The prospect of an imminent, uncontrolled change in the leadership of Egypt, or other political paralysis in the state, as a result of growing popular unrest which began in the country in earnest on January 25, 2011, has clear strategic ramifications, dependent on how the matter resolves itself.
By January 30, 2011, the key to the transition of power in Egypt was the Army. The domestic intelligence service under the Interior Ministry had failed to anticipate, or deal with, the crisis; the foreign intelligence service, from which the new Vice-President emerged, lacks a power base. So, as the matter progressed, only the Army could maintain stability.
Pres. Mubarak’s health is now so poor that it was considered surprising that he did not take steps in 2009 to begin a transition of power, but his son and named heir, Gamal, himself had developed no meaningful power base other than in certain financial and political sectors. That “base” provided no power in the context of popular discontent.2
Pres. Hosni Mubarak, 82, on Saturday, January 29, 2011, dismissed his entire Cabinet, but it was likely that Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy Soliman, 75, will be called back into a new Cabinet, given the fact that he has effectively managed the Armed Forces as head of the Operations Authority (effectively head of the Army and joint services) and, since 1993, as Defense Minister. Field Marshal Tantawy is solid, discreet, modest, and has a strongly loyal following within the military. He had also been Commander of the Presidential Guard, Minister for Defense Production, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (1991). Many in the military consider that he should have acted earlier to cause Pres. Mubarak to retire, and to put a stop to the President’s belief that he could make his son, Gamal Mubarak, 47, into a leader to succeed to the Presidency.
The fact that the President, on Friday, January 28, 2011, called on the Armed Forces to essentially replace the Police and the Security Police essentially put Field Marshal Tantawy in command of the situation. The rivalry between the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry — which controls the General Directorate for State Security (the Security Policy, a national paramilitary gendarmerie) — has been endemic in Egypt for decades. The Interior Ministry manifestly failed to anticipate the level of frustration throughout Egyptian society, and neither did it plan an effective response to any large-scale unrest.
The Armed Forces under the legendary then-Defense Minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abu-Ghazala, during the Anwar as-Sadat Presidency (1970-1981) and later, were used to put down a mutiny, in February 1986, by 17,000 Security Police. A colleague and friend of this writer (and the likes of US Secretary of State Alexander Haig) from 1974 until his death on September 6, 2008, Field Marshal Abu-Ghazala was awarded the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) Gold Star Award for Outstanding Contributions to Strategic Progress in 1986. Abu-Ghazala, like his friend, Field Marshal Tantawy, was seen as a Presidential contender, but both of them chose — for the sake of stability in Egypt — not to challenge Mubarak’s lackluster Presidency.
The measure of Pres. Mubarak’s understanding that Egypt is moving rapidly toward political transition came when he named, on January 29, 2011, a Vice-President, the first he has appointed since he took office in 1981. He had promised the post to then-Defense Minister Abu-Ghazala, and later it was reported he would offer it to current Defense Minister Tantawy. But Mubarak was full of fear that he might be removed and succeeded.
Now he has named Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Mukhabarat el-Aama — the general intelligence and security service, responsible for foreign intelligence — to the Vice-Presidency. He also named retired Air Chief Marshal and former Air Force commander and head of civil aviation Ahmed Shafik, 69, as prime minister, replacing Ahmed Nazif, who had been Prime Minister since 2004, and who was forced to resign with the entire Cabinet during the current unrest.
One commentator remarked, after the start of the rioting in Egypt on January 25, 2011, that “repression” of Egyptian society was not the reason for popular unrest, but rather the frustration was finally boiling over because Mubarak failed to offer Egyptians “a dream”. What was remarkable about Pres. Mubarak’s tenure was his absolute failure to project any personal charisma or to paint a “dream” for the Egyptian people, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Anwar as-Sadat, whose 1978 autobiography, In Search of Identity, expressly outlined to the Egyptian people who they were, and what they sought.
In the Preface to the Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook on Egypt, in 1995, I noted: “If Egypt remains strong, and in all senses a ‘power’ in its regional contexts, then world events will move in one direction. If Egypt’s strength is undermined, then world events (and not merely those of the Middle East) will move along a far more uncertain and violent path.”
It is significant that Egypt began to fail to be “strong”, internally, within a few years of that 1995 book. It became less resilient as Pres. Mubarak became more isolated and the inspiration offered by Sadat began to erode. This resulted in the rise in Egypt of the Islamists who had killed Sadat, and the growing empowerment of the veteran Islamists from the Afghan conflict, including such figures as Osama bid Laden (who had spent considerable time living in Egypt), and Ayman al-Zawahiri, et al.
The reality was that Mubarak’s management-style Presidency could not offer the requisite hope — because “hope” translates to meaning and identity — to Egyptian society as it was transitioning from poverty and unemployment to gradually growing wealth. Hope equates to patience.3
What are the areas of strategic concern, then, as Egypt transforms? The following are some considerations:
1. Security and stability of Suez Canal sea traffic: Even temporary disruption, or the threat of disruptions, to traffic through the Suez Canal would disturb global trade, given that the Canal and the associated SUMED pipeline (which takes crude oil north from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean) are responsible for significant volumes of world trade, including energy shipments. Threats of delays or closure of the Canal and/or the SUMED, or hints of increased danger to shipping, would significantly increase insurance costs on trade, and would begin to have shippers consider moving Suez traffic, once again, to the longer and more expensive Cape of Good Hope seaway.
2. Disruption of Nile waters negotiations and matters relating: Egypt’s support for the emerging independence of South Sudan was based on that new state’s control over a considerable stretch of the White Nile, at a time when Egypt has been attempting to dominate new treaty discussions regarding Nile (White and Blue Nile) water usage and riparian rights. Already, Egyptian ability to negotiate with the Nile River states has entered an hiatus, and unless the Egyptian Government is able to re-form quickly around a strong, regionally-focused model, Egypt will have lost all momentum on securing what it feels is its dominance over Nile water controls. In the short term, the Egyptian situation could provide tremors into northern and South Sudan, and in South Sudan this will mean that the US, in particular, could be asked to step up support activities to that country’s independence transition.
Such a sudden loss of Egypt’s Nile position will radically affect its long-standing proxy “war” to keep Ethiopia — which controls the headwaters and flow of the Blue Nile, the Nile’s biggest volume input — landlocked and strategically impotent. This means that Egypt’s ability to block African Union (AU) and Arab League denial of sovereignty recognition of the Republic of Somaliland will decline or disappear for the time being. Already Egypt’s influence enabled an Islamist take-over of Somaliland, possibly moving that state toward re-integration with the anomic Somalia state. Equally importantly, the interregnum in Egypt will mean a cessation of Cairo’s support for Eritrea and the proxy war which Eritrea facilitates — but which others, particularly Egypt, pay — against Ethiopia through the arming, logistics, training, etc., of anti-Ethiopian groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), etc.
3. Overall security of the Red Sea states and SLOC: Egypt has been vital to sustaining the tenuous viability of the state of Eritrea, because Cairo regarded Eritrean loyalty as a key means of sustaining Egyptian power projection into the Red Sea (and ensuring the security of the Red Sea/Suez Sea Lane of Communication), and to deny such access to Israel. Absent Egyptian support, the Eritrean Government of Pres. Isayas Afewerke will begin to feel its isolation and economic deprivation, and may well, on its own, accelerate new pressures for conflict with Ethiopia to distract local populations from the growing deprivation in the country.
4. The Israel situation: A protracted interregnum in Egypt, or a move by Egypt toward Islamist or populist governance could bring about a decline in the stability of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, and provide an opening of the border with the HAMAS-controlled Gaza region of the Palestinian Authority lands. This would contribute to the ability of Iran to escalate pressures on Israel, and not only further isolate Israel, but also isolate Jordan, and, to an extent, Saudi Arabia. The threat of direct military engagement between Israel and Egypt may remain low, but a move by Egypt away from being a predictable part of the regional peace system would, by default, accelerate the growth of the Iran-Syria-HizbAllah-HAMAS ability to strategically threaten Israel. Moreover, the transforming situation would also inhibit the West Bank Palestinian Authority Government.
5. Eastern Mediterranean stability: The instability, and the possible move toward greater Islamist influence, in Egypt reinforces the direction — and potential for control of the regional agenda — by the Islamist Government of Turkey. It is certainly possible that the transformed mood of the Eastern Mediterranean could inhibit external investment in the development of the major gas fields off the Israeli and Cyprus coasts. This may be a gradual process, but the overall sense of the stability of the region — particularly if Suez Canal closure or de facto closure by any avoidance of it by shippers due to an Islamist government in Cairo — would be jeopardized if the area is no longer the world’s most important trade route.
6. Influence on Iran’s position: It should be considered that any decline in Egypt’s ability to act as the major influence on the Arab world enhances Iran’s de facto position of authority in the Greater Middle East. It is true that Egypt’s position has been in decline in this regard for the past decade and more, and that even Saudi Arabia has worked, successfully to a degree, to compete with Egypt for regional (ie: Arab) leadership. Without strong Egyptian leadership, however, there is no real counterweight to Iran’s ability to intimidate. During the period of the Shah’s leadership in Iran (until the “revolution” of 1979 and the Shah’s departure, ultimately to his death and burial, ironically, in Cairo), Iran and Egypt were highly compatible strategic partners, stabilizing the region to a large degree. The Shah’s first wife was Egyptian. Absent a strong Egypt (and, in reality, we have been “absent a strong Egypt” for some years), we can expect growing Iranian boldness in supporting such groups as those fighting for the so-called “Islamic Republic of Eastern Arabia”.
7. US interests: A stable Egypt is critical for the maintenance of US strategic interests, given its control of the Suez; its partnership in the peace process with Israel; and so on. Why, then, would the current US Barack Obama Administration indicate that it would “support the masses” in the streets of Egyptian cities at this point. There is no question that Washington has supported moves to get Pres. Mubarak to provide for a smooth succession over recent years: that would have been beneficial for Egypt as well as for the US. But for the US to actively now support — as Barack Obama has done — “the street” over orderly transition of power lacks strategic sense. It is true that the State Dept., and even the strategically-challenged US Vice-President, Joe Biden, have urged caution on the Egyptian people, but Pres. Obama has effectively contradicted that approach, as he did in Tunisia, where he literally supported the street revolution against its President earlier in January 2011.4 If Egypt moves to anti-Western, anti-US governance, the US will be required to re-think its entire strategic approach to the Middle East, Africa, and the projection of power through the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Indian Ocean. It would give a strong boost of importance to the US Pacific Fleet, which is responsible for US projection the Indian Ocean. CENTCOM (Central Command) would need to be re-thought, as would USAFRICOM (US African Command).
8. Impact on the US positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan: The “loss” of Egypt and the questionable ability which the US could have over projection through the Suez Canal — if it came to that — would certainly impact US ability to support the final military operations it has in Iraq, and Afghanistan. A loss (or jeopardizing) of US military access via Egyptian-controlled areas such as the Red Sea/Suez would absolutely fragment the way in which the US can project power globally. Even the accession of an Islamist state in Egypt, as opposed to closure of the Suez Canal, would achieve much of this. What is clear is that the US did not adequately prepare for the end of the Mubarak era, even though it was absolutely obvious that it was coming. Now, only by luck will the US see the Egyptian Armed Forces reassert control over Egypt and introduce a new generation of leadership to bridge the transition until the re-emergence of a charismatic leader.
9. Concern over governance transition in “republican dynasties”: The recent street moves against states with protracted – ie: essentially against normal constitutional viability – power being held by autocratic leaders over long periods has become a clear message that Western democracies succeed by arranging orderly transitions of power, whether among their constitutional monarchs as heads-of-state, or among their elected governments. States which rise and fall with each successive and uneasy – often violent – transfer of power from one leader to the next, or in which autocrats attempt to impose their children as their successors without the legitimacy of a nationally-evolved monarchy or tradition, are in increasing peril as to their long-term stability. Syria, for example, in the region continues to founder although it achieved the transfer of one Assad to the next, but it does not prosper. Libya, Algeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, and North Korea, for example, all must consider that extended governance without legitimate options for the future encourages decline and instability.
10. Issues of Military Technology and Equipment Relations: Any move by Egypt away from its pro-US position – including, and particularly, the prospect of an administration headed by self-styled “opposition leader” Mohamed Elbaradei, would result in a major compromise of US military technology. The Egyptian Armed Forces have a major defense supply relationship with the US, particularly with high-profile systems such as late-model Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters, M1A1 main battle tanks, AH-64A/D Apache and Apache Longbow attack helicopters, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, a wide range of surface- and air-mounted missile systems, and so on. The reality is that further north in the Mediterranean, the defense supply relationship with Turkey is already compromised, by the US Government will not recognize that. Firstly, the supply relationship with Turkey means that the technology itself may be compromised to other states (Iran, Russia), to some extent, and now will almost certainly not be used to support US/NATO initiatives. In Egypt, a similar situation could prevail if the Armed Forces do not take control and exclude Elbaradei and/or other anti-US Islamists or populists.
Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser was charismatic and transformative, but not necessarily a leader who delivered a strong new architecture to Egypt. Anwar as-Sadat gradually emerged as charismatic, and he was transformative in a very meaningful way for the country.
It took three decades of Mubarak’s invisible presence for so much of Sadat’s vision to erode, and yet Sadat’s national architecture remains intact if someone would be able to pick up the reins of real leadership. What is significant is that the Egyptian Royal Family has not re-emerged from exile to offer some hope of a restoration of traditional Egyptian values.
If the populist and vehemently anti-US ally of Iran, Mohamed Elbaradei, seizes control of the Egyptian mob — because that is his goal: to position himself at the front of a mob not of his own making — he would certainly re-introduce a great element of instability to the region, and bolster Iran’s position.
Even without directly working with Iran, merely by pushing Egypt into an investment-averse situation, Iran’s regional power would grow, and Egypt would be under the grip of a vain and shallow man far more detrimental to the nation’s long-term interests even than Mubarak the Manager. Not insignificantly, when US left-leaning television news network CNN interviewed – and essentially played softly with – Elbaradei, the former UN official was wearing a green tie, meant to be a clear signal to Iran and the Islamists.
There are other populist factors to consider, including the prospect of a junior- or mid-level officer putsch in the style of the Free Officers Movement which propelled Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, its founder (after first putting up a staging horse, Gen. Muhammad Naguib, into office as a figurehead), to power in 1952, launching the system which is now under pressure with the decline of Mubarak.
There are many more factors to consider, but these are a few on which thinking should focus.
Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.