Wednesday, May 04, 2011

EGYPT-ISRAEL RELATIONS AFTER MUBARAK: THE STATE OF PLAY SO FAR

New Egypt

As Israelis watched with unease Egypt's revolution unfolding they were told by European and American liberals to stop sulking; that Hosni Mubarak's February 12th departure had not been provoked by "Palestine" or "Allah;" that the chants in Tahrir Square of “Up with Egypt" more than drowned out those of “down with Israel."

Now, just short of three months into the new regime a sober assessment of Egyptian attitudes would suggest that it may be time to start worrying. The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation engineered by Egypt, regardless of its doubtful longevity, was enabled by changes in Cairo's approach toward the Islamist fanatics. Where the old regime assigned intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to deal with them as a security problem, his replacement Murad Muwafi, backed by Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi, has been dealing with Hamas as a diplomatic partner. Mubarak distrusted Hamas -- the Gaza arm of Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood -- and nominally aligned Cairo with Fatah. Now, Hamas is getting the kind of treatment terrorists crave – respect. Its "military commander" Ahmed Ja'abari is now no less welcome in Cairo than the movement's co-founder and theoretician Mahmoud al-Zahar or its Damascus-based politburo chief Khaled Mashaal. Hamas, now poised to join a restructured Palestine Liberation Organization, will reportedly open a mission in Cairo.

Egypt's concurrent decision to throw open its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip will make it far easier for Hamas to send its gunmen to Iran for specialized training and to bring in ever more lethal weaponry for use against Israel. Egypt's military chief General Sami Anan preempted Jerusalem's protests by letting it be known that the decision was purely Egypt's internal affair.

Meanwhile, Egyptians have held protests on a bridge overlooking the Israeli Embassy in Cairo demanding their government sever ties with Israel, and stop exporting natural gas to the Jewish state. The export of Egyptian gas to Israel has been portrayed as yet another manifestation of the old regime's corruption with claims that Mubarak's illicit wealth was generated by his conspiring with Israel to provide gas at below market rates at the expense of the Egyptian masses. Oddly, the pipeline carrying gas to Israel (and Jordan) has been twice sabotaged since the revolution and is now inoperative. This does not trouble Finance Minister Samir Radwan who remarked that the peace agreement does not obligate Egypt to sell gas to Israel.

Scapegoating Israel has never been bad politics in Egypt so it is predictable that the new regime is riding the ubiquitous crest of antipathy toward the Jewish state. A Pew opinion survey found that 54 percent of Egyptians want the peace treaty with Israel scrapped (another 10% "don't know."). And no one hates Israel more than the Muslim Brotherhood which is viewed favorably by a whopping 75% of Egyptians. In an apparent arrangement with the ruling junta, it has pledged to compete for half the seats in forthcoming parliamentary elections. With Egyptian political conditions so unsettled and expectations bound to outstrip any incoming regime's capacity to deliver, the Brothers have prudently concluded that they are not yet ready to rule.

Perhaps they are worried that they cannot provide jobs at a time of regional upheaval when remittances and tourism are down. What would they do, for instance, about populist pressure for a minimum wage? The Brotherhood is, astonishingly, the most left-leaning of eight Salafist groups active in Egypt and may simply prefer to follow the Bolshevik approach of not seizing power until conditions are ripe. They can afford to bide their time. Already 62% of Egyptians say they want to live under a political system in which adherence to the Koran is "strict;" another 27% favor a milder form of theocratic rule. Of course, even the sliver of the population that had identified itself with Mubarak's liberal opposition is no less hostile toward Israel.

At home, like in the old Soviet Union, Egyptians have complete liberty to lament the corruption of the old regime. But open criticism of the new supreme military council is cause for immediate arrest. Some 5,000 citizens face trial in military courts for unlawful behavior during the revolution.

Abroad, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces headed by Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi has been keeping a close eye on the unfolding Syrian situation which could influence Cairo's posture toward Jerusalem. Tantawi sought to limit criticism of the Assad regime's crackdown on protesters at the UN Human Rights Council. Concurrently, Tantawi's government-by-the-army has bolstered its legitimacy by turning the temperature of Mubarak's already "cold peace" down a few degrees.

Still, he can be expected to keep the relationship on minimal life-support if for no other reason than to avoid the ire of the U.S. government which sends $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt and is now making billions more "potentially available."

Moreover, given all that is on his plate, he would not want to spook the IDF into accelerating existing plans to augment its capabilities on the Egyptian front.
Israeli emissaries have been discreetly meeting with the new regime in Cairo, but Jerusalem's opposition to the Hamas-Fatah deal was rejected. Were Tantawi at all interested in allaying Israeli concerns about Egyptian intentions he could earn major points by leveraging Egypt's new relationship with Hamas to facilitate the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. In the interim, he could instruct foreign minister el-Arabi, who plans a visit to Ramallah, to meet Israeli officials while he's in the area.

Positive gestures would be welcome, but Israeli officials are plainly troubled by what appears to be a strategic shift in Cairo's orientation, one that in the most optimistic analysis replicates Turkey turn against Israel. Egypt's ultimate trajectory is impossible to forecast. The evidence so far suggests that no matter what government formally replaces Mubarak's the broad outlines of the new regime's approach toward Israel are already ominously discernable.

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-- May 2, 2011

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