A historic chance may be at hand to set into motion an alternative project to fill in the vacuum resulting from the successive bids to set up a pan-Arab project last century and the early defeat suffered by the political Islamist project due to Egyptians’ recent removal of the Muslim Brotherhood rule.
This alternative can be called the “Third Project”, which significantly would not be based on slogans. It would be designed to serve mutual interests and at the time feature a cultural perspective so encompassing that it would fulfill aspirations of many people in Egypt and the Arab Mashreq.
New regional realities
June 30 has brought about drastic changes in Egypt and established new regional realities. On that day, millions of Egyptians turned out and protested for several days, loosening the Brotherhood’s grip on power and prompting the army to oust the then-president Mohamed Mursi.
Without prior planning, the protesting Egyptians dismantled a European-US strategy based on reshaping the Middle East through Islamist-controlled regimes, mainly the Brotherhood.
June 30 has brought about drastic changes in Egypt and established new regional realities.Abdullah Kamal
Starting from January 2011, a series of upheavals, known as the Arab Spring, sealed the demise of the pan-Arab project, which had waned since the early 1990s in favor of the religious scheme aimed at setting up an Islamic caliphate.
The Arab Spring ended the post-independent republic era. However, the Brotherhood failed to survive the regional turmoil more than two years after taking power in Egypt and Tunisia, in addition to the presence of its offshoot Hamas in the Palestinian Gaza Strip and Sudan’s close links to the Brotherhood’s international organization.
The collapse of the pan-Arab project came gradually, triggered by the aftershock resulting from an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, followed by Iraq’s earthquake-like invasion of Kuwait. Then came the division of the Arab world into conflicting alliances, culminating in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that exposed Arab fragility. In contrast, the fall of the political Islamism scheme was sudden and massive, resulting from huge public protests unseen before in Egypt, which is a major regional powerhouse.
The pan-Arab project was inspired by success of national struggle in different Arab countries for independence. Later, these countries emerged as republics. The project received a strong impetus from then-president Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. This impetus lasted for a decade until Nasser’s leadership suffered a crushing blow by Egypt’s military defeat in the 1967 Middle East War.
In contrast, the political Islamism scheme made several bids to make a niche, mainly in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. These bids proved doomed, though. The scheme, nonetheless, has achieved temporary success in the past two years, coinciding with regional turbulence that resulted in territorial splits in Sudan and Palestine.
In the past two years, several Arab countries, mainly in the Gulf, have got locked in to various showdowns with the political Islamism scheme. Meanwhile, Egypt has seen a surge in nationalism in reaction to the Islamist president’s implementation of the scheme and the Brotherhood’s attempts to change the Egyptian identity.
The ‘Third Project’
Just a few days after Mursi’s overthrow, three major Gulf countries —Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – offered Egypt a total of 12 billion dollars in aid packages. This support marked the revival of a political alliance that can be the basis of what I call the “Third Project”.
Rivalries between the Arab world’s post-independence republics and monarchies in the 1960s partly undermined the pan-Arab project. These rivalries are no longer relevant. Relations between Egypt and Gulf countries were unbalanced even in their best shape. The reason was that the oil-rich Gulf had the economic upper hand faced by Egypt’s self-assertion based on its long history and culture.
Under Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Egypt had warm relations with most countries. The rise of political Islamism, meanwhile, prompted emphasis on the strategic importance of ties between Egypt and the Gulf. The 12 billion dollars pledged by the three Gulf countries after Mursi’s toppling embodied the biggest political investment in founding an alliance of a different type.
This alliance can gradually evolve from the political phase into an alternative project based on the following elements:
-Beneficial cooperation, not sloganeering;
-Fulfilling collective interests at the governmental and public levels;
-Tapping in to national sentiment in Egypt and the Gulf without obliterating any side’s identity;
-Implying essential values of the pan-Arab project and espousing religious moderation in the face of political Islamism;
- It comes at a time when the Gulf countries are in the process of large-scale modernization heeding contemporary values in varying degrees while Egypt is entering a post-independent republic era;
-Achieving balance between Egypt with its big population, huge army and deeply seated state institutions on the one hand and the Gulf with its global economic prowess and geo-politically important energy wealth on the other;
-This envisaged alliance presents a link between energy resources and major gateways.
The project does not seek a showdown with the West, unlike the Nasser-inspired pan-Arab project. Still, the “Third Project” should make use of the fluid world order affected by the rise of Chinese-Russian political clout.
A coherent alliance
Following the Arab Spring, voices were raised in the Gulf calling for an alliance among the monarchies, including cooperation between the region’s emirates on the one hand and monarchies of Jordan and Morocco on the other. Still, the proposed alliance lacked coherence due to geographical incongruity.
The Third Project, in contrast, presents geographical coherence of the Arab Mashreq, particularly as the key challenges facing the region are similar in geographical and cultural terms.
With this in mind, the new project can fulfill the following objectives:
-Promoting links between energy resources and their gateways in the Gulf as well as the Red and Mediterranean seas;
-Cooperation between Egypt and the Gulf countries in particular can serve as groundwork for the Arab Mashreq, helping avoid a potential conflict among the Nile Basin states over water. In addition, it would provide the opportunity to solve the Gulf’s future water and farming problems;
- Achieving balance, not triggering conflict, between the Mashreq project and those of Turkey and Iran;
-The wide-scale spread of Sunni Islam can serve as a deterrent against the possibility of a Sunni-Shiite war with its far-reaching impact on the Gulf security.
- The Maghreb can be later linked to the Mashreq under the umbrella of the Arab League whose existence would not be undermined by the emergence of the “Third Project”.
Rivalries between the Arab world’s post-independence republics and monarchies in the 1960s partly undermined the pan-Arab project. These rivalries are no longer relevant.Abdullah Kamal
The two major challenges facing the proposed alliance in the medium term are: the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The political behavior of both the Brotherhood and Hamas towards Israel has exposed false populist slogans long manipulated by political Islamism to hinder a possible solution to the dispute. The Brotherhood’s overwhelming fall places real pressure on Hamas in Gaza, heightened by a high-profile military campaign being carried out by the Egyptian army in Sinai.
The Third Project would presumably be thoughtful enough to avoid causing trouble to neighbours including Israel. Rather, it would eye a balance with Israel at least to ensure regional stability. No doubt, the vacuum resulting from Egypt’s preoccupation with domestic woes in the past two years would have led to an unfair settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would have failed to ensure minimum stability. Consequently, the Third Project, in strategic terms, should take into consideration economic and cultural assimilation of the Palestinian territories as well as post-Assad Syria.
The second challenge is related to culture and media. This calls for concerted and intense efforts promoting political investment and public awareness, thereby shifting from the stage of rivalry and sloganeering to that of inter-Mashreq integration. The key country members of this project definitely boast what it takes to make this a reality.
(Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)
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