Egypt’s ‘Security State’ and Israel

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter yesterday on the comparison between Egypt and Algeria, a theme that has come up after the ruling military council in Egypt dissolved parliament last week, took on legislative powers in the interim, gave the armed forces powers of arrest, set parameters of presidential power that place the military above oversight and reduce presidential control of security forces, and arrogated to itself the right to reject items in a future constitution. Media and observers brought up the Algerian military’s decision to annul elections in 1992 because of concern when it appeared that the Islamic Salvation Front would win. After that Algeria was thrown into a decade-long civil war in which tens of thousands of people died.

One of the points made by Algeria expert @MsEntropy was that there is far more likelihood of the world getting involved in Egypt than there ever was in Algeria, should Islamists in Egypt get into a bloody conflagration with the state. The reason she notes is “geopolitics”, for which read Israel. If Algeria’s military was able to stay in power because of global disinterest, Egypt’s remains omnipotent because of global interest. The American state both funds the Egyptian military and has cultivated close ties with the Brotherhood because of one of the pillars of US policy in the region: the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel.

Western concern with Egypt because of Israel’s role as the state for Jewish refugees in the post-Second War settlement of Europe’s problems is obviously not new. But it is part of the explanation why Egypt in the Nasserist period of confrontation with Israel, through the Sadat-Mubarak period of accommodation has remained a repressive, authoritarian state with fascist tendencies. The militarism of the Nasserist period which was directed against an external enemy became sublimated to a fetishistic chauvinism, security agencies multiplied as fast as the list of enemies of the state identified: from Brothers, to human rights groups, to homosexuals, to Hamas, to Hizbullah, to Westernised kids of the elite who followed heavy metal music (“devil-worshippers”). The more weak Mubarak’s Egypt became in the maelstrom of regional politics, the worse this tendency became and it would only get worse under Ahmed Shafiq, since he has displayed signs of the witchhunt mentality to find people to blame for a revolution that the old regime still cannot come to grips with and understand. Perhaps Lada Gaga fans are next.

Since the peace treaty, there has been a direct correlation between the strength of the security services and the ebb-and-flow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the peace treaty, Palestinians and their supporters are guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the Egyptian state: If they do not have an intent to agitate and mobilize Egyptians to their cause today, they will do in the future. With this mentality, it is not hard to see why an open political life was impossible for Egypt’s rulers to contemplate in the Mubarak years. Political parties, syndicates, rights groups are naturally going to gravitate towards Palestinians and the Palestinian causes; to put breaks on that would be a deviation, like the deviation of the state itself since Sadat’s time. The immediate aftermath of the Oslo peace agreement in 1993 offered a chance for relaxation of that grip, though the war between the state and the Islamist movements and demonization of the Brotherhood (while refusing to foster a political system that could handle them) helped scupper opportunities. There was also hope in 2000/1 between the Camp David II and the Taba meetings when it appeared that the Arafat and Barak governments might come to an agreement that would create something called a Palestinian state.

Today Egypt’s military is indulged by Washington because it is a guarantor the Egypt will remain outside the frame in the ramifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that it won’t allow Egypt’s government to get too activist over suffering in Gaza, (extrajudicial) bombing of civilian areas by Israeli jets or drones just north of Egypt’s border, or demographic engineering in the Jerusalem and the West Bank, or inside Israeli itself. However, the issue to consider is this: the two-state solution to the conflict is clearly going nowhere, and even if it had succeeded, it would have required a state of alertness among the security and military apparatus in surrounding states in order to “police” the new arrangements, just like before. Because the natural demographic, social, economic and political pressures against an imposed solution of a border defining the “West Bank” (west of what?) as “Palestine” would be great. Such a Palestine would be another ignoble addition to the long list of artificial political constructs that have survived the decolonization period, yes, but at the cost of continued suffering and deflected pressures.

The security state in Egypt, with the military at its apex, is likely to be with us for a long time to come: until there is a more realistic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognises an equilibrium between the different communities of historical Palestine, without false political and legislative boundaries that deprive some of rights while allocating them to favoured others. At such a point Egypt’s military-security complex will lose a major spur to its bloated existence and patronage of a distant power appealing to all its worst tendencies.

In other news:

– Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan has been enthusiastically tweeting the Shafiq campaign’s counter-claims of victory: the UAE is the Gulf state most immediately worried by the rise of the Islamists.

– Despite the fact that it has drawn closer to its own version of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past year, Bahrain’s government would far rather see Shafiq win than Mursi. This is because the Brotherhood represents the change candidate, an affirmation one way or another of the Arab uprisings, and because despite differences of sect, the Brotherhood represents a religious politics similar to that of Bahraini opposition party Wefaq. In a reformed system, Wefaq could make the political gains that the Brotherhood has made in the past year.

Al-Quds al-Arabi editor AbdelBari Atwan has suggested the military in Egypt are hoping to engender a split in the Brotherhood, as “doves” and “hawks” within it debate how to respond to boxing them in like this. Which reminds me of a European ambassador in Manama who told me recently the government – and its Western friends – have been hoping to see Wefaq split too, and along the same lines and over the same issue: to placate the state or to challenge it.

– Saudi clerics and Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have been furiously tweeting their support of Mursi in recent days and encouraging them to take the fight to the state. Awad al-Qarni wrote in Tuesday: “In my view, and I hope I’m wrong, if the revolutionaries are not prepared to don their death garments – while insisting on the peaceful nature of their revolution – then everything they’ve suffered so far will be just a prova for what’s to come.”

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