Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies (SCRSS), an independent Arab research centre based in Cairo, held a conference entitled ‘Regional Implications of the Political Change in Egypt’ on Monday. The conference presented papers by various Arab, Turkish and Iranian experts on the impact of the January 25 uprising in Egypt on a number of important regional issues, including Egypt’s relations with Europe, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The implications of a change in bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt was a recurring theme that came up in many different sessions, as was the emergence of Islamism as a potent political force.
Speakers, who included academics, current and former ambassadors, and prominent journalists, examined the impact of this change regionally.
In the session discussing Egypt’s relationship with the European Union, Sayyed Amin Shalaby, executive director of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, stressed the evolution of the European role in the Palestinian peace process and concluded that even though Islamists are on the rise in the region, moderate parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt and El-Nahda in Tunisia would mark a continuation in cooperation with Europe when it came to Palestine.
Israel was central in the discussion of Turkey, given the rift in the relationship between the two states following the Israeli attack on a Turkish flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade in 2010. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly popular in the Arab street because of his tough stance on Israel.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has Islamist roots and led many in Egypt to take Turkey as a possible model country for post-revolution Egypt.
Meliha Altunisik, professor of international relations at Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, discussed the issue of the Brotherhood’s similarity to the AKP, stressing possible tensions shown by the Brotherhood’s criticism of Erdogan’s recent statements upholding secularism. She insisted, however, that cooperation in economic development and especially democratic assistance, given Turkey’s experience, may be strong points in Egypt after January 25.
Senior researcher at SCRSS, Fouad El-Said, said possible scenarios include Egypt’s joining Turkey as a regional power to isolate Israel, and developing a strong relationship with the state which may lessen Egyptian dependency on the US.
Relations between Egypt and Iran were also scrutinised, in the light of the two states’ minimal diplomatic association since 1979, following former president Sadat’s decision to make peace with Israel, and Iran’s hailing of Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled El-Islamboli, as a hero.
Afshin Shahi, doctoral candidate at Durham University in the UK, talked about the possibility of normalisation in relations with Iran after Mubarak, a possibility greatly worrying Israel and the US. Two Iranian warships passed through Egypt’s Suez Canal shortly after the ousting of Mubarak, a rare incident.
Shahi, however, believes that it is more like that Egypt will become closer to Turkey, Iran’s main rival in the region. Salafists will definitely take the Saudi Arabian line and reject any proposals to become close to Iran, an enemy of the Saudi kingdom.
On the other hand, Mustafa El-Labbad, director of SCRSS, thought diplomatic relations between the countries may increase, but the chances of an alliance are weak, as the states have no common ideology and as a result would make no concessions to each other, like Egypt diverging from US policy for instance.
Discussing Egyptian-Israeli relations, Abdel Alim Mohamed of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said that a significant change after the revolution, regardless of which regime takes over in Egypt, is that rulers would view public opinion as a major factor in making their decisions, which poses a problem for Israel.
He said that foreign policy goals, while absent from Tahrir during the January 25 Revolution, were important for protesters all along, but weren’t mentioned as the uprising was primarily directed internally. As soon as Mubarak was ousted, a ‘Quds Friday’ was staged.
Helmi Mussa, an expert on Israeli affairs at Lebanon’s Assafir newspaper, acknowledged the effect, saying Israel has shown restrain in avoiding actions which would provoke a strong Egyptian reaction on the street, for example backing out of demolishing Al-Magharba bridge in Jerusalem, a Muslim landmark.
Both speakers agreed that Israel would rather see a military dictatorship in Egypt than a democracy, which could bring Islamists or other forces who may threaten to break Egypt and Israel’s cold peace.