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No space for Israel on Egypt's post-Mubarak agenda

Commentary, 20 July 2011
Middle East and North Africa
Since the fall of Mubarak, there has been much concern about the viability of the 30-year peace between Israel and Egypt. Egypt will certainly be a less pliable partner to Israel, but however threatened it may feel by its neighbour's changing social and political dynamics, the Jewish state need not panic about the peace treaty breaking.

Since the fall of Mubarak, there has been much concern about the viability of the 30-year peace between Israel and Egypt. Egypt will certainly be a less pliable partner to Israel, but however threatened it may feel by its neighbour's changing social and political dynamics, the Jewish state need not panic about the peace treaty breaking.

By Magdalena Delgado, RUSI Qatar

Netanyahu Mubarak

The unfolding events of the Arab uprising are reshaping a region whose autocratic regimes have held power for far too long.  While those who took part in overthrowing their oppressors are invigorated by the promise of true democracies rising in their place, the region's self-proclaimed 'sole democracy' is feeling increasingly isolated in the midst of a historic revolution. Israel has long been without many friends in the Middle East, a position that was intensified by its breaking of diplomatic ties with Turkey following the Israeli Defence Force's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last year and most recently by Egypt's ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

A historic change to strategic relations

A timorous reaction to the Egyptian revolution was certainly to be expected from an ever-fearful state that, despite its superior military capabilities, views itself at the constant brink of annihilation. Having 'enjoyed' peace with Egypt for more than thirty years, Israel now faces the prospect of its populous Arab neighbour emerging as a key regional player and most likely one with a government in which Islamists yield significant influence. For a wary Israel such a strategic shift in regional politics causes alarm, but how much of a threat does this pose to the existing peace relations between the former foes? Not a significant one. With a sense of national purpose restored among its people, arguably for the first time since the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's primary concern is a domestic one.  

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979 making the Arab republic the first regional ally of the Jewish state. Since coming to power in 1981 former president Hosni Mubarak did not only abide by conditions of the treaty but, to the rage of many, he also collaborated all too willingly with Israel to further his own interest at the expense of that of his people. The days of Egypt as 'Israel's strategic treasure' are now over, as the republic's former foreign minister and Arab League's current secretary general Nabil al-Arabi has stated. Since the fall of the modern Pharaoh, Egypt has opened - albeit with some restrictions - the Rafah crossing for passenger flow and hereby ended the siege of Gaza that was facilitated by Mubarak's policies. Egypt's interim administration has demanded a retroactive payment of the natural gas that Israel received at prices significantly below market standards under Mubarak's sovereignty [1] Shortly after Mubarak's ousting, Cairo hosted and brokered reconciliation talks between Palestinian political rivals Fatah and Hamas, the latter of which were heavily undermined by Mubarak and his NDP party. While these examples make it clear that the new Egypt will no longer be an accomplice to Israel's unilateralism, it is far from synonymous with the breaking of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The revolution was, after all, not brought about by the failing Arab-Israeli peace process but by national injustices.

Economically, Egypt deteriorated immensely during Mubarak's rule. The social welfare system implemented by Nasser in the 1950s and 60s was superseded by a gradual emergence of a two-tiered society in which a small minority prospered and a vast majority suffered financially. Egypt's youth, accounting today for more than one third of the country's population, became trapped in this poverty gap. In conjunction with restrictions on political and civil participation imposed by the corrupt elite, such entrapment fostered the social frustration and anger that was ultimately released during the protests in Tahrir Square [2] Egypt's most pressing challenge now is forming a government that can adequately address these issues and hereby translate the aspirations expressed at Tahrir into concrete democratic institutional forms.

The Islamist bogeyman

To the fear of Israel, such a government will be influenced by Islamists and the country could at worst follow the same path as Iran whose revolution in 1979 paved the way for a takeover by religious extremists. However, such an eventuality is highly unlikely. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has explicitly stated that it will not nominate a presidential candidate for the country's upcoming elections.[3] Still, if the impending poll results will represent a genuine democratic vote then the Brotherhood will yield some form of influence in the new government. To the extent that the Brotherhood has rhetorically retained much of its anti-Israel policies and views Hamas as a justifiable force of resistance as opposed to a terrorist group, such influence can be seen as a legitimate concern for the Jewish state. That said, Islamists, when estranged from government, tend to define themselves in opposition to government policies to garner public support. In general, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has taken considerable steps towards incorporating democratic principles into its ideological discourse and hereby moved away from its original goal of implementing Sharia law. Compromising its core ideology is not to be interpreted as a sign of the Brotherhood's transformation into a liberal movement. The group still adopts a stringent socially conservative doctrine. It is, however, a sign of pragmatism. The Brotherhood is well aware of the strategic benefits that Egypt derives from maintaining peaceful relations with its neighbour [4] Since signing the Camp David peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Egypt has received $2 billion annually from the United States, making the Arab republic the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Loans from international financial institutions and trade and investments are also tied, to some extent, to the country's upholding of peaceful relations. Agreeable or not, the need to maintain such imbursements is essential for a successful transition to democracy, whether led by a liberal, conservative or coalition government.

However discomforted Israel may be by Egypt's withdrawal as its hitherto compliant accomplice, and however threatened it may feel by its neighbour's changing social and political dynamics, the Jewish state need not panic about the peace treaty breaking. If the Lotus revolution has demonstrated anything, it is that Egyptians have regained the sense of national purpose that was prevalent during Nasser's time in power and subdued under his successors' autocratic reigns. Channelling that purpose into generating social, economic and political reform is at the forefront of Egypt's agenda - Israel is not. 

The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or RUSI Qatar

NOTES

[1] Al Jazeera English, 'Egypt-Israel Diplomacy', Inside Story, April 2011. 

[2] Dina Shehata, 'The Fall of the Pharaoh. How Hosni Mubarak's Reign Came to an End' Foreign Affairs, Volume 90, Number 3 

[3] Muslim Brotherhood Statements, MB Refutes Rumors of Fielding Presidential Candidate, May 2011

[4] Shadi Hamid,  'The Rise of the Islamists. How Islamists Will Change Politics, and Vice Versa' Foreign Affairs, Volume 90, Number 3

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