In their first week in power, Egypt's new military rulers took two steps that had nothing to do with democratic reform. They allowed Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the radical Sunni preacher exiled by Hosni Mubarak, to return home and lead a victory assembly in Tahrir Square Friday night, Feb. 17 with a call to march on Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. From Qatar, al-Qaradawi repeatedly justified suicide bombings against Israelis. The second was permission for two Iranian war ships to transit the Suez Canal.
Voices from the Obama administration have commented since Mubarak was overthrown that a Muslim Brotherhood taking part in the political transition in Egypt might not be a bad thing. US intelligence officials briefing committees in Congress have not exactly exhibited depth of knowledge about the Brotherhood.
In contrast, Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned that a Muslim role in government would put the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at risk.
Friday night, events in Cairo and other Egyptian towns – and the light they shed on the military rulers' intentions – made most observers sit up and take a second look at the outcome of the popular revolution.
Thursday, Feb. 17, the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to take charge of opposition demonstrations in the emblematic Tahrir Square and given permission to build a platform, after the other opposition parties and movements had been refused. Ahead of the big event Friday night, the soldiers withdrew from the square and the Brotherhood's strong-arm brigades move in. Opposition leaders who tried to mount the platform alongside Brotherhood speakers were thrown off and dragged out of the square without the army interfering.
By this means, the military rulers achieved two objectives: Letting Muslim Brotherhood adherents mass in the square diminished the role played by the other opposition factions in the eighteen-day uprising; and, secondly, it flashed a graphic warning to the Obama administration to stop pushing for a rapid transition to democracy because it would only lead to the Muslims taking power in government and parliament.
The sermon preached by Qaradawi, a respected figure in many Sunni circles, had nothing in common with the goals of freedom, rights, reforms, a better life, for which the people demonstrated in Tahriri Square for 18 days. Not only must the Egyptian people go out and conquer Al Aqsa, said Qaradawi, but Cairo must open the Egyptian-Gaza Strip border to "our brothers," the Palestinian Hamas. He hammered home demands that would have taken Egypt beyond even scrapping its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and all the way to jihad.
For this speech, Egypt's military rulers gave the radical preacher a national platform over state television.
debkafile's Middle East sources believe the generals' latitude toward a notorious radical might make sense in regional terms: For three decades, by living in Qatar, Qaradawi gave the ruling Al-Thanis legitimacy in the eyes of Islamist circles. The military regime in Cairo hopes his presence in Egypt will contribute to their acceptance by the Brotherhood.
Tahrir Square Friday was therefore the testing ground for future cooperation. If it continues to work smoothly, Yusuf al-Qaradawi will rise over the heads of the opposition as the most prominent civilian powerbroker in the country with the greatest influence on Supreme Military Council decision-making.
Another external Mubarak policy the generals made a point of reversing in their first week in power concerned Iran. For the first time in three decades, Iranian war ships received permission to transit the Suez Canal on their way to the Mediterranean and Syria, and return to the Red Sea and home base by the same route.
The military rulers must have realized they were giving Tehran a leg up for its expansionist aspirations and strengthening the Iran-led alliance Turkey, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. Al those allies have ports on the Mediterranean.
Just as Saudi Arabia welcomed those same Iranian war ships at Jeddah to tell the Obama administration that Riyadh was turning its face toward Tehran and away from Washington, so too is the military regime in Cairo signaling Washington and Jerusalem that Mubarak's policy of boycotting Iran and keeping the Shiite revolutionaries of Tehran at a distance from of Egypt, Sinai and the Suez Canal is history.