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Egypt: leadership for peace in the Middle East

February 3, 2011

No great surprise that those in power eventually found a way to react violently to Egypt’s velvet revolution. It was great – invigorating, even – to sense via TV news reports the slightly bemused vibe being given off by the demonstrators in the first few days of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in different towns across Egypt. It was as if they couldn’t quite believe their government was letting them get away with it. Watching the news from Egypt, I was also struck by the relaxed body language of the BBC’s Middle East reporters, who had all dashed there from wherever they happened to be, to cover this extraordinary story. They are so used to reporting on situations of tension, repression, inequity and violence that they seemed not to have the right language available to them, to describe what was happening around them. It was all too good to be true!

And indeed, the reaction did come: violence, repression, vested interests, the status quo reasserting itself. So how should the international community respond to this situation? There is a real opportunity to be seized here.

One of the reasons there are never any real breakthroughs in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and other neighbours is that the status quo suits so many of those who could make a breakthrough happen. That there are factions within Israel and in Gaza and the West Bank who find it impossible to accept a compromise is obvious. But one of the disabling factors for peace which doesn’t seem to be written and spoken about enough in the mainstream western media is how having a long-term and apparently intractable structural conflict in the neighbourhood serves the purpose of those who fear change, and who therefore block the possibility of peace.

All the undemocratic regimes of the region use the presence of the conflict to justify their own unwillingness to change and become more open. As long as the Israeli conflict remains unresolved, it serves as a welcome distraction from internal calls for change. And western governments have long been happy to go along with idea that they want peace between Israel and its neighbours, when in fact what they really want above all is stability, and especially during their own time in office. Surely that’s one of the reasons the USA has supported Mubarak’s regime to the tune of a billion dollars a year or more since Camp David. Predictable stability is easier to deal with than the uncertainties of democratic elections or a democratisation process, especially in a region which supplies so much of the world’s oil.

In the USA every president comes to power with a declaration he’ll do something to bring peace in the Middle East. But bringing peace in the Middle East is not something that can be achieved over a 4-year US election cycle. Indeed, the first steps towards peace which could be achieved within a mere four years are probably so minimal when viewed from Washington that they’d be virtually invisible, and would quite wrongly be seen as a failure by the media, Congress and the voters there. So the incentives for US presidents – and other democratically elected leaders – aren’t aligned with the needs of peacebuilding.

What’s needed from Washington, and in the international community more broadly now, is leadership. One of the main components of leadership is risk-taking. Obama has an election in less than two years, so choosing to support the unpredictable path of change in the Middle East, with all the accompanying risks, is a tough political call.

But the US can’t put the Egyptian genie back in the bottle even if it wants to. It can probably watch and wait to see if Mubarak is able to do so. But given there’s a pretty good chance he’ll smash the bottle in the process, the political risk for Obama may well be that he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. What this means is that this is probably one of the few times in recent history that the US president really has a political choice vis-à-vis the Middle East, and can take a political gamble by supporting – or at least not blocking – an unpredictable process of political change.

Sustainable peace in the Middle East is not the same as stability. Nor is it possible unless something happens to shift the status quo. The popular uprising in Egypt is a potential shift in the status quo. What it will lead to is unclear and uncertain, but in that uncertain future, there may be an opportunity no-one has previously seen to build a successful peace process.


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