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Can Egypt trigger a regional change?
The Guardian, Editorial
Any fears that the revolution could be reversed by Egypt`s military rulers began to recede yesterday. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now the official ruler in Egypt, dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution and confirmed that an election would be called in six months` time. It did not directly address the third demand, that emergency rule would be lifted, but a committee will be formed to amend the constitution, which includes the hated emergency law. Brick by brick, the structure of Hosni Mubarak`s regime is being dismantled. As cars began circling Cairo`s Tahrir Square for the first time in more than two weeks – and there were scuffles between soldiers and protesters who refused to leave – political progress was at long last being made. A march of victory has been called for the end of this week, but one of the opposition leaders, Ayman Nour, was right to say that the military`s actions were meeting the protesters` central demands.
Egypt will be preoccupied with its own affairs for some time to come, but it is clear that the shockwave of last week`s events is already being felt throughout the region. The first to feel its effects was the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank – for whom the former Egyptian president was a trusted ally in the fight to contain and control Fatah`s rival, Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas, whose own term as president has expired and whose legitimacy has been questioned, announced that general elections would be held by September. His aide, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, called upon all parties to participate, a plea that Hamas rejected. With up to 1,000 of their members in Palestinian Authority prisons, it is not difficult to see why. Their ability to contest an election in the West Bank is in doubt and in those circumstances conciliation talks should precede, not follow, an election worth the name.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, also offered his resignation after he accepted that the leak of secret documents about talks with Israel, which were published by al-Jazeera and this newspaper, came from his own office. Al-Jazeera was accused of undermining the peace process by publishing the confidential record taken by Palestinian officials. It may be closer to the truth to say that Fatah is divided about the extent of the territorial and other concessions offered by Mr Abbas to the then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Mr Erekat`s resignation may not be the last.
These manoeuvres are minor in comparison to the possible change in regional politics that a change of regime in Egypt could trigger. No one can say for sure how Egypt will turn out, but it is already clear that a future government will be less malleable in performing all the duties that Mr Mubarak undertook in the region. Egypt will, as the military council confirmed, honour its peace treaty with Israel. And its secret service will continue to provide western counterparts with invaluable information about al-Qaida. But whether a future government will rally the support that Mr Abbas needed in the Arab world, be quite as willing to maintain the siege of Gaza by keeping its border with the enclave closed, or block unity talks between Fatah and Hamas – these are all open questions.
They offer President Barack Obama an opportunity to rebalance his Middle East policy. The weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the breakdown of attempts to restart direct talks with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, are both signs that the current policy is not working. In these circumstances is it wise for America to continue to block the formation of a Palestinian unity government capable of representing a wider spectrum of Palestinian opinion? If Mr Abbas carries out his threat to resign, or not contest the elections, a new Palestinian leadership battle will anyway be in the offing. And once again Washington will find itself behind the curve.
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