Arab Spring Is Spinning Out of Control

By Zvi Mazel

The uneasy, somewhat unnatural equilibrium which existed in the Middle East before the so-called Arab Spring and its dramatic changes is no more.

The fall of Mubarak tilted the Middle East out of balance. His regime had been the cornerstone of the regional equilibrium and America's staunchest ally.

Immediately after the revolution Egypt proclaimed that it no longer had enemies and that it would open a dialogue with Iran and with Hamas, thus relinquishing its leadership of the pragmatic block of Arab countries against the "axis of evil" led by Iran and unraveling the first strands of its strategic alliance with the United States.

Conversations with Iran were cut short by the discovery of an Iranian terror cell in Cairo but are about to start anew at the initiative of the recently elected parliament where the Muslim Brotherhood holds the majority of the seats. The Foreign Relations committee, headed by Issam Alarian, vice president of the Justice and Freedom party of the Brotherhood, has announced that it was reconsidering relations with Iran. The Arab spring having brought to power in Egypt an extremist Sunni organization - the Brotherhood - one would have thought that this would lead to clashes with Iran, leader of the extremist Shia branch of Islam and fighting for supremacy in the Middle East.

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It seems that a common Islamic interest and the need to find an alternative to American aid are temporarily playing in favor of Iran. Iran, fearing to lose Syria, is courting Egypt and hastened to congratulate the Egyptian Parliament after it issued a grievous anti-Israeli declaration this week.

Hamas, which was considered a threat to Egypt under Mubarak, has become persona grata. Being an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, its leaders are now welcome in Cairo where frequent meetings between Hamas and Fatah are held; Khaled Mashaal meets with Tantawi.

Relations are expected to expand when the Brothers form the new government.

The brokered cease-fire over Gaza carried out by Egypt very discreetly shows the new intimacy of Egypt with Hamas. It is also possible that Qatar, being close to the Brotherhood, contributed to that result while Iran may have dropped a few words in the ears of Islamic Jihad, its proxy, to assist Egypt's efforts.

Saudi Arabia - the longtime ally of Mubarak's Egypt - is worried. On the one hand the royal family lives in dread of a popular uprising; on the other it has to deal with the threats of an increasingly vocal Iran against the West and its Arab allies. Finding an alternative regional alliance is not easy. The kingdom did threaten to develop its own nuclear program should Iran persist, but Iran did not bother to react.

Then there was an attempt to set up a conservative block including all the countries which are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Jordan and Morocco, which would take a firm stand against Iran. However, Saudi Arabia quietly dropped the project, the two countries being so poor that they would be a burden on the Gulf emirates. The Saudis are still actively fighting Tehran, pushing for stronger measures of the Arab League against Assad ostensibly in order to help Sunni populations facing the Alawites but in fact, and no less important, to weaken its rival, which needs its Syrian ally.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is not slamming the door: it let the two Iranian warships enter the port of Jeddah.

According to sources in the Saudi Defense Ministry, this was done because the ships were allegedly on a training mission (!) and according to the traditional friendship between peoples. Yet a few weeks earlier a plot by the Iranians to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington had been exposed by American authorities.

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The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

© The Jerusalem Post 1995 - 2012

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