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An anti-Morsi protester in Tahrir Square uses chains to symbolize Muslim Brotherhood rule. (ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS)
An anti-Morsi protester in Tahrir Square uses chains to symbolize Muslim Brotherhood rule. (ASMAA WAGUIH/REUTERS)

Middle East panel: Getting a grip on a region in turmoil Add to ...

The past two weeks in the Middle East have seen a tectonic and dramatic set of events that have quickly reshaped the region in unforeseen ways, and The Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin and Omar El Akkad bore witness to their significance: the rockets that terrorized Israel, the assassination of a major Hamas leader, the Israeli bombs dropped on Gaza and a ceasefire improbably brokered by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leader. Who soon turned around and granted himself sweeping powers and neutralized the judiciary. Add to all that a United Nations vote this week to upgrade Palestine’s international status (much to the consternation of Canada). Now even the experts are working hard to make sense of the Middle East. To get a grip on a region in turmoil, editor Susan Sachs talks with Globe and Mail correspondents Patrick Martin, live from Jerusalem, and Omar El Akkad, currently on assignment in Cairo.

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What’s surprised you two the most watching all this unfold?

OE: I was at Tahrir Square the other day with about 200,000 other people during a protest against Mr. Morsi, and I was surprised at how many of them did not look like hard-core revolutionaries. I saw families with young children and a sort of carnival atmosphere. Egyptians are no longer scared, and that is very significant. So, whether the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in getting the country on side, it now has to deal with a population no longer afraid of saying what it thinks.

PM: On this side, I’d say the people of Israel are discovering fear once again. There was a real shock that rockets could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel will say it won, but the Israelis are scrambling. I’m surprised that they weren’t ready for this possibility and you have a rapid move to the right among the nationalist settler forces. There is an opportunity here for a strong centrist candidate to maybe capture the strength of the country going forward.

And in Palestine?

PM: There was an enthusiastic crowd in Ramallah late Thursday night when the UN vote was conducted – so there’s a sense of joy. But it’s modest. There wasn’t that big a crowd - maybe 4,000 tops - and come morning, a lot of people weren’t sure what it really meant.

OE: During a debate at Egypt’s constitutional assembly on Thursday, the chair paused the proceedings to announce the successful Palestinian UN bid. Most of the assembly politely applauded, but one Islamist stood up and angrily declared that the news was meaningless, since Palestinians didn’t need any outside party validating what they already knew. For many Egyptians, anything short of a total Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory isn’t worth cheering.

PM: Actually, what’s really captured attention here is Canada’s strident opposition to the UN bid. Palestinian leaders don’t like being dealt with as if some kind of errant school child, and the PLO’s point man on peace negotiations says life for Canada in this region will become difficult.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have split Egypt in a way that it seems very difficult to mend.

OE: It’s deeply polarized, and there’s anger on the streets. There’s Mr. Morsi and his allies - and everyone else. The central tension, of course, are the decrees he issued last week - which essentially give him unchecked powers until a new constitution is drawn up.

Remember: Mr. Morsi won with only 51.7 per cent of the vote. And a lot of people who voted for him were really voting against Ahmed Shafiq, who had strong ties to the Mubarak regime. Before last week’s decrees, there was actually a lot of common ground: getting rid of Mubarak loyalists, establishing social justice.

But Mr. Morsi has now convinced a lot of his opponents that he’s really interested in securing unchecked power. Now, I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who absolutely despise the old regime - and yet fully believe things were better under it.

A lot of Egyptians are very pessimistic about the general state of the country and the lack of vision on Mr. Morsi’s part. The economy has never really recovered from the revolution. The tourism industry hasn’t picked up. And now there’s uncertainty around the constitution.

What about the constitutional reform going on right now.

OE: The big concern is how much sharia law will become a guiding principle. Really minute differences will have a very serious impact on how the country is run. As we speak, the Constitutional Assembly is voting on the draft constitution. But virtually every article is passing with unanimous consent, because the assembly is dominated by Islamists: Not a single Christian member, and many of the liberal groups, are not present – they’ve all walked out. That means those most worried about sharia law are no longer participating.

But the Islamists were elected, not only in Egypt, but across the region. Isn’t this legitimately their hour?

PM: It’s the problem of complete domination. There’s a principle here called mohasasa, which says that when you have an election, it’s not winner take all - a sense of sharing power is very much in these societies. I mean, Christians represent 10 per cent of the population, they really should be in that room, but they felt the assembly was loaded against them and the only way to draw attention to that was to boycott it.

Even if this assembly’s work gets through parliament, though, it’s going to face a referendum - and that’s likely the next battleground. I sense this thing will go on a lot longer than Mr. Morsi would like it to.

How is Israel responding to Morsi?

PM: Mr. Morsi’s declarations last week alarmed a great number of people. I was reminded, though, that the Muslim Brotherhood is incredibly well disciplined – you don’t take a step without general agreement with the hierarchy. This was not the act of an individual. They must have a plan in setting this thing in motion, and may have been surprised by the opposition. We have to look at their motives because they are a very successful group at maintaining order in their own movement and they haven’t come as far as they have without it. So, yes, outside the country, you have to wonder just what’s going on.

Is it in Egypt’s interest – and does it even have the ability -- to push Hamas and other Palestinian groups toward any kind of peace process?

PM: There’s an expectation that the Muslim Brotherhood, being the parent, if you like, of Hamas, it can rein them in and, to some degree, we’ve seen them being reined in – in their willingness to accept the ceasefires rapidly, in their willingness, in fact, to support Fatah’s bid at the United Nations. That influence has come probably from their friends in Cairo and also from their benefactors in Doha, their source of great political cover these days. Those two groups have persuaded Hamas to keep a low profile, but that is not likely to stop it from attempting to re-arm. It will build weapons, if it has to.

Is what goes on in Gaza of any real interest to Egyptians on the street?

OE: I’ve been very surprised how little interest there is. Even before Mr. Morsi’s decrees, the focus here was purely on domestic issues. The one comment I heard was about how Mr. Morsi spoke so eloquently about victims of shelling in Gaza - and yet has such trouble showing empathy for victims of revolution-related violence within Egypt.

But there’s only a certain level of antagonism he can show before Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. is in jeopardy. So it’s in his interest to act as a middle man, which raises his profile in the region but does little for him domestically. People in Egypt are very much concerned about the problems of Egypt.

What is the likelihood of Hamas and Palestinian coming together?

PM: These guys are pulling together for the most visible time I’ve ever seen. This is a real sense of movement on both sides.

Interesting, Omar, that there is no sense Egyptians feel there can be any accommodation between the Muslim Brotherhood and those suspicious of it.

OE: There certainly seems to be less hope for that today than maybe six months ago when Mr. Morsi’s opponents couldn’t agree on what exactly they wanted him to do. Now they’ve found common ground so there are very few signs that this is going away any time soon. When the constitution goes to a national referendum, we will see just how polar- ized Egyptian society is. And if that referendum doesn’t pass, we’re back to square one: Mr. Morsi retains the unchecked powers he gave himself last week and we may see people in Tahrir for months to come.

What about beyond Tahrir Square? How does life go in outside the protest zones?

OE: People are getting on with their lives. They’ve had two years of revolution now, they’ve learned to live with protests, they’ve learned to live with what is borderline chaos.

What’s the likely fallout from this watershed period?

PM: The growth of Islamic parties across the region seems like a natural outcome. People here have had lack of a democratic say in most countries for a very long time. The only movement that stood up for their rights is the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations like it, and they’ve capitalized on moments of democratic opportunity.

For sure, there are secular elements that are worried, but, certainly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli peace process, I think Palestinians and the Arab world are looking for anything that will give them negotiating power. They see this as an opportunity get back to an Arab peace initiative, to stop the building of settlements.

Then again, every time I think there’s hope for some kind of resolution something jumps up and stops it. It remains to be seen if this is going to be that ultimate historical turning point.

What does all this mean to the rest of us?

PM: Populations in Europe and North America are shifting, and Canadians care much more about this part of the world – and the turmoil here matters because we want to see calm prevail in a particularly volatile area.

OE: Absolutely. I think Egypt right now is a sort of roadway toward peace in the region. That means the international community has to understand exactly who’s running this country. There was a sense that the Muslim Brotherhood was a group that could be largely ignored under Mr. Mubarak’s regime because they didn’t have any real power. That’s no longer the case, and I think it’s very important to understand exactly how its leadership works.

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