Marshall Plan for Egypt
Egypt is in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Although the danger is not imminent, it is real. Islamic groups, in and outside Egypt, with the active support of Iran, view the fall of the Mubarak regime as the key to the success of the Islamic revolution.
The establishment of an Iran-like Shari'a regime in Egypt would have a catastrophic domino effect on the other Arab states. It would put an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace, torpedo the current peace process and dramatically undermine US interests throughout the Middle East.
Although in the short term the Mubarak government has the capability and the political will to deal forcefully with the threat and overcome the immediate danger, the debilitating socio-economic conditions make it impossible to marginalize fundamentalism in Egypt permanently. Widespread poverty, chronic lack of housing and inability to provide for the poor coupled with a 20 percent unemployment rate keep the level of frustration and resentment very high.
Against this backdrop of socio-economic malaise stands the Islamic fundamentalist exploiting the situation by offering some relief to the poor and providing shelter and some medical assistance to many despondent Egyptians.
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman stands at center stage of this national discontent and defiance. Millions of followers organized under Gama'a el-Islamiya, the Islamic group comprised of some 45 Islamic factions, listen to his violent sermons charging them to wage a holy war to topple the Mubarak government. While President Mubarak underestimates the potency of Sheikh Omar and his followers, some Egyptian officials admit that the battle against the fundamentalists has just begun.
Although the Mubarak government is undergoing some economic reforms it relies heavily on repression to neutralize the fundamentalists as a political force. As a prime recourse, repression could offer only a temporary respite. What is needed is a "revolutionary" approach to Egypt's social and economic problems spearheaded by the Mubarak government coupled with extensive outside financial assistance and technical help.
The US needs to orchestrate, with the active participation of those states who have a stake in the survival of Egypt as a secular republic, a sort of "Marshall Plan" for Egypt. The plan should have three main components: economic, security and political.
The economic package should include among other things increasing the direct financial assistance from the US, the Gulf states, Germany and Japan from the total current level of $4-5 billion to $6-7 billion a year. The money is desperately needed to build more schools, hospitals and housing. Re-scheduling Egypt's foreign debt and reducing military expenditures would provide at least an additional $1b. a year that could be channeled to building new infrastructure and creating jobs.
The security package should include further expansion of intelligence sharing between the US and Egypt, stepping up cooperation to make it easier to track down fundamentalist activists and activities. In this respect, although Israel should refrain from openly advising the Egyptians on how to deal with the fundamentalists, it can be extremely helpful in working with the US in providing invaluable intelligence data to enhance the Egyptians' counter-terrorism efforts. Moreover, the US should demonstrate its commitment to Egypt's security by expanding joint military maneuvers, increasing American naval visits to Egyptian ports and further augmenting US-Egypt strategic cooperation.
Finally, the US must lean very heavily on the Saudis and other Gulf states to cease their monetary contributions to fundamentalist groups throughout the Mideast.
On the political level, there is considerable merit to the Egyptian claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict drains much of their national energy and that early resolution to the conflict would help Egypt focus much more of its resources to fighting the fundamentalists. Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians should have a panoramic view of the potential ominous dangers ahead. The future stability of the region depends largely on a stable Egypt. It is crucial that Israel and the Arab states, who will be most affected, understand that time is of the essence. The US must project that urgency by pushing the peace process forward.
The Iranian clergy's single-minded ambition to dominate the Gulf dictated a two-track strategy: (1) to build its military machine with mass destruction weapons and advanced missile technology, which it is currently doing feverishly to intimidate its neighbors, and (2) to bring about the collapse of the Egyptian regime and its replacement by an Islamic fundamentalist government.
The US hopefully has learned from the 1980 Iranian debacle and must not allow Mubarak to meet the same fate that awaited the Shah of Iran which cleared the way for the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. A bold and unambiguous commitment to Egypt by the Clinton administration will send an unmistakable message to Iran and to its surrogates that the US views Egypt's political stability and independence as no less important than US strategic interests in Kuwait, and that the US stands ready to defend those interests and the security of its allies.