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In recent weeks, the emerging Middle East has given pause to the early optimists of the Arab Spring. Egypt reopened its border with Gaza, Amr Moussa seems poised to win the presidency there, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been ruthlessly cracking down on anti-regime protests, Yemen has descended into something close to civil war, and a Hamas-Fatah unity government is set to call for a vote at the UN General Assembly on unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
To get a sense of where these and other issues in the region are headed, I spoke with Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor and publisher of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. He is the author of more than a dozen books on the Middle East.
Seth Mandel: What are the major events to watch for, and what are their most likely consequences?
Barry Rubin: First, on June 12, Turkey will have an election. That election will probably be won by the government, whether or not it gets a two-thirds majority. The current rulers are going to take this as a signal to take a much tougher line toward Israel and the United States. It is possible that the extent of the increase of Turkey’s enmity toward Israel after that election will astonish the world.
If the governing AK party gets a two-thirds’ majority, that means it will have control of rewriting the Turkish constitution. They will try to create a presidential regime, Erdogan will run for president, and we will see Turkey moving into an increasingly visible alliance with Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. That’s not alarmism, that’s a serious analysis.
Number two. The Palestinian effort at the UN to gain unilateral recognition for a Palestinian state will fail; the U.S. will veto. But it’s going to be a mess, and it’s a mess created by the incompetence of the Obama administration, which could have prevented this.
Number three—the big one: Egyptian parliamentary elections in September. As of now, the moderate democrats have not organized any serious party. The only serious parties organized are Islamist parties—not only the Muslim Brotherhood but others—and left-wing parties or radical nationalist ones.
I do not know whether there will be an Islamist majority, but there will be a radical anti-American majority in parliament. I have no doubt of that. It literally can’t be any other way. So this is going to have to be covered in the media.
It will be interesting to try to predict what the headlines will look like in the New York Times the day after the election. How will they spin this? What will they say? What can they say about this? This is very, very serious. At that point it should be clear that the Obama policy has been a catastrophe. He helped bring down the Egyptian regime and the result is a radical anti-American regime that’s ready to go into conflict with Israel.
SM: What is the significance of the opening of Egypt’s border with Gaza?
BR: The opening of the Gaza border is one step in that direction [of conflict with Israel]. So what does it mean that they’re opening the border, even if not now but when a new elected president and parliament take office? It means that weapons, terrorists, and money will flow freely into Gaza.
And what does that mean? It means that Hamas will become bolder. And at some point, let’s say in the next year, it will attack Israel with rockets and mortars. And Israel will have to respond militarily.
But at that point we are all going to have to ask the question, What will Egypt do? What will the Egyptian government do? If Amr Moussa is president with a radical parliament or even an Islamist parliament they could send troops. It could become an Egypt-Israel war.
But there are other possibilities. Perhaps they will simply let thousands of Egyptian volunteers go into Gaza to fight. Perhaps it will allow, or not be able to stop, or not try too hard to stop, attacks across the Egypt-Israel border. Again, this is not some alarmist fantasy but realistic scenarios that must be prepared for.
If Amr Moussa is elected president, he is not an Islamist and not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But is he going to resist pressure from parliament and the masses for a tough stance? Won’t he try to take advantage of this to promote his own interests and anti-Israel beliefs? This is especially true as Egypt’s terrible economic situation does not permit him to offer the masses a better life or even food at current prices.
Now one can say: Don’t worry, they won’t do anything because the Egyptian military wants to keep getting American aid money. Now that is an argument. But is that enough? Can we base our entire Middle East strategy on that hope?
We have seen cases where countries and governments have been willing to throw away American aid for political goals. Remember that the Iranian revolution threw away all the American aid and military sales. So merely to maintain that everything will be OK because of that money issue is not a satisfactory argument. In addition to that, keep in mind that Egypt is going to face a major economic problem for which there is no solution, and no amount of U.S. aid is going to resolve that problem. The price of food is going to continue to go up.
They are not going to be able to build new housing. They are not going to be able to handle the problem of unemployment. They’re not going to be able to create jobs. This is the reality. So what happens when, as is fully predictable, Egypt’s government is unable to deliver on its promises and the country will go into crisis? What’s going to happen?
SM: What’s your impression of the West’s reaction to these changes taking place in the region?
BR: The things that I’m talking about are totally predicable things. And yes, they are being ignored in the media. Now the new line is that the Muslim Brotherhood are good guys and moderates, the problem is these radical jihadist Salafi groups. Muslim Brotherhood is good; jihadists are bad. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a jihadist group and is in an alliance with these groups. It’s ridiculous to make this distinction.
So basically we are going into a series of totally predictable crises in which there is no serious analysis of the problems, much less the solutions, by the U.S. government, media, experts, and the public debate generally.
And even those three crises leave aside other issues. It’s now June but the U.S. government has still not done anything on Syria at all. Sanctions on Iran are leaking, and we know the three main reasons why they are leaking—it’s China, Russia, and Turkey. And the U.S. government is doing nothing about that. In fact, it’s consciously permitting leaks to continue.
So we are facing a serious crisis of what I might call the return to the 1970s with Islamists in place of Arab nationalists. And again all of this is totally predictable.
SM: How should we be approaching these issues?
BR: What is needed is a strategy that recognizes that the principle regional problem is the challenge of revolutionary Islamism, and what is needed is for the United States to take the lead in developing an alignment that brings together the U.S., the Europeans, the relatively moderate Arab regimes, and Israel, a strategy that supports the oppositions in Turkey, Iran and Lebanon, that recognizes the enemies are Iran and Syria and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood and Iraqi insurgents, and then deal with that in the manner that the Soviet Union and its allies were dealt with in the Cold War. It’s very simple, and of course you have to get into the details but they are not going to do it.
SM: How should Israel respond?
BR: There are options in dealing with these threats. Israel can deal with this to a large extent successfully or as successfully as possible. The first thing, which is already happening, is the need to rebuild what in Israel is called the Southern Front, which is the defense along the border with Egypt. And that is going to cost a lot of money and people are going to have to do more reserve days, but it can be done.
Israel is going to have to deal with the flotilla, which arrives in mid-June. And Israel is going to have to deal with any attempts of people to cross its border. And what Israel does or doesn’t offer the PA in negotiation is pretty much one of the least important issues for Israel now. I mean it is not a central issue. It’s not an important issue.
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