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Beyond the Democratic Wave in the Arab World: The Middle East's Turko-Persian Future
Mohammed Ayoob
Adjunct Scholar
Date: 4/28/2011

Recent events in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak by a “people’s revolution” have given rise to the impression that Egypt is once again emerging as the focal point of politics in the Middle East. It is argued that this is likely to be the case both because of the “demonstration effect” of the Egyptian revolution on the rest of the Arab world and because of the revolution’s anticipated impact on Egypt’s relations both with Israel and with the United States. It is assumed, and in some quarters feared, that a civilian government responsive to popular opinion will dramatically alter Egypt’s relations with Israel (and by extension with the United States) thus undermining the current status quo between Israel and its Arab neighbors that favors the former.

I would contend that despite the euphoria surrounding the January 25 revolution both these conclusions are premature for a number of reasons. First, given the Egyptian military’s vested interest in the existing economic and political power structure in the country, any political transition supervised by the military top brass is unlikely to bring about genuine socioeconomic and political change, thus eventually limiting the demonstration effect of Egyptian events on neighboring Arab countries. Second, the armed forces have declared unequivocally that they will honor all international treaties signed by the previous regimes, thus signaling their commitment to the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty of 1979. Therefore, while there may be some easing of the Egyptian blockade of Gaza, the fundamental nature of Egypt’s relations with Israel is unlikely to change.

The Egyptian military is committed to the status quo for two major reasons. One, it knows that it cannot afford an openly hostile Israel on its borders especially since the latter has the massive backing of Washington and possesses state of the art weaponry supplied by the United States. Second, the military top brass has a vested interest in good relations with the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into the military’s coffers during the past three decades. The corporate interests of the Egyptian military officer class preclude its countenancing any major change in the foreign policy trajectory of the country. Despite more political openness and a public face of civilian rule, it is unlikely that the fundamental power structure in Egypt or its foreign policy orientation will undergo radical transformation except in the very long, run if and when civilian forces are able successfully to chip away at the military’s domination of the country’s political and economic life. It is worth noting in this context that it took six decades for Turkey to assert a reasonable amount of civilian control over the military and that that process is still far from complete.

Therefore, it is unlikely that the Egyptian revolution will have a major impact on the political and strategic landscape in the Middle East in the short and medium terms. This also means that the shift in the center of political gravity in the region from the Arab heartland comprising Egypt and the Fertile Crescent to what was once considered the non-Arab periphery – Turkey and Iran – which was becoming clearly discernible before the recent upheavals in the Arab world will continue. This shift in terms of power and influence from the Arab heartland to Turkey and Iran commenced with the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 and gained momentum with the Iranian revolution of 1979. One began to see, however hazily, the contours of the emerging Turko-Persian future of the Middle East in 1991 with the decimation of Iraqi power in the First Gulf War that provided both Iran and Turkey political space to increase their influence in the Persian Gulf and in the Fertile Crescent respectively. It became a full-blown reality following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its allies between 2001 and 2003.

To many Western analysts, the self-confidence demonstrated by Turkey and Iran in the international arena in the past decade appears to be an attempt to recreate the Ottoman Empire (hence the popularity of the term “neo-Ottomanism” while referring to Turkish foreign policy) on the one hand, and the emergence of a Shia crescent, on the other. To the more discerning observers of the Middle East however, the emergence of Turkey and Iran as major regional players does not reveal such disconcerting trends. The political elites in Ankara and Tehran are not naïve to fall prey to such inflated aspirations. They are merely asserting their long overdue roles as major regional actors in a system of sovereign states.

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