Ramadan begins on Tuesday, the holiest month for Islam. It comes a week after the President of Egypt was arrested and removed from office by the military, a move in response to massive demonstrations across the country against Mr. Morsi’s brief term in office. One of the principal complaints against Mr. Morsi (whatever the truth of it) was his use of power to promote the interests of his supporters rather than all Egyptians. While we are witnessing ever-more violent clashes on the streets of Cairo, and Egyptians now contemplate their next moves in the long and faltering steps towards democracy, few are now thinking much about the regional efforts to establish a process with the objective of creating a zone free of WMD.
The United States and Europe have again been unsure in public how to respond to the actions of the military in removing an elected President. Rather than support or condemn the action they have decided to look forward on next steps, urging the military to hand over power as quickly as possible. But to whom? Though an Islamic majority remains, Egypt today is a deeply divided society, between those who identify with Islam as the core driving force behind their politics and those looking to establish a ‘modern’ society at ease both with secular politics and religious observance. Political leaders in the West clearly have more sympathy with the latter, but are cautious about overtly supporting moves that are both anti-democratic and that could strengthen the dead-hand of the army and established interest groups who had been the backbone to domestic support for Mubarek and whose continuing influence has been corrupting. Any successful political process in Egypt needs to involve all significant groups within Egyptian society, including those naturally suspicious of the West. Inclusivity and a sense of progress are crucial to Egyptian stability, and political leaders from the United States and Europe would do well to focus their interventions, oral and financial, on these two aspects. While events today make national unity highly problematic, this needs to be a key objective.
The same approach is necessary in establishing the process for the WMD-free zone—a process already in crisis before last week’s developments. Egypt has been in many respects the protagonist in the Zone process. The country’s gutsy and determined approach has kept the vision of the Middle East WMD-free zone alive over the last two decades, despite the daunting obstacles. States have had no trouble supporting the idea in principle, but when it comes to any concrete steps there have been major challenges in finding the right sequencing, and giving sufficient confidence to all parties. Even so, it was Egypt’s strong leadership within the Non-Aligned Movement at the 2010 NPT Review Conference that ensured a last minute agreement to hold a Conference in 2012. This was an apparent breakthrough, to the obvious discomfort of the U.S. Administration.
In an excellent article in Open Democracy, Mahmoud Karem explains the politics behind Egypt’s walk-out at this year’s NPT Preparatory Committee on April 30th, five months after that initiative’s major setback when the Americans postponed the conference. He concludes that progress on the issue now requires strong leadership. It is now clear that this leadership will not come from Egypt in the immediate future – at least not at the level that would be effective. There are clearly more pressing matters to deal with back home, but it would be a grave error for other states to feel that with Egypt temporarily out of the picture the pressure is now off. The facilitator will be reporting progress to the 2014 Preparatory Committee and the 2015 Review Conference; if there is nothing to report this will undoubtedly be a source of friction and will weaken the political commitment of some states to the NPT, and to efforts to shore-up the holes in its proliferation architecture. Like the deep divisions within Egypt, a deeply divided NPT membership between those seeking change and those hanging onto their symbols of power will prove unstable to the international regime.
Equally importantly, the WMD-free zone has huge value in its own right for all states in the region. The longer the initial steps in establishing the process drag on, the longer we tempt fate. Our children will not thank us for squandering the opportunities when today they are probably greater than they will be if states further develop their nuclear technologies and weapon capabilities. They will not forgive our lack of vision.
Politics in the Middle East tends to slow down during Ramadan. But we cannot be complacent in our efforts to find progress in establishing the Middle East WMD-free zone.