur,” said Dr.Jamal, now political advisor to the Bahrain government. He also proposed that unless the GCC countries developed their own defense industry, they will remain at the mercy of the western military industrial complex.

Drawing on historical developments, Jamal said people in Arabian Peninsula do not trust the US or the UK because “they are always changing, they have often let their friends down, among them rulers and regimes in various parts of the world.” “There is a need to bridge the trust gap between locals and UK/US and to identify collaborative frameworks for common goals, rather than using the Gulf region for the geo-political interests of the West,” he said, advocating for a greater UN role in the region as a peace broker and security guarantor.

On the whole, the conference resonated with calls for gradual political reforms, inclusive security for citizens, and equitable socio-economic opportunities for all. The post-Arab Spring developments dictate comprehensive political reform and a realignment of geo-political alliances. Most agreed that this was the only way to delegitimize the Al-Qaeda-led Islamists narrative about the downsides of the monarchies and their alliance with the west.

The writer is executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk