By Henry Srebrnik
Current events in the Middle East don’t give us much hope that democracy is the new zeitgeist in the region.
Early results from the first round of the ongoing Egyptian parliamentary election indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is winning about 40 per cent of the vote.
Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood is the largest Islamic party in the Middle East, with branches and allies in many countries (including Hamas in Gaza). It was officially banned in Egypt until the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.
And the Al-Nour Party, organized by ultra-conservative Islamists called Salafis, who are more extreme than the Brotherhood, appears to be gaining a further 25 per cent of the ballots cast.
These figures might even increase, because the results now tabulated came from the more liberal urban areas, including Cairo itself and Port Said. The second and third stages of voting will take place in more conservative rural areas in the coming months.
Should these numbers hold, the two groups might control at least 65 percent of the parliamentary seats, enough to gain power – should the Egyptian army permit it. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains the ultimate power in the land.
“It means that, if the Brotherhood chooses, Parliament can be an Islamists affair -- a debate between liberal Islamists, moderate Islamists and conservatives Islamists, and that is it,” Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-born researcher at the Century Foundation in Cairo, told the New York Times.
This is a worry for Israel, since the Islamists in Egypt have always opposed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and would like to abrogate it. An Israeli official acknowledged concerns: “Obviously, it is hard to see in this result good news for Israel.”
Israel has begun building a fence along its long border with Egypt along the Sinai Peninsula desert. It fears that radical Islamic groups will use the Sinai for attacks on Israel.
Also, maintains Geneive Abdo, author of No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, no matter which party picks up the most seats in parliament, the new Egypt will be less compliant to American demands and cultivate warmer relations with Iran.
Islamic parties calling themselves moderates have now formed governments in Tunisia and Morocco and will no doubt play a role in Libya as well, with the mercurial Muammar Gadhafi gone. The Libyan dictator was clearly a sociopath, but not particularly devout.
Meanwhile, Iran has been covertly developing nuclear weapons. A Nov. 8 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was a wake-up call, even for those who have refused to see the danger. The report noted that “Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities” and is also working to develop long-range missiles.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, asserted recently that Iran has enough material for four or five nuclear bombs; all that is required is a decision to proceed.
The Islamic Republic proceeds from strength to strength, thumbing its nose at western sanctions. Two months ago the Iranians were accused of hatching a brazen plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
And last week the British Embassy compound in Tehran was trashed by a mob of militants, mostly members of Iran’s paramilitary Basiji brigades loyal to Iran’s ruling clerics.
Britain’s ambassador to Iran, Dominick Chilcott, described it as a mix of “mindless vandalism” and “sinister targeted theft.”
British historian Michael Burleigh, author of Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, has stated that “Unless the international community acts in concert to neutralise this danger, there will sooner or later be an Israeli strike to frustrate Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. If that happened, the world really would be in a new dark age.”
Israel must feel as if the noose is tightening around its neck and wonders whether its only real major ally, the United States, would be willing to defend it, should war break out.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently asserted that Israel is partly responsible for its increasing isolation and that it now must take diplomatic “bold action” to mend ties with its Arab neighbours and come to a settlement with the Palestinians. It is understood that Panetta’s comments are widely shared by U.S. officials.
“Stuck in the Middle With You” was a rock song released by Stealers Wheel in 1972. The refrain went like this:
“Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.”
Today’s Israeli version might sound like this:
Egypt to the left of me,
Iran to the right, here I am
Stuck in the middle with USA.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political studies at UPEI.