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Change in Egypt could restore its centrality to the Arab world

'Egypt is the heart of our world,' says an activist in the gulf state of Bahrain. 'It's either the sick man of the Arab world, or it could be the healthy man that could take us to new heights.'

February 04, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

But Bruce Rutherford, a professor of political science at Colgate University, said economics are more likely to be a determining factor. Even if the banned Muslim Brotherhood is a major player in a new Egyptian government, it will need to create jobs. The country's strategic calculations are unlikely to be hugely influenced by its citizens' sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

"They want jobs," Rutherford said. "People are not calling for war with Israel. There will be a cooling of ties. But I don't think there's going to be hostility, or that there's going to be war."

Washington, positioned between its two main allies in the region, will have to work harder to manage that relationship.

Egypt's resurgence also has implications for non-Arab and predominantly Shiite Iran. On Friday, religious figures in Tehran and Cairo offered competing narratives defining events in Egypt and the role of religion in Islamic society.

Iran's supreme leader said the political upheaval in the Arab world represented an "Islamic awakening" and a defeat for the United States and Israel. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei compared the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood said events in Egypt were nothing of the sort. "The Muslim Brotherhood regards the revolution as the Egyptian people's revolution, not an Islamic revolution," it said in a statement posted to its website. "The Egyptian people's revolution includes Muslims, Christians and from all sects and political tendencies."

The Egyptian unrest could have very different implications for Iran, where authorities brutally suppressed weeks of massive protests in 2009 over allegations of electoral fraud. A resurgent, democratic Egypt taking a stand on the Palestinian issue also could undermine Iran's inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational stance against the West.

The most far-reaching effects could well be those that are now hardest to grasp.

The success of the Tunisian revolution and the longevity of the Egyptian protests have been made possible by the relatively professional behavior of the armies, which regard themselves as defenders of the nation rather than instruments of repression.

That is a novel concept in many countries of the region, where the strongman is often a military figure, or maintains close ties to a security apparatus that can quickly crush dissent.

The protests in Egypt and Tunisia were not led by Islamists demanding a greater role for religion, the poor demanding better wages or even the usual coterie of activists demanding freedom of speech. For once, the demonstrations represented a broad cross section.

Rutherford, author of a recent book on Egypt, said he was struck by something he saw in interviews with young Egyptian protesters posted on YouTube.

"In the past, the calculation of most people was that, yes there were problems, but there was no point in demonstrating. Now they are realizing that these things are worth taking risks for," he said.

"They are rethinking who they are as citizens," Rutherford said. "They are reasserting the idea that the government is accountable to them."

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