Quiet, Revolution in Progress

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

The polls had closed a few hours earlier in Cairo, after two days of voting for a president who may or may not have any power. The Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to claim victory. Meanwhile, in the desert to the west, three gunmen crossed the border between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Israel, attacked an Israeli crew building a border fence, and killed a worker, an Arab Israeli named Saeed Fashafshe.

The human mind likes to make connections, so it’s easy to draw a thick black line of cause-and-effect between these events: One could conclude that the revolution alone is at fault for the Egyptian regime losing control of the Sinai desert—or worse, that the ascendant Islamicists are encouraging the border violence. Those reflexive interpretations ran through Israeli media reports this week.

The reality is more complicated. Nonetheless, the fact that the border and Egyptian politics are heating up at the same time demands attention. For Egypt’s wrestling political forces, the lesson should be that foreign policy problems don’t take vacation because you are busy with a revolution. For Israel’s government, the proper conclusion is that restraint is triply necessary when a revolution is in progress next door.

Long before the revolution, Egypt’s central government treated the Sinai as the “periphery of the periphery,” says Ben-Gurion University professor Yoram Meital, a leading Israeli expert on Egypt. The scattered Beduin of the Sinai feel little connection with other Egyptians, and the feeling is mutual. Besides that, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel sharply restricts the military forces that Egypt can deploy in the Sinai. Demilitarization is designed to prevent war between the two countries—but it also reduces the control that Egypt can assert over the barren peninsula. Even while Hosni Mubarak was still in power, Meital notes, armed groups began moving into the Sinai’s “security vacuum.” The Israeli army has Gaza too tightly surrounded for Palestinian militants to enter Israel from there—so some have tried to outflank the Israeli military by crossing through the Sinai. To all this, one may add the breakdown in security throughout Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. Personal safety was a central campaign issue before last weekend’s elections.

So far, the election has yielded one conclusion: The internal struggle in Egypt has only begun. The constitutional court’s dismissal of parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’s sudden rewriting of the constitution show that the old regime is determined to impose a restoration: It wants the new Egyptian republic, like the old Egyptian republic, to have the façade of parliament and president while the army runs the country. (As historian M. Sukru Hanioglu has written, this form of government was invented by the Young Turks at the end of the Ottoman Empire and bequeathed to nearly all the states that arose on its ruins.)

Read the rest here.