Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Dynamics of Post-Mubarak Egypt

With Hosni Mubarak on life support and victory in sight for the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate in Egypt, relations between Israel and its southern neighbor are likely to take a significant turn. The main wild card is, of course, the Egyptian military, which could potentially strike back against the Brotherhood especially if the Brotherhood tries to establish stronger control over the military. The Brotherhood, of course, has every reason to want to weaken and fragment Egypt's military, as it was Egypt's military that repressed the Muslim Brothers during Mubarak's reign and who have shown their willingness to throw themselves into the leadership fray in the interregnum.

Assuming that the Brotherhood does manage to assume effective control in Egypt, it will mark a substantial change in the Egypt-Israel dynamic. First, Egypt's shift from a largely secular military dictatorship to a democratically elected though primarily theocratic government would mark a change in Israel-Egypt relations similar to the change that occurred in Persian-Israel relations when the Pahlavi monarchy collapsed in Iran and was replaced by the Islamic Revolutionary government. As is often the case with new Islamic governments in the Middle East, the Brotherhood will need to establish its credentials in the region by showing its ability to stand up to Israel and advance the interests of the Palestinian nationalist movement. Unlike when this happened with new governments in Iran, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon, Egypt's extreme proximity and intertwined history make the Brotherhood's actions particularly significant.

For example, the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula has been a major source of sabotage and terrorist activity, with attacks on oil and gas pipelines occurring with great frequency. Moreover, the Sinai is the primary gateway into Israel for both African economic migrants and potential infiltrators. While Israel continues to move to complete a secure border fence along its Egyptian border, it is possible that the Brotherhood will act either directly or indirectly to undermine Israeli interests in that area. In fact, in the days since the presidential election, a rocket attack along the Egyptian border killed an Israeli civilian and the response to the attack killed three militants on the border. Escalating the situation may be an effective way for the Brotherhood to establish control and allow it take certain actions under the guise of acting against Israeli aggression.

Of greater significance will be the Brotherhood's stance on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The Mubarak government took an ambivalent and pragmatic view on Palestinian nationalism and took a relatively hard line on Gaza after the Hamas takeover, resisting pressure from the rest of the Arab world to open the Rafah crossing and end the blockade. While restrictions on Rafah have eased somewhat in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian military has retained significant control of the region in an attempt to prevent the entry of Hamas men into the Sinai and to curb the flow of weapons into Gaza. However, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood would view the regulation of Rafah as a major priority, and would likely see a benefit in allowing a freer flow of goods into Gaza. Moreover, the Brotherhood could win regional credibility and put Israel in an unfavorable position by facilitating the flow of goods into Gaza through Rafah in contravention of Israel's restrictions on goods into Gaza.

Indeed, if the Arab Spring has had any broad based impact, it has been shifting many of the prior military/secular dictatorships into more theocratic and religiously oriented governments, primarily because religiously based organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the primary opposition to repressive secular governments such as those in Egypt, Syria or Tunisia. However, it is not clear at all that the replacement of those secular governments with theocratic ones will lead to improvements in the lives of the very people whose large scale protests swept the old dictators out of power. As in late 1970s Iran, the call of young university students for Ayatollah Khomenei provided extremely ironic as Khomenei's return in 1979 shut down many of the liberal institutions whose protests brought him back to power. If nothing else, bringing an Iranian or Saudi style government to power in Egypt completes the reorientation of the Middle East powers away from pan-Arabist nationalist ideologies that were championed by men like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein.  The major power players in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, will continue to angle for ideological and military supremacy in the region.

Lastly, because the Muslim Brothers are not limited to Egypt, their taking power in that country can have broad effects on their operations in other nations such as Jordan, Bahrain and Syria. With the financial and operational backing of a sovereign nation, the Muslim Brothers and their affiliates can make significant inroads in taking control in other governments that hang in the balance, most notably in the ongoing civil war in Syria. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jews in Strange Places

In the 21st Century, we rarely still think of the "Jewish Question" that dominated European thought in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The presence of Jews in many countries was becoming intolerable, and as a young Theodor Herzl observed, where Jews appeared in significant numbers, their presence led to significant opposition and often violent resistance. As a people who simultaneously did not assimilate into local society but who also often thrived economically, they were looked upon with extreme suspicion and often hostility.

Indeed, the "Jewish Question" arose from the idea that the continued presence of Jews in large numbers in other nations presented a problem that was to be solved invariably by removing said Jews from the country in question. At the same time, Zionists began to clash in the intellectual arena with anti-Zionist Jews, claiming that even in liberal nations such as Great Britain, Jews would always be seen as outsiders and treated as second class citizens. In places like Russia, the hostility boiled over into extreme violence, culminating in pogroms in the early 20th century. Around this time, the idea to transport Jews to a variety of exotic (and far away) locales became quite popular in many circles.

Early in the Zionist movement, the Zionist Congress had to consider whether to accept a proposal to accept part of British East Africa (now Uganda) as territory for a new state. This plan was ultimately rejected for a combination of reasons: first, Jews had no prior link to Uganda and could not claim to be reestablishing their nation, just intruding on another one. Second, and more importantly, the belief was that the existence of a Jewish homeland in Uganda would make it significantly more difficult for Jews to reestablish their state in Israel. Even after this rejection, a group of Jews remained committed to the idea of establishing Jewish state anywhere rather than focus on Palestine.

Of course, it was not just the Jews that were thinking about exotic locales. In the 1930s, the Soviet government determined that it would be prudent to establish a Jewish Socialist homeland to which all Soviet Jews could be forcibly moved. This was in keeping with the Soviet idea to create ethno-nationalist Soviet states. For the Jews, the Soviet government chose a small territory called Birobidzhan, which bordered China on the south, the Amur river to the east and was several hundred miles north of Vladivostok. The Soviet plan was to create a Yiddish based communist Jewish culture and, it is widely believed that Stalin intended to begin large scale transportation of Jews in 1954, but his death nixed the plan. Today, Birobidzhan is still known as the Jewish Autonomous Province, and about 3000 Jews live there in a largely Yiddish culture.

The Jews other great enemy, the Nazis, also had a plan to transport Jews to an exotic locale: Madagascar. This plan received significant support from the high placed Nazis such as Joachim von Ribbentrop, who believed that the most effective way to fix Germany's Jewish problem was to simply remove the Jews from Europe. Germany's plan was to include the use of Madagascar as a Jewish "super ghetto" as part of its eventual treaty with France. Moreover, the thought was that, once the British were defeated, the German navy would be free to transport Jews en masse to Madagascar. The plan was abandoned largely because of British resistance to Germany's assault and because the Free French forces retook Madagascar from the Vichy in 1942. When the Warsaw Ghetto was completed, all talk of Madagascar ended.

Of course, the premise of evicting Jews has much deeper historical roots. From the removal of Jews during the Babylonian Exile to the infamous eviction of Jews from Spain in 1492, the underlying belief that Jewish presence presents a threat or problem to other nationalities. It is horribly ironic that it was the precise failure to let Jews leave for the Holy Land or elsewhere in the 1930s that allowed Jews to be slaughtered en masse by the Nazis when they abandoned the Madagascar Plan and sought to simply slaughter the Jews instead of removing them. The failure of the Evian Conference to provide any practical assistance to Jews fleeing concentration camps and massacres affirmed Hitler's view that no nation cared about the fate of the Jews and that no nation would welcome them in even in their greatest time of need.

The vacillating attitudes of various nations and their desires to evict Jews from their midst ironically fed into the ultimately successful Zionist movement, because Jews from Britain to Russia knew from terrible experience that they would never be safe until they lived within their own nation.