WOULD-BE rulers of the world have always coveted Egypt, and for good reason. Rich in resources and in a choice position, it is also easily controlled, with no forests or mountains for rebels to lurk in. The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans all grabbed it. So did Muslim Arabs, Ottoman Turks, Napoleon’s France and finally Britain. The Crusaders, Tamerlane and Hitler all tried and failed to take it. The cold-war superpowers vied for influence too; Egypt flirted with both, but America bid higher and won.
Egypt became America’s Arab poodle, a role that is no less uncomfortable under Barack Obama than it was under George Bush. Mr Mubarak’s policy of helping Israel to punish Hamas by keeping Gaza shut in smells rotten to most of his people, and particularly to the many who sympathise with the Muslim Brotherhood, the resilient Egyptian wellspring of modern Islamism. Egyptians are only intermittently interested in foreign affairs, and many remain grateful that Mr Mubarak, unlike his predecessors, has shunned risk. Yet the feeling that Egypt has lost its rightful place as a country with influence, that it has fallen from grace, is widespread.
America paid handsomely for its prize, pouring in some $60 billion of economic and military aid over the years, though the economic part of that is now shrinking. Tens of billions more have flowed from its allies and from the international agencies that America has long dominated. The aid has tided Egypt over hard times and kept its army strong, albeit beholden to America for arms and spare parts. For the West it has brought relative quiet in the Middle East, following the four major Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
ts strategic situation, its cultural influence and a population double that of any other Arab country, Egypt has for three decades now been the linchpin of a precarious but enduring regional Pax Americana. Access to Egyptian airspace and to the Suez Canal has helped America project its power (albeit not always wisely) to such arenas as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The treaty Egypt signed at Camp David in 1979 made it harder for Israel’s smaller Arab neighbours to go to war, encouraging Jordan to conclude its own peace deal and Palestinians to try to do so. It relieved the Israelis of existential fears for a generation, until Iran’s recent emergence as a potential nuclear rival. It is fair to say that Egypt’s dogged support for regional peacemaking has been crucial to sustaining a modicum of civility in the Middle East, despite backsliding by nearly everyone else.
Egypt still collects rents for its moderating role. These come in both tangible and intangible forms; in Western aid and preferential trading terms, in diplomatic prestige, in goodwill that boosts tourism and investment, and in a certain amount of indulgence for the Mubarak government’s repression at home.
Whenever things go wrong in the Middle East, Western leaders flock to Egypt to show their concern. Egypt in turn obliges by convening summits and conferences, and leaning on its Arab neighbours to soften their tone. It was not by chance that Barack Obama chose Cairo as his platform for reaching out to the Muslim world with a speech that sought to repair America’s battered image.
Twenty-nine years of Hosni Mubarak’s stolid, unimaginative rule have brought his country its longest stretch of peace for a century. Yet as Egyptians often lament, the rise of economic power in the Gulf, and of politically ambitious regional heavyweights such as Turkey and Iran, have rendered Egypt less and less able to influence events. It has not helped that American pursuit of policies viscerally opposed by Arab populations, particularly regarding Israel and Iraq, has polarised the region, exposing America’s increasingly lonely best Arab friend to charges of colluding with the Great Satan. The aggressiveness of Egypt’s ostensible peace partner, Israel, has helped even less.
Trouble with the neighbours
People tend to forget that Camp David dealt not just with Israeli-Egyptian relations but with other issues too. At Egypt’s insistence the 1979 treaty included a framework for regional peace, based on Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967 to make room for an autonomous Palestinian government. Israel ignored those clauses and invaded Lebanon in 1982, permanently souring relations with Egypt and seemingly vindicating bitter Arab criticism of Egypt’s separate peace.
Still, Egypt eventually coaxed the Palestine Liberation Organisation to recognise Israel, and America prodded the Israelis to negotiate on terms similar to ones they had previously sniffed at. This joint effort underpinned the hopeful peacemaking of the 1990s, subsequently wrecked by Israeli settlement and paranoia, Palestinian disunity and terrorism, and American timidity and myopia.
Since the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks ten years ago things have got relentlessly worse. The second Palestinian intifada and Israel’s crushing response; Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; the Islamist Hamas party’s election victory there in 2006; its ousting of the Palestinian Authority in 2007; Israel’s rightward drift and its brutal onslaught on Gaza in 2009; all have put Egypt in a bind. Mr Mubarak’s government has found itself caught between his people’s sympathy for Palestinian and wider Muslim causes and its own stubborn commitment to peace and alignment with the West.
Over the past three years Egypt has struggled in vain just to broker a workable agreement between the main Palestinian factions, the secular Fatah party, which controls the West Bank and has long been close to Cairo, and Hamas, which began as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and so is regarded with distaste by Egyptian officialdom.
Hamas’s resistance to Egyptian blandishments is understandable. In support of Western policy aimed at bolstering Fatah and at forcing Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence, Egypt has joined with Israel to enforce its blockade on Gaza. Not only has it tightly restricted the flow of people across its border; it has insisted that nearly all goods traffic pass through Israeli-controlled crossings. It has gone along with a costly American-funded scheme to sink a steel barrier into the ground along its Gaza border in order to block the tunnels from Egypt that have become Gaza’s lifeline.
As seen from Cairo, collusion over squeezing Hamas has been the least awful of a set of bad choices. It appeases Israel’s powerful friends in America’s Congress, who have threatened to cut aid if Egypt does not help squash what they regard as the terrorist faction ruling Gaza. The siege also puts pressure on Hamas to become reconciled with Fatah and return to the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority. Egypt wants not only to dilute Islamist influence and boost chances for a negotiated peace; it also seeks to thwart what many in Cairo suspect is Israel’s real aim. What the Israelis intend, mutter Egyptian diplomats, is to make the territorial split between the two rump parts of the putative Palestinian state permanent, rendering it inoperable, and to dump crowded Gaza, with its 1.6m angry, impoverished residents and Islamist rulers, into Egypt’s lap.
Eyeless in Gaza 更多信息请访问：http://www.24en.com/
Egypt’s Gaza policy, highly unpopular at home and an embarrassment for Mr Mubarak in the Muslim world, has grown increasingly untenable. When the recent bloody fiasco of Israel’s raid on an aid flotilla again drew world attention to Gaza’s plight, Mr Mubarak buckled. Egypt opened its Gaza crossing to more traffic and is now advising its Western partners to admit the failure of their strategy and revise it. At the same time Egyptian officials take every opportunity to insist that Gaza remains Israel’s responsibility.
The mess next door has long been a drain on Egypt’s energies. Yet being saddled with nasty neighbours and demanding partners is not the only reason for Egypt’s relative decline. Egyptian skill at the game of geopolitics has atrophied as its professional diplomats have found themselves elbowed aside, replaced by a circle of aides to Mr Mubarak who share his outlook. Perhaps more importantly, Egypt’s leaders have failed to absorb an important lesson: that old foes such as Israel, new rivals for regional influence such as Turkey and even small non-state actors such as Hamas are strengthened by democracy. In Egypt, that still seems some way off.