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A Coming Arab Winter?

The Fatah-Hamas deal may presage a new Iranian approach to the Middle East.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By LEE SMITH
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It is true that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may not survive even until the Palestinians’ September push at the U.N. General Assembly, but in terms of the regional chessboard Palestinian unity is irrelevant. The major player here is Egypt, which helped broker the deal. Hamas sloughed off Damascus’s problematic patronage once it realized that it could ride Cairo instead—a much more natural fit given that Egypt is a Sunni power, and one whose Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas has strong ties, is enjoying a period of political prominence.

Washington is starting to realize that one of the values of the late Mubarak regime was its implacable hatred of Hamas. Cairo’s present rulers, however, can no longer afford such an ideological luxury; the Egyptians need to raise money quickly or they will starve. The way to do that is by presenting themselves as the antithesis of Mubarak’s stable, or static, Egypt, an Egypt that may well spin out of the American orbit—unless Washington antes up. The concern is not that Egypt will jump sides entirely and join the resistance bloc, but rather make trouble by flirting with Iran, like with its decision to end the blockade of Gaza.

Shortly before the Arab Spring erupted in January, some analysts argued that Washington ought to explore the opportunities presented by countries like Syria and Qatar that weren’t in the U.S. camp but weren’t enemies on the order of Iran either. Now that Egypt has become part of that constellation, perhaps we are starting to long for those simple and innocent days when Washington tied its interests to allied states, and not fuzzy constructs like “the Muslim world.”

“The key to winning the Middle East is in stringing together unnatural allies,” says Kramer. “The American circle was a coalition of unnatural allies, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Everyone knew the U.S. was strong, so they were prepared to put up with quite a bit, even though they didn’t like the company. The circle started to come undone when Turkey and Israel had their problems, but now Egypt and Saudi Arabia are starting to move.”

Iran can profit from the upheavals, according to Kramer, “by building linkage with the Muslim Brotherhood.” In other words, with Syria’s problems and the possible fallout for Hezbollah, Tehran would supplement or substitute its Shia crescent with a Muslim Brotherhood crescent—a coalition stretching from Turkey’s AKP to Hamas and Egypt’s newly empowered Islamists.

“The fewer Shia there are in the immediate surroundings, and there are virtually none in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, the easier that is to do,” says Kramer. “The Muslim Brotherhood has their usual reservations about Shia, but they’re not anti-Shia like al Qaeda. The landscape of the Middle East is too broken for coalitions to have only the like-minded. If Saudi Arabia and Israel could be in the American circle, the Brotherhood could be in the Iranian crescent. The Iranians and the Muslim Brotherhood both have an interest in reconstituting an arc of resistance.”

Given the Obama administration’s ambiguous statements regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist movements, it seems Washington is preparing for the likelihood of a region entirely remade in the image of political Islam, its Shia as well as its Sunni versions. Whether the White House is prepared to do anything to protect American interests and allies against a political current that is anti-American at its core is another question. Netanyahu’s speeches, Saudi diplomacy, and Egyptian brinksmanship are evidence that traditional U.S. allies do not believe Obama is up to the task.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Anchor) has just been published in paperback.

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