Who will draw the new map of the Middle East?

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Friday 21 Jun 2013

Currently facing a host of grave foreign-policy challenges, Egypt must make its strategic regional interests a priority – irrespective of who calls the shots in Cairo

Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a secret meeting took place in Cairo in 1916 between French Consul-General in Beirut Georges Picot and British High Commissioner for Near Eastern Affairs Sir Mark Sykes, as well as a representative of Russia. A series of meetings resulted in redrawing the map of the Middle East under Ottoman control into regions of French and British spheres of influence.

What happened in 1916 is repeating itself today as part of a continuous process that began a few years ago in various formats, although they all lead to the same goal of past plots to redraw a new map of countries and entities in the region.

It appears the biggest difference between the map of yesterday and the map of today is that, in the past, Arabs were entirely passive and had no say, while European powers divvied up the region as they pleased according to their spheres of influence, ignoring the desires and aspirations of the Arab peoples.

Today, foreign powers are playing a conspicuous role, which, in reality, is strategic exploitation made possible by the condition of fluidity in the Arab region. It seems the Arab people and some Islamist powers are following blindly without realising they are implementing foreign plots, and are often supported by unjustified popular anger.

This is very harmful, especially given the lack of Arab leaders who are aware of the scope of strategic dangers surrounding us.

The people are participating in forming the map of tomorrow with the blood of thousands of their sons. But when some use narrow sectarian, religious or doctrinal connotations that are a throwback to the Middle Ages, this dispels any hope of achieving freedom or justice that have been absent for many decades.

The Sykes-Picot map created countries that relied on weak local governments for survival, whether as monarchies or republics, which follow the lead of other countries. After European powers were weakened by World War II, Western countries became convinced of the need to end colonialism in its traditional form.

They also realised that the existence of authoritarian dictatorships was enough to guarantee the direct and inexpensive control of the wealth and capabilities of the region's peoples.

While major powers are trying to benefit from the strategic fluidity triggered by Arab revolutions since the collapse of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, and – as expected – are focused on reassessing their strategies, countries in the region are interfering in the Arab arena in an attempt to fill the strategic vacuum in our region.

They are moving quickly to protect their interests and participate in drawing up the map of the region. At the same time, the ruling elite and opposition remain outside the historic process.

Egypt's political forces across the board still do not feel regional events are worthy of attention, or recognise regional threats and challenges that are no less important to Egypt's future than domestic developments.

Ongoing debates and disputes since the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak's regime about how to build the foundations of Egypt's new domestic political life is a largely positive reflection of nascent democracy after a successful popular revolution against tyranny and corruption.

But to continue marginalising foreign policy issues and the lack of serious discussion of developments beyond Egypt's borders – such as how to reformulate Egypt's foreign interests and how all this affects Egypt's future – is utterly indefensible.

Over the past few days, news reports have drawn a bleak picture about all aspects of the Egyptian state, which sets off alarm bells about Egypt and its current and future regional interests. Each represents a genuine threat and challenge to the existence that Egypt knows today.

These are only a few examples that demonstrate current regional changes:

·         NATO experts are busy mapping out the future shape of Libya, as clashes continue in the eastern Cyrenaica province on the border with Egypt. Egypt has genuine interests inside Libya that are above all others. Egypt's strategic interests in Libya go beyond energy resources, which are a top priority for NATO states. It is vital that Egypt participates in any discussions or plans regarding Libya’s future; we should not allow NATO to ignore Egyptian interests in our western neighbour.

·         Several Israeli military experts believe Tel Aviv should revise its military strategy, especially since they believe wars in their traditional form (between conventional armies) have become a thing of the past – particularly after the destruction of the Syrian army in the ongoing civil war there and Egypt’s preoccupation with an unstable domestic front, which some already see as a nascent civil war.

·         The declaration by South Sudan that it plans to sign the Entebbe Nile-sharing agreement after Ethiopia began to divert the course of the Blue Nile in a step towards constructing its Grand Renaissance Dam project.

·         Saudi Arabia is currently leading the Sunni front in the region against the Shia alliance that includes Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian regime, while the civil war in Syria rages on.

These examples and others suggest that Egypt has no other alternative but to separate domestic issues from foreign affairs; Egypt’s strategic interests are a priority, irrespective of who rules the country today or in the future.

Steps by Egypt's leadership on the Syrian issue, whether severing ties or hurling Egypt into a Sunni-Shia conflict, will only serve those who are redrawing the new Middle East from abroad.

Encouraging Egyptian youth to wage jihad against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria to pander to Salafist forces funded by Saudi Arabia can only harm Egypt's interests. In fact, it paves the way for an Arab future in which wars between armies are a thing of the past and wars between peoples are the new reality.

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