The New Middle East: Arab versus non-Arab Muslims; Sunni versus Shia
By Barry Rubin
The new Middle East strategic battle is heating up and this is only the start. It has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with two more serious lines of battle: Arabs versus Persians and Sunni versus Shia Muslims.
The Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian dispute is increasingly unimportant, despite the hatred of increasingly powerful Islamist forces for Israel. The real struggle is over who will control each Muslim majority country and who is going to lead the Middle East. Both issues have almost nothing to do with Israel. At the same time, Israel has virtually no role to play in these struggles, except to ensure that Hamas doesn’t take over the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority.
The Sunni Arab position was stated very clearly by Amr Moussa, a veteran Arab nationalist and candidate for Egypt’s presidency: "[The] Arab Middle East will not be run by Iran or Turkey." Note that he didn’t even mention Israel, in sharp contrast to how the issue would have been defined in previous decades: as a Zionist threat to rule the entire region.
Iran is Persian-ruled (though only about half the population is ethnic Persian) and Shia Muslim. Turkey is ruled by ethnic Turks even though it is predominantly Sunni Muslim.
What we are seeing again, for the first time in three decades—since President Anwar al-Sadat put the priority on a domestic focus, peace with Israel, and alliance with the United States--is an Egyptian bid to lead the Arabic-speaking world and even the whole region. On this point, Egyptian leftists, nationalists, and Islamists are united. And in the first round, the battle over control of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, Egypt won and Iran lost.
Note that this has nothing to do with the current military rulers of Egypt who will be out of power before the end of June. This is a long-term struggle led by the civilian, primarily Islamist, politicians. And it is a program over which the Islamists can unite the country behind them in a wave of patriotic, Arab, and Sunni zeal. Building on this agenda, often used demagogically, also requires Cairo to distance itself from the United States.
Here’s another point to keep in mind. The head of the Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee is now Essam al-Arian, one of the most outspokenly radical Muslim Brotherhood leaders. He’s outspokenly in favor of destroying Israel and U.S. interests in the region. This is one more of an endless amount of evidence about the Brotherhood’s extremism and the coming
collision with Washington.
At the same time, al-Arian is strongly anti-Iran, predicting the overthrow of the Tehran regime in an internal revolution. When a Muslim Brotherhood says such a thing that isn’t an example of political analysis but of advocacy.
In another example of Brotherhood, and Egyptian, hostility to the Iran-led bloc, Egypt has pulled Hamas into its orbit. The Brotherhood supports its Syrian brothers in their revolution against the pro-Iran regime in Damascus. It also backs the Bahrain government against Shia oppositionists there and is hostile to Hizballah in Lebanon.
And so despite the fact that Iran has now offered Egypt financial aid, which that country needs, the Egyptians are ignoring the proposal. They do not want to be beholden to Tehran any more than they would be to the United States.