AJC Special Report: The Egyptian Struggle through Israeli Eyes

June 14th, 2011

Dr. Edward Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

Israel has been watching spellbound as events unfold in Egypt. Overall, for the friends of Egypt in Israel, the exciting possibility that we observe the birth pangs of a more democratic order wrestles with the frightening prospect that Egypt may shift from a pillar of anti-Islamism to something less dependable.

As I write, the situation in Egypt remains unclear. In appointing the head of Intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman, as his first-ever vice president (and former commander of the Air Force Ahmad Shafik as prime minister), President Mubarak turned to Egypt’s popular and powerful military to help resolve the crisis. The difficult role of Mr. Suleiman is somehow to midwife a new order that will square the circle, offering Mubarak an honorable way to retire while preventing radicalization of the Egyptian political system. Reports of an attack on Vice President Suleiman that took the lives of two of his bodyguards heightens the sense of unpredictability, many Israelis understanding that a successful post-Mubarak transition likely hinges on the presence and capability of a very small number of leaders in the current regime.

If one may judge by U.S. media accessible here, the prevalent American perspective is similar, with one important exception. Many American commentators, from the Left and the Right, seem to believe that supporting democratization is a strategic goal of the U.S. Ironically, after the neoconservatives apparently lost this debate sometime around the transition between the two terms of President George W. Bush, a new and fairly broad American consensus in favor of democratization has emerged. The call for greater democracy in Egypt obviously resonates with some of the nobler political instincts of Americans, drawing them to revisit ideas many of them seemed to reject when the Iraq War became stuck.

A different historical experience has shaped Israelis, making many of them more doubtful of the democratization program. Israeli opinion-makers and policy-shapers remain scarred by the Bush Administration’s policy misfire that allowed Hamas to run and win the Palestinian elections in 2006, with disastrous results. Since Hamas and the Muslim Brothers are iterations of the same movement, many Israelis see the possible inclusion of the Brothers in post-transition Egyptian elections through the prism of what happened in Gaza, when Hamas took over. They also cite the experience of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Struggling to put down roots in a society not yet accustomed to democratic norms, Weimar’s leaders allowed antidemocratic parties to use free elections to attain power and destroy democracy. In this connection, Israeli leaders and commentators may or may not be overreacting to the potential power of the Muslim Brothers.

It is particularly interesting to note the thinking of Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky, who feels somewhat vindicated by developments in Egypt. For decades he has argued that societies based on fear and intimidation are inherently unstable, no matter how powerful they may appear on the surface. Therefore, he has said, agreements with countries like Egypt or entities like the PA are flawed because they are unstable polities. Sharansky, though, represents a distinctly minority voice.

The spike in violence on the pro-Mubarak side and the failure of Friday’s “Day of Departure” demonstrations to dislodge the President have led to diminishing confidence here that the situation will stabilize soon. Latest reports suggest that Vice President Suleiman’s negotiations with the opposition, evidently including the Muslim Brothers, are not going well. On the other hand, time may be playing into the hands of the regime’s supporters, if not of Mubarak himself. BBC broadcast an estimate that the political instability is causing a loss of $310 million dollars per day. How long can ordinary people live without earning a living in an economy where average GDP per person is about $6,000? And since income levels in the country are sharply polarized, the personal incomes of ordinary Egyptians are much lower. How long can the mass demonstration keep up a head of steam when the disorder causes the economy to lose about 1% of GDP every two weeks or so? One Israeli analysis of Egyptian government strategy is that we may be seeing a attempt at regime survival through a limited transition that will succeed by waiting out the opposition in the streets.

Looking at overseas reactions to the crisis, Israeli commentators express wry amusement at the political poses struck by some international political leaders who, until recently, were full of praise for the Egyptian President. They seem to echo police captain Renault in the classic movie Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

Looking inward, Israelis have very mixed feeling about the way their own leadership has handled the crisis. Israel’s intelligence services, along with so many others around the world, evidently had no hint of the developments before they erupted. Considering how much is at stake for Israel in the stability of the Egyptian Republic, this is a dysfunction that requires careful analysis and corrective action.

Unfortunately, the IDF is ill-positioned right now to reassure the public, since much of its attention is otherwise engaged. While the internal Defense Ministry scandal of the last couple of weeks did not command much foreign attention, Israelis were shocked when the Attorney General recently announced that he could not defend the appointment of General Yoav Galant as the next Chief of Staff in a case pending before the Supreme Court. This came after the State Comptroller found that Galant lied in affidavits he submitted in a real estate matter. Further media coverage revealed nasty relations between Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the current Chief of Staff, and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The Israeli public is dismayed at the extent to which these two key guarantors of their safety are estranged. While the government scrambles to find a replacement for Galant, who was to take office in about ten days, Barak went so far as to go on television and publicly accuse Ashkenazi of unspecified “serious ethical, normative, and even professional issues.” The Chief of Staff has not responded publicly. In the meantime, the government announced that its new candidate for Chief of Staff is former Deputy CoS Benny Ganz. The disarray in his area of primary responsibility has hurt Barak, whose public standing was already reeling following his exit from the Labor Party he used to head.

On the other hand, Israelis can draw some comfort from the disciplined silence of their government’s ministers, who so far have obeyed the instructions of Prime Minister Netanyahu not to speak about developments in Egypt. Several days into the crisis the Prime Minister spoke briefly in the Knesset, mentioning hopes for democracy and the critical need to preserve the peace accord. Illustrating the observation of the Prophet Amos (5:13), “Therefore the prudent doth keep silence in such a time; for it is an evil time,” the ministers are exhibiting that rarest of political qualities.

An illustration of the rule that geography often dictates politics, Egypt over the last century or so has presented Israel with two very different challenges. Both follow from the shared border and the dilemma of what to do with it.

On the one hand, Egypt is the birthplace of the anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood, and the country waged three very bloody wars against the Jewish state. Its once thriving Jewish community is almost entirely gone, as are most Jewish communities throughout the Arab world.

On the other hand, Egypt challenged Israel with peace. It was the first Arab country to sign a peace accord, and has maintained it for over a generation. To be sure, Israelis generally do not romanticize their relationship with Egypt, one former ambassador to Cairo describing the Egyptian view of Israel as “a rival but not an enemy.” Relations have varied between lukewarm and cold, largely depending on the state of the broader peace process and Egypt’s perceptions of its interests in the Arab world.

However Israeli commentators describe a possible radical restructuring of Egyptian foreign policy as a “potential tsunami.” If a new government abrogates the peace accord with Israel, Israel’s foreign relations and security would be seriously damaged. There could also be an economic impact This is not because trade between the two countries is very broad. All in all, only about 50 million dollars of goods are on order for Israeli firms in Egypt. The main economic challenge would be Egypt’s supply of 30-40% of Israel’s natural gas. In addition, the indirect economic impact of a renewed military threat from the South would be profound, requiring expensive expansion of the security budget at the expense of urgently needed improvements elsewhere in the Israeli economy.

Israeli commentators are divided over the impact of a possible collapse of the peace accord with Egypt on peace efforts elsewhere. Some-not necessarily people with right-wing views-suggest that the credibility of all future peace accords, with the Palestinians, for example, may be jeopardized if the peace with Egypt collapses. The concern is that under a new regime no more capable than Mubarak’s of finding quick solutions for Egypt’s deeply-rooted problems, the rulers may be tempted to draw attention away from their failures by reentering the war with Israel.

Other Israeli commentators, including President Shimon Peres, suggest that the situation makes it all the more important to arrive at peace agreements with Palestine and Syria. They suggest that the positions of the sides are conceivably close enough that now is the time to take the extra steps necessary to close the deal. Otherwise, Israel could lose all chance of peace and find itself effectively back to being what it was before the Egyptian peace accord, an island surrounded by a ring of hostile countries.

Yet a third group of observers emphasize that aside from the exchange of ambassadors and certain relatively small-scale economic projects, Egypt never allowed the peace to realize its full potential. Moreover, the border with Syria, with whom there is no peace, has been just as quiet as that with Egypt over the decades since the ceasefire accords that ended the Yom Kippur War. In their view, the crucial element maintaining the peace is Israeli deterrence, and that would not change even should Egypt abrogate the peace accords.

As I write, Egypt continues to struggle. Despite its current agony, we do well to recall that it is a great state, indeed one of the oldest and most important political entities in human history. It plays a unique role today, simultaneously a leader of Africa, the Muslim, and the Arab worlds. Its impact on its neighbors is profound. We who admire and respect the Egyptian people can only hope for them what so many of them clearly hope for themselves-progress, democracy and peace.