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Updated: Mar 1, 2011
The Egyptian Revolution and the Future of WMD in the Middle East: Q&A With Nabil Fahmy
In mid-February, just a few days after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as Egypt's president, Nabil Fahmy, chairman of the Middle East Project at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo, spoke with CNS senior staff about the potential implications of the Egyptian revolution on the proliferation and control of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Fahmy previously served as Egypt's ambassador to the United States (1999-2008) and to Japan (1997-99). He was the political advisor to the foreign minister (1992-97) and chaired the Egyptian delegation to the Arms Control and Regional Security working group emanating from the Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference.
Fahmy: There are many reasons behind the Egyptian revolution, but the "tipping point," in my view, was the flagrant result of the Peoples' Assembly elections in November 2010, with the overwhelming majority of votes going to the ruling National Democratic Party and the exclusion of almost all forms of opposition from the Assembly. Other reasons included continuing high unemployment, rising poverty, the rich/poor divide, and a significant youth "bulge"—56 percent of the population is under 25 years old. There was also the question of whether Mubarak would run for reelection in 2011 or whether he would nominate his son who, while a smart and well-organized figure, was generally unpopular because of public opposition to dynastic succession. In other words, Egypt was heading towards a political confrontation. However, no one can deny that what happened in Tunis, Tunisia, less than 2 weeks earlier, was the immediate trigger that led to this confrontation occurring sooner rather than later.
The organizers of the Egyptian revolution were predominantly "youth" although not primarily university students, and included many segments of the society—Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood, secularists, and so forth. Their diversity was their main strength, and while they were very well organized in how to protest nonviolently, they seemed to be learning "politics" on the spot. These youths were able to develop common goals despite the absence of a single ideology uniting them, and were adamant in their demands for Mubarak's resignation, dissolving Parliament, and changing the Constitution. It is noteworthy, however, that Egyptian society of all ages came out in increasing support of the youth, so in effect the pyramid was inverted with the leaders being the young people. But this was a revolution encompassing all of Egyptian society, not one limited to youth alone.
The reactions by President Mubarak and the government to the accelerating events—which were a classic case of crisis mismanagement—contributed to the outcome of the revolution. Had Mubarak moved more quickly in the first week of the revolution, he might have split the society and survived. His legacy will be defined by his last 15 years in office and this revolution, rather than the achievements of his first 15 years.
As expected, there have been many questions in domestic and foreign circles regarding the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in recent events. The overwhelming view in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood represented not a majority but a significant minority in the demonstrations. They were never the leaders of the revolution, either in terms of stature or numbers, although they appeared to be more influential in the rural areas.
Overall, this revolution—loosely defined—was really about "taking ownership" and about "being heard," which is why it brought so many people together, at least for now. It had a true social character to it. At the end of the demonstrations the demonstrators and different members of society joined together and literally cleaned and repainted the streets. This is a historical first.
Fahmy: Egypt is still in a transitional stage. The Higher Council of the Armed Forces is in charge for now and has promised to transfer power to a civilian government within six months, or after the presidential and parliamentary elections are held.
Let me be clear that foreign policy was not an issue raised in the protests. In fact, it was only raised once on day 16 or 17 by an insignificant member of the Muslim Brotherhood who noted a commitment to existing international agreements but left the door open to their possible future review. No positions were taken vis-à-vis the United States and Israel during the revolution. They only came up in passing while analyzing the statements made by those countries' officials. Arms control and WMD-related issues did not come up at all.
If we want to look to the future, we must understand that there is no factual evidence on which to base any predictions regarding Egypt's future foreign policy. However, since the military's leadership has not changed significantly during the past five years, there is little prospect of change in Egyptian foreign policy as long as the current military leadership remains in power. In other words, the military will likely respect all regional and international agreements without change during the next six months, unless Egypt is provoked or the security situation changes in the region. Indeed, the military has said this publicly.
The more interesting phase will come after elections are held and a fully legitimate government is installed about six to seven months from now. By then, you will see a more democratic Egypt, one that will remain strategically constant to present policies including peace with Israel because they serve Egypt's interest. However, the policy will also be more sensitive to and responsive to short-term democratic political considerations.
Fahmy: Yes, many expect the Muslim Brotherhood will have a role in the Parliament, and possibly in the government. One way or another, their voice will be heard legally. The Muslim Brotherhood was visible in the demonstrations, but it was evident that they were not the primary movers of this primarily secular revolution. And while the Muslim Brotherhood may appear to be stronger than any other single group on the Egyptian political scene, the demonstrations have proven that the Muslim Brotherhood does not have the majority in the street many believed they had. It is also not likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will nominate a candidate for president. They are not expected to be the movers in Egyptian politics come September, but they will remain a significant player. And yet, should they happen to come to power, it is highly unlikely that they would quickly alter Egypt's regional and international agreements unless Egypt is provoked by other regional players. They have actually said they would respect Egypt's agreements.
Once again, I want to stress that regardless of where the Muslim Brotherhood stands in Egypt's political landscape, no one at the moment is discussing foreign policy, WMD-related issues, or the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). So while there is no empirical evidence to prove this, I would assume that Egypt's posture on those issues will remain the same during the transitional period unless something significant happens regionally, for example if Israel were to adopt a more overt nuclear weapons policy, which in turn would make it difficult for Egypt not to react, especially with the current absence of a political buffer between the military and the government.
Fahmy: Public discussions have of course begun on possible candidates, however the process has not started formally. And while none of the possible contenders are expected to make fundamental changes in Egypt's foreign policy, there is a widespread belief that Egypt will become more assertive as the leader of Arab states on foreign policy issues, and will want to regain the role of the trendsetter in the Arab world.
As for possible candidates, one would expect a leader or leaders would emerge from the January 25th youth movement (which led the revolution). But that hasn't happened yet. Amr Moussa, the Arab League Secretary General, has expressed interest in the job but has yet to formally announce his candidacy. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel Laureate, has declared that he won't run, but "if asked, won't disappoint the people." Of course, ElBaradei has come under a lot of fire recently in Egypt for being out of the country when the revolution started. I personally think he deserves more credit for his role as "the godfather of the revolution." Other candidates may emerge in the days to come.
Neither Moussa nor ElBaradei are expected to dramatically change Egypt's foreign policy, and I don't believe that anyone who can get elected nationally would. Whomever is elected, however, will recalibrate it with a stronger national and proactive focus. Either Moussa or ElBaradei would retain a centrist approach but make it tougher and more constructive. Both are "achievers." They don't like remaining on the sidelines, or being negative, and neither constitutes a threat or would change Egypt's positions on WMD issues and the NPT. In fact, Moussa has always been a proponent of joining the NPT, but then became a strong advocate for Israel joining the NPT as well, while ElBaradei initially was not an advocate of Egypt becoming a party to the NPT, although having joined he believes in fully abiding by our treaty obligations. ElBaradei tends to realistically link progress on the regional WMD situation to the achievement of peace in the Middle East. I agree with ElBaradei that Egypt should not have joined the NPT before Israel, but disagree with him that now these issues should be linked to regional peace overall, even implicitly.
Fahmy: Well, so far no date has yet been set for the conference. One must not forget that the exact timing of the event will be defined by other considerations. Some have argued that it may not be entirely practical to try organizing the conference before the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). I don't think it matters whether it takes place before or after the PrepCom. But it should be held before the end of 2012.
With regard to Egypt, I want to be clear that Egypt's nuclear politics have not fundamentally changed since 1974, notwithstanding changes in presidents and governments. Therefore, I don't foresee substantial changes to Egypt's nuclear policy absent regional provocations. I would also add that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is a professional service, mostly unaffected by the changes in the ruling party and government.
Fahmy: I think any new Egyptian president will focus more on supporting human rights and democracy in Iran. ElBaradei will probably be the most assertive toward Tehran in this regard, given his human rights credentials. Moussa, on the other hand, will be more forceful towards Iran's nuclear program, where ElBaradei is more nuanced.
Fahmy: No. I think any future president will continue to support the country's nuclear program which is driven by economic and energy demands. But the program will probably face further delays in light of ongoing events, which will create a short-term liquidity crunch.
Fahmy: With the NAM, there will be no effect on Egypt's work, and its New York and other missions will remain active since the instructions always come out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As for the OIC, the Presidential Summit—whereby Egypt would assume chairmanship in mid-March—will be postponed for a period of time.
Fahmy: What happened in Egypt will lead to some changes elsewhere and will bring more accountability to regional governments. There will be more anxiety and "looking over the shoulder" among the governments and elites in the region. Of course, we've also witnessed the recent unrest in other Arab countries such as Jordan, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. Whether these unrests lead to instability will depend on how their governments react to the demonstrators and the existing political, economic and social conditions in each country.
Fahmy: I believe there is room for the United States to be a useful partner for Egypt in the upcoming months. For example, the United States, and other industrialized nations, should offer additional economic assistance to support the new government's efforts to promote economic reforms and create the much-needed 700,000 jobs per year. At the same time, I think US military aid to Egypt should remain unchanged since it is in the United States' interest to maintain good relations with the Egyptian military. The recent turn of events is testimony to the importance of having solid relations with the military.
Protestor holding the Egyptian flag.
[ Source: Jonathan Rashad ]
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