Newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry will get a baptism of fire when he
heads for the Middle East later this month.
Israel is essentially a
courtesy call, and making it his first stop can help allay the paranoia of the
uber-sensitive Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters in the US and in Israel who
have been trashing President Barack Obama for the past four years for never
coming to visit.
Despite telling Israeli and Palestinian leaders in
weekend phone calls that restarting peace talks is a high priority, Kerry knows
nothing can happen until Netanyahu forms a new government and the Palestinians
hold elections, expected later this year.
Kerry’s most critical stop will
be in Cairo, where the most populous and most important Arab country is entering
the third year of its revolution and is in danger of becoming a failed
The Egyptian economy is on the verge of collapse, unemployment is
soaring, the illiteracy rate is alarming, the crucial tourism industry has been
decimated and the blood of protesters stains the streets.
Mohamed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader who rode to office on a wave
of yearning for freedom and promises of democracy and jobs, has quickly become
another repressive autocrat. Unlike his secular predecessors, he is an Islamist
who seeks to impose religious law on the Egyptian people. He rammed through a
new Islamist constitution which erases lines between religion and state, and
turned his brutal security forces on demonstrators who objected.
hopes kindled two years ago in Tahrir Square by the overthrow of the hated Hosni
Mubarak are being trampled there by Morsi’s police.
Morsi and his
partners have little experience running a government or an economy, and those
who do fled after the revolution to the Gulf and to Europe and are not coming
back. He has focused more on instituting Islamist rule and entrenching the
Brotherhood in power than on delivering his promises – and voter demands – for
jobs, economic recovery and greater freedom.
Eric Trager of the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Kerry’s message to Morsi should
be: “[You] cannot realistically prevent violent, destabilizing protests without
a serious policy for resuscitating the failing economy, attracting investments
and spurring job creation.”
Morsi fired the former pro-Western military
leaders and picked as his chief of staff a general who has called for the United
States to “permanently” remove its forces from the Middle East and show more
forceful support for the Palestinian cause.
Lt.-Gen. Sedky Sobhy has said
“one-sided” support for Israel has fueled anti-American hatred in the region and
has been a recruiting tool for Islamic radicals. Some American experts on the
region believe his appointment portends a strategic realignment between
Washington and Cairo.
A sign of that was apparent in this week’s red
carpet welcome for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian leader to
visit Cairo since Egypt made peace with Israel.
THE BILLIONS in aid
America been sending Egypt for more than three decades are viewed by many as a
long-term lease on its peace treaty with Israel.
That’s one reason why
often when Members of Congress threatened to cut it for whatever reason, the
lobbying team that springs into action to block the move was Israeli
Morsi has said he intends to abide by the treaty, but his
anti-Semitic outbursts have been troubling and his attempts at damage control
have only made matters worse.
In a March 2010 speech that recently
surfaced Morsi denounced Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs” and called for a
boycott of American goods because of US support for Israel. When confronted by a
group of US senators, he lamely insisted his remarks were taken out of context
and he didn’t mean all Jews, just those who control the media.
has Jewish roots and a Jewish brother, needs to remind Morsi that the Obama
administration has condemned his statements as “deeply offensive” and should be
repudiated, and warned such hate mongering can do great damage to Egypt’s
standing in Washington.
US aid buys more than the peace treaty: strategic
cooperation, intelligence sharing, preferential treatment for American warships
using the Suez Canal, access to bases and some (but not enough) cooperation in
combating infiltration across the Israel-Sinai border and interdiction of
weapons smuggling into Gaza.
A report issued last fall by the Washington
Institute and reported here at the time said it would be a mistake to listen to
those in the Congress who want to cut off all aid just as it would be wrong to
keep sending it unconditionally.
Instead, Morsi should be presented with
a set of well-defined benchmarks to meet on regional peace, bilateral strategic
cooperation, adherence to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, the fight against
terrorism, and political reform as conditions for continued American aid and
Congressional experts who follow developments closely
feel Egypt’s relationship with Israel will never again be as close as it was
under Hosni Mubarak, whose cold peace will look warm and fuzzy by
At the civilian government-to-government level there is no
relationship; Netanyahu and Morsi rarely if ever speak to each other. But at the
military level it is a different story, they say. The two security
establishments are in “close daily contact.”
Jerusalem and Washington
want the Egyptian military to remain strong, they report, particularly in
protecting border security. Morsi may have replaced his top generals with
Islamist loyalists, but the officer corps remains pro-Western, much of it
trained and educated in the United States.
This is not a time to restrict
aid to the Egyptian military, they add. The way things are going the military
could be running the country again at any moment, and even if Morsi’s government
survives, we will still need them.
Morsi came to power through democratic
elections, but there is growing doubt that he will permit free elections when
his term ends. The Muslim Brotherhood is not democratic, likes being in power
and doesn’t want to risk losing it. As often happens in the Muslim world, the
road to democracy leads through the mosques, but the exits are blocked and it
can go no further.
That’s what Morsi and the Islamists appear to be doing
in Egypt. Kerry needs to speak out forcefully in demanding Morsi keep his
promises of democratic rule, honor commitments, guarantee religious tolerance,
and carry out political and economic reform. It is in everyone’s interest.