For 30 years Egypt has been the linchpin of US and Israeli domination across the Middle East. Simon Assaf charts the history of Western support for Mubarak and the consequences of his downfall
When the mass demonstrations that swept Egypt turned into an insurrection, US president Barack Obama demanded to know why Middle East experts in Washington failed to predict that a revolution was about to sweep away its most important ally in the Arab world.
That the Middle East is a huge pressure cooker of anger and frustration was known to all. But some Israelis, neocons and many Arab leaders had convinced themselves that if the Arab masses had not risen in rebellion already, they never would. The Egyptian Revolution has dispelled those illusions and thrown into doubt decades of US military, political and economic thinking designed to break an alliance of Arab states that emerged out of the anti-colonial revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s.
The cornerstone of this strategy was to keep Egypt "neutral" and isolate any country that challenged imperialism and Israel. Egypt's peace treaties with Israel, signed by Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak's predecessor, at Camp David in 1978-9, shifted the balance of power dramatically in the region. Stabilising Egypt meant stabilising Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen and a host of other countries. It was key to isolating Syria and Iran, nations that refused to bow to US diktats in the "new Middle East".
Measured in hard cash, the Israeli-Egyptian peace dividend, known as the "cold peace", remained at a modest $500 million a year in trade. Israeli tourists could take Nile cruises or smoke hashish in Sharm el-Sheikh holiday resorts, and Israeli businessmen could set up free enterprise zones - mainly to guarantee the US market for Egyptian cotton. But the rewards for Israel were far greater. Before 1978 Israel dedicated some 23 percent of its GDP to military spending; after Camp David this dropped to 9 percent.
The treaty had more dramatic consequences. It allowed Israel, virtually unhindered, to turn its full might on the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria. The 1978 Camp David Accords were signed as Israel staged its first invasion of Lebanon. Israeli troops completed the final handover of the Sinai in 1982, before launching the second, and more devastating, invasion of Lebanon. An Egypt friendly to the US guaranteed the safety of the Red Sea and key supply lines for the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Egypt was a great strategic asset. Camp David was hailed as a master stroke.
The cold peace became the cornerstone of imperial strategy in the region, but Egypt also began to matter economically. Some 8 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The strategically vital Sumed pipeline than runs along its banks is part of a network of global oil distribution. Egypt has recently discovered vast reserves of natural gas, oil and coal, and has big industry, with steel foundries, textile mills and car plants.
So Egypt is an economic as well as strategic prize, and China has been hovering for a while in its attempt to displace US and Western capital in the region. Egypt straddles Africa and the Middle East, and in Africa, China matters. Chinese investment in the continent has mushroomed over the past decade, and Egypt is part of this expansion. In 2002 Sino-Egyptian trade was worth $500 million; by 2006 it had reached $3 billion and in 2008 a staggering $6.24 billion. Chinese money is funding a huge expansion of the container terminal in Port Said that will serve as a key hub for its goods bound for European markets. It is modernising the car industry and building high-end electronics factories and other manufacturing plants along the "enterprise zones" near the canal. It has much at stake in Egypt.
China was cautious of drawing too close to an Egypt allied to the US, but now it sees an opportunity and it brings little ideological baggage with it. The US might have a deep political connection with Israel, but China doesn't. Arab protesters do not burn the Chinese flag. So China can present itself as an honest broker in the same way the US did during the dying days of British and French colonial rule. The more aggressive and narrow US and Israeli strategy is, the more it stonewalls even the most moderate peace plan, the greater the risk that Egypt will slip further into the arms of China.
Israel has a second pressing problem - its disastrous relationship with Turkey, a key Middle East nation once considered, like Egypt, to be friendly. The Israelis have been slowly burning their bridges with Ankara, and relations soured further following Israel's bloody attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish aid ship which attempted to break the siege of Gaza. Turkey, once a dependable ally, had already resisted US demands to use its territory as a launch-pad for its invasion of Iraq. Now the Turkish regime has started its "turn to the east", reheating its once frosty relations with its neighbours - it recently sealed its rapprochement with Syria and has warm relations with Iran.
With the Egyptian state now under massive pressure from below, Israel may find it has few friends left. Even before the Egyptian Revolution, Israel was learning that its military power had limits. The failed occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in a humiliating retreat in May 2000, was followed by a disastrous war in 2006, when it was outfought and outthought by Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance. Even its grip on the Palestinians was not assured, with stubborn resistance in the West Bank and an untamed armed opposition in the Gaza Strip.
A combination of the US's disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel's clumsy attempts to suppress Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement, already set nerves jangling. In the weeks before the Egyptian Revolution the parliamentary alliance headed by Hezbollah forced out of office the US-backed prime minister of Lebanon. Israel already had a delicate situation on the "northern front"; now it has a disastrous one in the south.
The region has seen some fundamental social changes in the era of the cold peace. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s Israel confronted societies that were overwhelmingly rural and economically stagnant, by the turn of this century the Arab world had become urban, sophisticated and relatively advanced. Even countries such as Lebanon, vastly poorer that its oil-rich neighbours, have been transformed. In the 1960s three out of four Lebanese lived off the land; now some eight out of ten live in cities. This is true of most other Arab nations, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf states becoming fully integrated into global capitalism.
But these historic social changes are not reflected in the Arab regimes, whose leaders owe their position to events that took place in a world that has long gone. The dysfunctional relationship between the rulers and the "street" had long been seen as a problem by Western governments, but they were too timid to press for meaningful reforms. This problem was compounded by Israel itself.
Israel was already finding the Lebanese and Palestinians difficult to tame. But it could reassure itself that neither resistance movement, even with the help of Syria and Iran, could field an army of millions and march on Tel Aviv. Egypt can, and it brings some hard facts to the table. Its 82 million population dwarfs all others. More people live in the city of Alexandria than in Lebanon, and the population of Greater Cairo is bigger than that of Syria. The Israelis can ill afford a repeat of the war of attrition that culminated in Egypt's devastating 1973 offensive. Israel survived that war, but it was very close.
Having relied on Israel to break the alliance of Arab nationalist regimes, the US found itself unable to rein in its ally's territorial ambitions. The US fell into a strategic trap of its own making. It dangled the prospect of a two-state solution and normalisation to the friendly Arab states, but could not get Israel to make the necessary concessions. And, as was revealed in the recently leaked Palestine Papers - which exposed negotiations between the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority - it never intended to.
Israeli governments engineered the collapse of the Oslo Accords that set out a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and rejected a key Saudi peace plan that offered "Arab normalisation" in return for all the lands seized after the 1967 war. By rejecting these plans, Israel slapped in the face Arab leaders who banked on an "honourable deal" they could sell back home. The Saudi plan and Oslo Accords were rotten for the Palestinians, but still insufficient to satisfy Israel's appetite.
Arab leaders began to demand that the US put more pressure on Israel. Obama initiated desperate and unsuccessful attempts to reign in Israeli ambitions - even offering advanced warplanes in return for a temporary freeze on its settlements in the West Bank. Israeli stonewalling destroyed the Palestinian Authority's credibility and with it any real prospect for peace on its terms. Now Israel and imperialism face a nightmare scenario. Should Israeli troops rush to seize the Gaza Strip (as some Israeli generals are demanding) and risk dragging Egypt into war, or tread warily so as not to provoke a country in the grip of revolutionary fervour? The advice coming from the US is unequivocal.
Stratfor, the renowned US think-tank, used some blunt words to sum up Israel's "strategic distress": "The worst-case scenario for Israel would be a return to the pre-1978 relationship with Egypt without a settlement with the Palestinians. That would open the door for a potential two-front war with an intifada in the middle. To avoid that, the ideological pressure on Egypt must be eased, and that means a settlement with the Palestinians on less than optimal terms.
"The alternative is to stay the current course and let Israel take its chances. The question is where the greater safety lies. Israel has assumed that it lies with confrontation with the Palestinians. That's true only if Egypt stays neutral. If the pressure on the Palestinians destabilises Egypt, it is not the most prudent course."
The US is banking on skilfully talking down the Egyptian Revolution and it is attempting to sell itself as a friend of the people. Yet there is an immediate and pressing question: what happens when Gaza asks for the siege to be lifted? What will be the response of an Egyptian government, whether military or civilian, that has set up shop in Mubarak's presidential palace?
Either way the US is attempting, under Obama, to tread delicately. Israel could decide to gamble on a repeat of its 1967 victory, but the risks are suddenly very high. For imperialism the Egyptian effect is posing wider strategic concerns. The waves generated by the revolution are already lapping at the shores of other Middle East countries. The uprising has emboldened already existing movements for change, with almost daily protests and demonstrations in Bahrain (home to the US Fifth Fleet), Yemen (a key US ally in the "war on terror") and Jordan (the second Arab country to make peace with Israel), as well as Algeria and Morocco.
Similarly it is worth repeating that Israel is a mighty power, and the more the US loses its footing in the region, the more dependent it is on maintaining this power. Crucially for the US, the Israeli regime has vastly greater internal stability than the Arab dictatorships, as it is based on a racially exclusive settler state that owes its survival to imperialism. The US understands that, whatever the outcome of the revolution, Israel still has the ability to mete out some harsh military punishment. The US is not about to abandon Israel; it just wants it to behave, for now.
The biggest fear is not only that the Egyptian Revolution reproduces itself in the rest of the region - although this seems increasingly possible - but that in the process of revolution the Arab masses have rediscovered their power and proved what is possible. The question of the direction for the Egyptian Revolution remains open-ended. But it already casts a shadow over Israel, imperialism and its allies in the region.
Over the past 30 years Israel and the US were forced to look over their shoulders at a resistance armed with stones and crude rockets. Now they have come face to face with a giant.