Morsi's removal from power and the exacerbation of the conflict over Egypt's identity and political future add yet another compounding element to the murky arena of Middle Eastern regional politics. During the first decades of the post colonial Middle East there was a pattern to its regional politics. Turkey and Iran, the successor states to the former Muslim empires, played for different reasons only a marginal role in the region's politics. The Arab-Israeli conflict was a cardinal issue, but given the Arab consensus not a polarizing one. The nascent Arab state system was governed by the rivalry between the two Hashemite kingdoms and the Saudi and Egyptian royal houses. Arab politics was then transformed by the hegemony of radical pan-Arab nationalism and Abdul Gamal Nasser's messianic leadership and Egypt's hegemony. A clear pattern emerged as the Arab cold war (to borrow Malcolm Kerr's terminology) was fitted into the Cold War. In the 1970's this pattern and clarity were broken by a whole series of developments: Nasser's decline and death, pan Arabism's decline and the rise of political Islam, Syria's emergence as a regional power, the accumulation of wealth and political influence in the Gulf and the introduction of an Arab-Israeli peace process. Subsequent developments--the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the end of the Cold War--led to further fragmentation.
In the first decade of the current century those looking for patterns and governing principles would point to the conflict between Iran and its allies and clients (Syria, the new regime in Iraq, Hizballah and the radical Palestinian organizations) and its rivals, the pro Western conservative Arab states headed by Mubarak's Egypt. But a more fruitful approach would point to the novel elements: Iran's much more aggressive quest for regional hegemony (facilitated by Saddam's disappearance from the scene), Turkey’s return to the Middle East as a powerful Islamist actor, a more prominent role for Islam and Islamic groups in the region's politics, and the new importance of soft power exemplified by Qatar's use of money and satellite television to acquire a degree of influence disproportionate to its size and power.
It was against this background that the events commonly and erroneously known as the Arab Spring began to unfold in December 2010. The fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and the evident pressure on other conservative governments led many to view these events as a net gain to Iran and its followers. But the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and its evolution into a civil war transformed the landscape. Iran's most important asset was jeopardized, Iran's massive support of an Alawite regime antagonized the Sunni Arab majority in the region and Syria became the stage on which regional and international rivalries are being played out. The Syrian crisis also exposed Turkey's weakness as a regional actor and put into stark relief America's current reluctance to invest in protecting its interests in the Middle East and Russia's willingness to step into the vacuum.
There are two ways to evaluate the recent turn of events in Cairo. One is to take stock of winners and losers; such a list would count Bashar al Assad and Saudi Arabia as winners, Turkey and Qatar as losers and Israel and Iran as pondering their bottom line. A better choice would depart from the assumption that the internal Egyptian conflict is not over and will likely unfold over time, that the domestic, regional and international tug of war over the future of Egypt is of such importance that it will eclipse other issues and its outcome will reshape the regional politics of the Middle East.
What happens in Cairo never stays in that great city. Pan-Arabism was a project of the intellectuals, but Cairo under Nasser gave it power and a big stage. Likewise today, it is fitting that Cairo is the all-important stage on which unfolds a deadly struggle over political Islam and its place in the life of the Greater Middle East.
Itamar Rabinovich, noted historian and former president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.