All of a sudden the White House has remembered the importance of Egypt. It took a homicide bomber in Alexandria to shake the Obama administration out of its navel gazing introspection. More importantly, the killing of 21 Christians and wounding of nearly a hundred others leaving a New Year mass in Alexandria has forcefully reminded the regime of Hosni Mubarak — and his friends — of the serious danger posed by radical Islam to his government, and perhaps to Mubarak personally.
It is not that security isn’t always on the collective mind of the Mubarak regime. After all, it was the assassination in 1981 of Anwar Sadat by Islamic radicals that lifted the former air force general, Mubarak, to the presidency. What is most disturbing for the Egyptian leadership is that the murderous attack on the innocent Christian churchgoers was a message that all moderate Arab leaders must contend with from jihadi terrorism; that its real aim is to inject instability into national governance.
According to the governor of Alexandria, the lone bomber responsible for the mass killing was an agent of al Qaeda. How he had decided that is not known, but no disagreement has come from Cairo. Terrorists in Iraq associated with al Qaeda already had brutally attacked Christians in order to destabilize the new Baghdad government and had publicly threatened to do the same in Egypt. If this operational connection indeed was put into effect, as is apparently believed by Egyptian security, the White House is forced to admit, whether it wants to or not, there is a terrorist religious war being waged by international radical Muslim forces and not simply a fringe extremist movement.
From Egypt’s standpoint the last thing it needs is a serious challenge to national security at this moment of generational change as the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak’s presidential term ends. Washington has been counting on a relatively incident-free transition wherein its ally, Mubarak, would opt out of day-to-day presidential activities yet still remain an éminence grise who for a period of time influences Egypt’s national direction
Such an arrangement would have satisfied Mubarak’s political backers — most particularly the always wary professional military class. The internal security breakdown personified by the Christian churchgoer massacre followed by street riots in Alexandria and elsewhere by Christian youth gangs is exactly what was not needed. Enter Gamal Mubarak, the politically active younger son of Egypt’s president. Originally considered a natural choice to replace his father, Gamal has lost support this last year among the powerful army and air force leadership because of his lack of military credentials. The result is a new political instability.
The top element of the Egyptian armed forces, intelligence, and security have the political ability to “black ball” any presidential candidate with whom they don’t agree. They do not have the same power, however, to control the political process so as to be the sole king makers in the presidential election. It makes for a very tenuous political environment at a time of terrorist outbreak.
This year should bring an acute awareness in Washington that what had been a long-term working relationship with Cairo is, at the very least, also in a transitional period. The United States annually has provided about $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. Since 1975, through Republican and Democrat administrations, another $28 billion in civilian development aid has been provided. This is the strongest leverage that the U.S. has in dealing with Egypt. But in competing for influence, that leverage is increasingly vulnerable to assistance now being proffered by China, Russia, and the European Union. Within Egypt all sides seem to be complaining over the internal situation. The Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, charge that Wahhabism imported from Saudi Arabia has driven the growth of a stricter form of Islam. The Christians complain that this more rigid interpretation has infringed on the nation’s long-standing freedom of religion. Leadership of the Moslem Brotherhood, in turn, has complained it is being shut out of the parliamentary process — which many believe it is. Meanwhile, secular reformists such as those led by the opportunistic former head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, press for what they call “democratic change.”
Obviously this pervasive political unease plays into the hands of extremists of all hues and makes the transition into a post-Hosni Mubarak period that much more difficult. This means that the military establishment must settle on a representative from the armed forces or intelligence to ease into the presidency with civilian approval if they can’t accept Gamal Mubarak. Deals will have to be made. At least this appears to be what Washington and London are expecting, and hoping. As in all things Middle Eastern, however, they should be careful for what they wish.
Peaceful transition can be a costly commodity in Egypt affecting the entire region. And this is to say nothing of the broader international implications of an al Qaeda franchise shift to a focused holy war –jihad — against Christianity!
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