CAIRO - Several million demonstrators add up to a considerable force that no elected leader can ignore.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have a lot more people demonstrating against them than ever took the streets against former president Hosni Mubarak.
And still, given the off-with-their-heads rhetoric on both sides, the latest protests were overall more peaceful than others in recent months and years. Not a bloodbath; more like a street festival. No bread riots; more a revolt of a strangled middle class. Nor was Islam the central object of attention here, but rather a paranoid secret organization that wants to lock a tolerant 7,000-year-old culture into a prison of sanctimonious doctrine.
Making a country into a laboratory to conduct pedagogic experiments requires either a lot of time, or means applying a great deal of pressure.
It goes without saying that revolts against elected presidents are not a recommended course of action in parliamentary democracies. But it's an all-too-common scenario for post-revolutionary, post-authoritarian transitional systems: Expectations are huge, the economy beleaguered, institutions weak, the old regime is destructive, and new politicians lack experience. So taking to the streets may be about the only option left.
Nobody knows who will be governing Egypt by the end of this week. Morsi? A transition president? The army? The attacks on the grandiose Muslim Brotherhood headquarters -- a symbol of their ambitious claims to power -- and with them, the first casualties in the upheavals, could presage an escalation of violence.
But there is also a certainty: the Muslim Brotherhood that a year ago looked just about unbeatable -- Morsi winning the election seemed back then like the crowning touch for Islamist victory -- has failed spectacularly.
The Brotherhood, the mother organization of so many Islamist groups across the Muslim world, has become the ballast for religious groups in the whole region. But its show of piety couldn’t mask the political shortcomings.
Many conservative Egyptians see this piety as an attempt at monopolizing faith itself. Muslim brothers are not only not the better politicians, they’re not even the better Muslims. And that perception spread amongst Egypt’s people – this too is the sort of thing typical of transitional systems – with lightning speed.
If the Muslim Brotherhood were smart, it would step back right now, read a few manuals about inclusion, and try again in a couple of years’ time. Part of the Egyptian population prefers religious parties, and this group of voters needs an offer corresponding to their concerns – otherwise it will fall prey to radicals.
If the opposition were smart, it would give the Muslim Brotherhood the chance to fulfill that role for Egyptians. But mainly: it would not interpret the millions who are anti-Morsi as potential for helping that catastrophic old men’s club win power.
What would make most sense of all is for Egypt’s politicians to stop seeing their country as someone's personal trophy.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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