Monday, 31 January 2011

What has Egypt got that Tunisia hasn't?

Two weeks ago Tunisa was up in arms. The people were rioting. The presidential palace was stormed. Dictator-President Ben Ali fled to Saudi. (His hairdresser wife stopped off at the Central Bank and helped herself to half a ton of gold on her way to the airport!) And the world was largely unconcerned.

Now Egypt is up in arms. The people are rioting. The presidential palace has not yet been stormed and Dictator-Present Hosni Mubarak is still in place, although his wife and two children are now thought to be out of the country. Being a former Spitfire pilot Mubarak is made of sterner stuff than Ben Ali. However the same international community which mainly ignored the Tunisian revolution is all over Egypt's business.

US President Obama has said that he hopes, "Democracy will prevail," in Egypt. Not Mubarak must go, nor Mubarak must stay, just democracy must prevail. Best not to dis the man before he has actually done the runner. If he faces down the revolters the West will still need to do business with him.

But why is Egypt so much more important than Tunisia? Does Egypt have oil? Not really. They had some but it's mainly gone now. However a look at this map and see if you can spot the real problem.

Egypt: check out the land borders

Yup, there's a land border with Israel! Could be awkward if an unfriendly regime took control of Egypt, couldn't it? Better not to antagonise them by supporting Mubarak right now. But also a good idea not to piss off Mubarak in case he survives.
That's diplomacy for you. 

But realistically, could a hostile Egypt pose much of a problem for Israel? Well, not unassisted they couldn't. But oh dear, the USA has spent the last 50 years beefing up Egypt's armed forces with aid amounting to at least a billion dollars a year. 

It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time. Nasser took over in 1956 after ousting the old King and instituted a pro-West regime. He had a heart attack and died and his vice-prez Sadat took over and kept the pro-West thing going. Then he was assassinated in 1981 and his best buddy Mubarak took over as president and he also was pro-America and Europe. Basically the same cohort of Western-trained military men has been running Egypt for the last half century. They were in our pocket at a time when other Arab countries were massively hostile: think Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya. Egypt could easily have been one of those, but we bought their friendship.

Now, it's all going wrong. All that American generosity could be about to turn around and bite us on the ass and Israel may be facing a Western-trained, Western-financed, Western-armed enemy bristling with US military hardware. 

There is a winner here though. If Egypt falls to Islamic fundamentalists then Iran will be going on the back-burner for a while. So, silver-lining for them.

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