Reverberations in Egypt

The emergence of “Hamastan” in Gaza sent leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere scrambling for an answer: Whose fault is it? Is it reversible? Will the same thing happen in the West Bank? What should and could be done now? In this soul-searching process there is plenty of blame to share.

The Palestinians once again demonstrated their tendency to harm their own interests. I’m not being patronizing here by taking the usual Western “Orientalist” approach, presuming to know better than the Palestinians what is best for them. I’m only quoting my Palestinian friends in the West Bank, who call the recent events in Gaza “our second naqba” (catastrophe), the first one being the loss of Palestine in 1948.

Israel could have done more in the past to strengthen the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, mainly by handing Gaza to him instead of allowing Hamas to claim it had kicked the Israelis out.

And the Bush administration should now ponder whether its doctrine of “democratizing” the Middle East really works. It seems that when Arabs are allowed to vote freely, they tend to elect the “wrong” people. Already in Algeria, in 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front was set to win the elections when the army stepped in to cancel them.

Needless to say, democracy means more than just letting people elect their leaders freely – it’s about civic society, the rule of law, the equality of women and more.

While President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel will obviously be discussing these issues when they meet this week in Washington, a critical country is missing: Egypt.

Cairo washed its hands of Gaza back in 1978 when, during talks that led to the Camp David accords, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt sort of told Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, “You take Gaza.”

Since then, Egypt has treated Gaza as basically an Israeli problem, frequently turning a blind eye to the heavy arms smuggling in this troublesome area.

However, with the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in 2005, Egypt became nervous.

After all, Hamas is a Palestinian manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical Islamic movement established in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna to turn Egypt into a state based strictly on the sharia, the religious law of the Koran.

One of al-Bana’s successors, Sayyid Qutb, took it a step further by declaring that true Muslims must rise against their rulers, because they were infidels. President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 precisely on this jihadist thrust.

While Egyptian regimes since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser have succeeded in controlling the Muslim Brotherhood, either by arresting and executing its leaders or by blocking its way to the ballot, the movement is still alive and dangerous. Experts believe that if free elections were held in Egypt today, the Muslim Brotherhood would win by a landslide.

And looking over the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza, Egyptians today are getting the message that the idea of radical Islam carrying the day is no longer an inconceivable outcome. If not checked in time, the Hamas takeover of Gaza might send shock waves deep into Egypt.

The immediate step Egypt should take is to work with Israel, other countries and international organizations, so that a humanitarian crisis does not occur in Gaza.

The second priority is to stop the arms smuggling. If instead of the current Kassam rockets, which are bad enough, Hamas starts launching Katyushas, Israel will retaliate in a severe manner, potentially escalating an already fragile situation.

Further down the line, Egypt will have to reassess its position vis-à-vis Gaza. We Israelis have no great expectations from a Hamas-dominated Gaza: It will be a long and painful arm-twisting, with occasional periods of calm. For the Egyptian regime, it’s a challenge to its very existence.

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