March 2011
Issue No. 70

 
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March 2011

Life After Mubarak

What does the Egyptian revolution mean for Syria and the Middle East?

Story and photo by Edwin Lane

Of all the tumult occurring in the Arab World, the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month following a popular uprising will no doubt be remembered as one of the most dramatic moments in the region's history.

After 30 years of authoritarian rule backed by rigged elections, suppression of opposition movements, corruption and a secretive security force, it was Egypt's 80 million-strong population that eventually succeeded in forcing out Mubarak.

"We are making history here – Egyptians have completely changed their way of thinking," Lina Wardani, news editor of Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo, said.

For Syria, the momentous events could have a significant impact on bilateral relations. Despite once being united as one nation under the Pan-Arabism of president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s and early 1960s, relations between the countries have been strained since Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

The revolution, analysts predict, will most likely help Syrian-Egyptian relations to improve. But whether Mubarak's demise will mark a real turning point for Egypt's foreign relations remains unclear. The long-term impact on the wider Middle East is also uncertain.

Ripple effects
The most obvious area where Syria and the rest of Egypt's Middle East neighbours can expect change, political analysts say, is in Egypt's foreign policy.

Since its peace treaty with Israel, Egypt's close relations with Israel and the US have put it at odds with many of its neighbours and particularly with the axis of resistance – which include Syria, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Under Mubarak, Egypt did not attempt to exert pressure on Israel over its occupation of the West Bank, incursions into Gaza and invasions of Lebanon.

For Syria, Egypt's absence from the Arab side in the regional balance of power has been especially galling, as reclaiming the Golan Heights – occupied by Israel since the 1967 six-day war – remains at the heart of its foreign policy.

Najib Ghadbian, a Syrian-born professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas, said he believes that position could now change.

"I definitely believe that a democratically-elected government in Egypt is going to be more pro-Palestinian, less dependent on the US and much more effective in Arab affairs," he said. "Hopefully, that means Egypt will bring more weight to regional politics, and put more pressure on Israel on issues like giving back the Golan and creating a Palestinian state."

Eiad Wannous, a writer and analyst for Syria's Al-Watan newspaper, agreed that the fall of Mubarak is good news for Syria.

"The Syrian government would have welcomed the fall of Mubarak's regime," he said. "Syria would prefer to deal with a pro-resistance government in Egypt – a government that backs Syrian policies [in the region], or at least one that does not provide a cover for Israeli violations."

But few analysts expect Egypt's peace deal with Israel to be scrapped altogether. The military has explicitly stated that the treaty will remain in place at least until power is returned to a civilian government.

What matters inside
A lot will, of course, depend on whom the Egyptian people chose to lead the country, should free elections eventually be held. While countries around the world will be watching for indications of a future government's foreign policy, internally, it is unlikely to be a major concern for voters.

"The most important thing on the agenda now is domestic, economic and political reforms," Lina Attalah, managing editor of Cairo-based daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, said. "I didn't hear much talk of relations with Israel during the uprising."

Demonstrators in Cairo supported that view. Mohammad Magdi, an administrative worker who joined the protests on January 25, told Syria Today that the activists remained entirely focused on the issues of corruption and political reform.

He also agreed that it is simply too early to begin talking about possible presidential candidates, let alone what their foreign policy might be. The protests were effectively leaderless, and even opposition figures with relatively high profiles – including Mohamed El-Baradei and the Arab League's Amr Moussa – have so far failed to raise widespread, enthusiastic support.

Message received
Syria's government will have to wait and see how the situation develops further before gauging the significance of Egypt's revolution on its own relations with the country.

But as President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, the demonstrations in Egypt have already had an effect on the rest of the Middle East. They underline, he said, the need for many countries to implement economic and political reforms.

While Syria began steadily modernising its economy when Assad came to power in 2000, activists say they are disappointed that the pace of political reform has been comparatively slower.

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born professor at George Washington University in the US, argued that the example set by Egypt will encourage a faster pace of reform.

"What has happened in Egypt should tell [the Syrian government] that it should forge ahead with more reforms," he said. "His foreign policy is aligned with the people, but he has domestic issues to address."

Who will lead Egypt?

Now that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is gone, Syria Today asked Egyptian citizens who they think will fill the void.

By Ahmed Ramadan & Edwin Lane

Muhammad Magdi, 26, administrator and protestor
I'm not thinking about the elections right now. At the moment, amending the constitution is the most important part. It's about making the system stronger with laws that limit the power of the president – whoever that might be.

Mohammad Shawky, 30, filmmaker
I don't have a particular candidate in mind, but I know my criteria: a candidate who is well-known for his integrity and honesty, has a track record of achievements in his or her field, who is not corrupt, who has not been part of Mubarak's regime, who is widely respected, a liberal and a believer in the civil state.

Fady Ramzy, 43, editor-in-chief, My Egypt magazine
I dreamily wish that the president of Egypt would be some national figure with minimal authority, like the Queen of England. We are emotional and rely too much on having a 'fatherly' figure to give us confidence in the system.

Opposition leader Mohammed El-Baradei is not my political 'messiah' who will disinfect the system from all its impurities. And any candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood won't get my vote, because I am strongly against mixing religion with politics.

Eman Shaker, 30, dentist
I may vote for [Arab League Secretary-General] Amr Moussa who is known for his decency and hard work. Also, he is a respected and valued person worldwide. I wouldn't vote for someone from the fallen regime.

Ayman Abu-Salama, 62, taxi driver
I heard the Muslim Brotherhood has promised not to participate in the upcoming presidential elections, but rather will support someone from another party. I do not support them in this, and I believe they were forced into it.

 

BREAKING NEWS

Property contracts worth US$8.4bn up for grabs: Private investment of around US$8.4bn is being sought for the construction of over 100,000 new homes, reports Bloomberg.


Syria, Turkey to expand energy ties: Turkish businesses will seek to increase their ownership of Syrian energy production facilities in March talks.


Outspoken ex-judge freed under amnesty: An 80-year-old outspoken critic of the Syrian government was released under amnesty on the 48th anniversary of the Ba'ath Party revolution.


Tourism to fall following Egypt, Tunisia unrest: The uprisings in the Arab world have led to a sharp decline in tourism from Europe and North America, reports AFP.


Syria clamps down on dissidents: Syria is clamping down on dissent with beatings and arrests, the Guardian reports.


Russia to supply Syria with missles: Russia has signaled its intent to press ahead with missle sales to Syria.


Vogue defends profile of First Lady: Vogue magazine has defended a glowing profile of the Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad, published this month.

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