Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A long-term problem

The Egyptian government released the results of a survey today that asked Egyptians to give their views of a number of foreign countries. The findings should give pause to anyone who thinks democracy in the Middle East and a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian regional peace accord will go hand in hand.

As the reporter Ahmed Muhammad writes in The Egyptian Today, “Despite the diplomatic efforts and official discussions of peace in the region, popular opinion still sees Israel as either an enemy country.” The official figure finds that 92 percent of Egyptians put Israel into one of two categories that I can only translate as “enemy country” and “very enemy country.” This result comes as we near the 25th anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords were signed at Camp David. In the poll, America comes in as the fourth most hated, with 56 percent considering the United States an enemy. One can look at that figure as surprisingly low given our invasion of Iraq and support for an embargo on the Palestinian territories that will shrink the Palestinian economy about 50 percent in the next year. Regardless, the survey paints a grim picture of what Egyptian-Israeli relations will look like the day a popularly elected Egyptian government takes power.

And, have no doubt. That day is coming. It will not happen this year, but it will in my lifetime.

The clash between the Egyptian government and the people is not only taking place in the parliament. It is taking place in the streets and the universities as well. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, like Hamas in the Occupied Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon is not just a political party. Its members can be found in labor unions, on universities and in the courts. “If the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to perform a coup, they could,” an Egyptian friend told me. “They’re everywhere, in the police, in the army, it would be easy, if they wanted to.” I admit it is a claim that I cannot confirm or refute. But there is little question that the Egyptian government is facing, or at least believes it is facing, increasing pressure, and it has been fighting back.

Last week members of a national workers union were harassed by police forces as they tried to vote in union elections. Many were detained. The reason was their affiliation with the brotherhood. This week, fighting broke out over student council elections in several of Egypt’s state universities over the same issue. Yesterday Anwar Sadat’s nephew, a member of parliament until his arrest last month, was found guilty of slander after he claimed publicly that the military and foreign governments had conspired to assassinate his uncle. [Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt until he was assassinated in 1981 during a military procession. He had signed the Camp David peace accords just a few years earlier].

This is not to say that Egypt is on the verge of a civil war. There has been no revolution in Egypt in more than half a century. The Muslim Brotherhood swears off violence in Egypt and has shown no sign of changing its tact.

But the long term issue raised above remains. Egypt has an economy about twice the size of Israel’s (300 billion USD compared to about 150 billion USD) and a growth rate that is roughly the same. Currently Israel spends about 5 times more on its military, but that could certainly change. What will happen when the opinions of 78 million Egyptians are final taken into account?

That day is coming.

[You may be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, the US is only the fourth most hated country in Egypt? Who are numbers two and three?’ In second was Denmark – for the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad – and in third was Britain. Go figure]