A demontsrator near Tahrir Square this week - Reuters - November 25 2011
A demonstrator near Tahrir Square this week. Photo by Reuters
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In the beginning, there was the "Arab Spring." It took the form of a wave of fresh young revolutionary movements that swept across almost the entire Middle East, in the name of Western democratic ideas and a human desire to be rid of despots who had ruled for decades by force. Gradually, though, signs of an "Islamic Winter" have begun to emerge.

Within less than a year since the outbreak of the revolutions in the region, an Islamic party called Ennahda (the Renaissance ) has come to power by democratic means in Tunisia. Although this party is identified with the relatively pragmatic stream of political Islam, it's clear that the West's dreams that Tunisia's secular character would be preserved have met the same fate as the country's deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In Libya, the ouster of Muammar Gadhafi brought to power tribes that will constitute a challenge for the country's national transition council when it tries to impose its decisions. The images transmitted from Libya after the recent capture of Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, show that the only unifying force remaining in that country is Islam, and that whatever groups come to power, by elections or otherwise, they will hoist the Islamic banner. And when, just two days ago in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement bringing his 33-year rule to an end, it was already evident that country's future will be marked by extremist Islam, along with chaos.

In the past year developments in the Middle East have taught the experts (once known as "Orientalists" ) not to risk making predictions. Still, given the events in Egypt in the past week, it would be far more than a calculated gamble to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the way to becoming the largest party in the Egyptian parliament.

A field hospital was set up this week in the heart of Tahrir Square to treat the hundreds of people who were lightly wounded by tear gas and rubber-coated bullets used by the Egyptian security forces. The young people who are helping evacuate the wounded were Egypt's great hope last February, when President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. They were the brains and driving force of the country's revolution. They believed wholeheartedly in democracy, in a new Egypt, but suddenly they have discovered that the revolution has been stolen away from them.

These young people are now pointing an accusing finger at the ruling military council, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. In their view, Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami Anan and their colleagues are trying to preserve the rule of the military council and block the orderly transfer of power to the people. They've found proof of this in the document setting forth the principles for an Egyptian constitution, presented by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Selmy.

The fact is that the military had a partner in stealing the revolution: the Muslim Brotherhood. This movement, founded in 1928, was persecuted until the fall of Mubarak. Now the military council is consulting and proceeding, almost arm in arm, with it.

Even though the public perceives the council as the lackey of the American government, Washington has actually been critical of its handling of Egypt's affairs. In the past few months, representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood have met with U.S. diplomats, according to a New York Times report this week that quoted Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research institute. One of the diplomats who met with the Brotherhood is Jack Wallace, deputy to Jeff Feltman, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Wallace was U.S. consul general in Jerusalem during the height of the second intifada.

The administration sought clarifications from the Muslim Brotherhood concerning future relations with Israel, and minority and women's rights. It's not clear whether the answers received were sincere or intended only to pacify Washington. Katulis - a member of the Working Group on Egypt, with which the White House consults - told Haaretz that his impression is that the Muslim Brotherhood's top priority is not Israel, but Egypt's internal affairs.

"It's hard to predict how they [the Brotherhood] will behave if they do significantly well in the elections, but my assessment is that they will not take action against the peace treaty with Israel," Katulis says. "That is not because of any love they have for Israel, but because they are aware that an infringement of the peace treaty at their initiative is liable to boomerang on them in the final analysis."

In any event, there have been disagreements between the military council and the Brotherhood over the document of principles. Tantawi and his group, albeit late in the day, understood that the movement is likely to garner 40 percent or more of the seats in the two houses of parliament. Furthermore, to block possible Islamist legislation, the council tried, by means of the document of principles, to ensure the army's status as an independent body. However, this unilateral move by the council, combined with the far-reaching interpretation the Brotherhood gave one of the clauses in the document (out of concern that the council was trying to entrench Egypt's secular identity ) prompted the movement to give Tantawi an ultimatum: Revise the document or we'll stage a major demonstration.

That demonstration was held exactly a week ago. Tens of thousands participated, most of them supporters of the Brotherhood, plus members of more extreme Salafiyyah movements, as well as of the liberal secular movements that led the protests in Tahrir Square last January and February. Some of the demonstrators remained in the square the next day and the security forces did not hesitate to use force to disperse them.

In the meantime, the Brotherhood decided it wanted out of the new round of anti-government protests: It had gotten its message across to the public and made a show of force, in advance of next Monday's elections. Now the movement wanted to preserve its achievements. However, the fatalities on Saturday brought hundreds of thousands into the square, including Islamists, but mainly secular protesters, who to some extent just wanted to let off steam against the military council.

Within a few days the depth of the common interests shared by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council became apparent. On Tuesday, when the secular organizations announced that they would take part in the "demonstration of a million" that would call upon the council to resign, the Islamic movement stated it would not take part. Its representatives pushed for reconciliation with Tantawi and for an agreement, which was hatched that evening, for presidential elections to be held before the end of June 2012.

The violent clashes resumed Wednesday in Tahrir Square, however. The Brotherhood issued a statement calling for a halt to the protests and thus became the "responsible adult" in Egypt, as compared with the Salaffiyah movements and a few secular groups that want to be rid of the Supreme Military Council.

This is clearly a matter of shared interests, not a love affair: The Brotherhood needs Egypt to remain intact to influence events there, and the council of course wants to prevent the deterioration of law and order, and a takeover of the streets by gangs.

The alternatives Israel will face, with regard to most of the countries in the region in the years ahead, range from those in which radical Islam of the relatively moderate variety rules - such as in Turkey, Tunisia and possibly Egypt - and those where anarchy or even more radical Islam hold sway, such as in Yemen, Libya and of course Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

Royal visit

Just before 11 A.M. on Monday, two Jordanian Blackhawk helicopters landed at the Muqata, Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah. The passengers were King Abdullah II and his entourage. It was the king's first visit to the West Bank during President Mahmoud Abbas' (Abu Mazen ) term of office. Abdullah immediately joined Abbas in reviewing the honor guard.

While the entire Arab and Muslim world are condemning Israel and the peace treaties with it, Abbas and Abdullah are emerging as the only leaders who want to see a two-state solution and to advance a peace process with Israel. The problem is that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has shattered the ties with both leaders; the complete breakdown in relations between Netanyahu's bureau and the Jordanian royal house continues, as it does with Abbas' bureau.

In many senses, relations between the PA and Israel have regressed to the pre-Oslo period. Senior officials from the two sides do not even sit in the same room. The difference is that now it is the Palestinian senior officials who do not want to sit with their Israeli counterparts, in contrast to the situation before the Oslo Accords.

A complex relationship has developed, one that is problematic and that in part revolves around Israel's interaction with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. For example, Israel has stepped up activity at the Kerem Shalom crossing; presently some 280 trucks carrying goods enter Gaza every day.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom says that Israel is now ready to transfer far more goods to the Strip, but that Hamas is torpedoing this, "to maintain the smuggling industry via the tunnels. The public thinks there is a limit to the amount of incoming goods. Not only is there no limit - we are willing to let more enter, but they don't want this."

For their part, King Abdullah and President Abbas have also grasped the new rules of the game in the Islamic Winter. One of the moves by Abdullah to calm the situation among the Islamists in Jordan involves reconciliation with Hamas. The head of its political bureau, Khaled Meshal, is due to visit Amman and meet with the king after a 12-year break in relations between the organization and the Hashemite kingdom (the Hamas leadership was expelled from Amman in 1999 ).

This historic event was the main reason for the king's visit to Ramallah, where his message was that Abbas was and remains the main source of authority from his point of view. At the same time, barring last-minute surprises, Abbas and Meshal were to meet yesterday in Cairo, where they were expected to agree to establish a transition government without the current PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and to hold general elections for the presidency and for the parliament next May.

Israel's government will undoubtedly react in its usual knee-jerk way, by delaying the transfer of tax funds to the PA, and by claiming that Abbas is in league with a terrorist organization. Still, what the Netanyahu government can do under the table, Abbas cannot do on it.