Egyptian policy regarding Israel these days is a troubling indication of the
instability in the country. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is on a
collision course with the new political forces and particularly the Muslim
On the one hand Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi did
approve last week the appointment of a new ambassador to Israel, but on the
other the lower house of the newly elected parliament adopted a declaration
stating that Israel was the No. 1 enemy of Egypt and calling for the Israeli
ambassador be expelled as well as stopping the sale of natural gas to
At the same time, it is due to Egypt’s strenuous efforts that the
present round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza was brought to an end.
Without these efforts it is doubtful that the flare-up could have been halted
without an IDF ground operation from Israel which could have ignited the whole
The Supreme Council thus demonstrated its pragmatism and the fact
that it is well aware of the importance of the relations with Israel – and with
the United States. There were many in Israel who were afraid that no new
Egyptian envoy would be appointed when the incumbent completed his tour of duty
and that relations would be downgraded to the level of a charge d’affaires
according to the often repeated wish of the Muslim Brothers and of others who
want the peace treaty reopened.
It remains to be seen whether the new
ambassador will arrive before the army transfers its powers to a civilian
government led by the Brothers.
Regarding the exchanges of fire between
Israel and Gaza, the Supreme Council did not want a major problem on its borders
at a time when it is desperately trying to deal with a volatile internal
situation which could at any minute turn violent.
Cairo’s handling of the crisis was a means to show the Arab world that Egypt was
still the major player on the Palestinian front.
Not that it was easy,
since as usual the Egyptian media lashed at Israel for its alleged atrocities
against civilians in Gaza, and even recycled pictures taken during the Cast Lead
Operation in January 2009 – but did not mention the hundreds of missiles fired
at Israel towns and villages for days on end.
As for the Muslim Brothers,
their electoral successes have not been followed by a new awareness of political
The rhetoric of their leaders against Israel has not been
dampened, and their tirades have whipped the crowds into a frenzy, leading to
the shameful attack on the Israeli Embassy in September and perhaps to the
repeated assaults on the pipeline – 13 so far – bringing Egyptian gas to Jordan
and to Israel. Stopping the flow has already cost Egypt more than a billion
dollars in lost revenues.
The lower house of the Egyptian parliament is
powerless to implement its demands regarding the ambassador or the gas, since it
has no executive powers; indeed, the government appointed by the Supreme Council
in accordance with the temporary constitution does not answer to the parliament
and a noconfidence vote would be meaningless. However, it is a clear indication
of what the Muslim Brothers have in mind and what they will try to do when they
form the next government at some point after a president is elected in
Not that the army’s attitude has always been a model of
It is still hard to understand why security forces let
protesters storm the embassy building and reach its doors – in flagrant
violation of a number of international conventions.
It is even harder to
understand why Tantawi refused to talk with Prime Minister Netanyahu and only a
call from President Barack Obama finally spurred him into action.
this is due to the generals’ lack of experience: after all, it is not easy to
adapt to ruling a huge and heavily populated country when the president has been
deposed, civilian institutions are only partially operative and the economy is
This was demonstrated in the way the recent foreign NGO
crisis (which has nothing to do with Israel) was handled; having tacitly
sanctioned the raids and subsequent legal procedures against these
organizations, the Supreme Council then let the American employees leave the
country, which led an enraged parliament call for the downfall of the
At which point Tantawi made it clear that the government,
having been appointed by the Supreme Council, would remain in place until a new
president has been elected.
It is to be expected that this dual and
ambiguous attitude toward Israel (and the United States) will continue for quite
a while. There are some steep hurdles before the end of the transition period.
First, a special committee of 100 people must be appointed to draft the new
constitution. Then the constitution must be approved by referendum. Only then
are presidential elections to be held, it is hoped with the first round taking
place on May 23- 24. Should no candidate get 50 percent of the vote, a second
round will be held. Final results are expected by mid-June; coincidentally, the
verdict in the Mubarak trial is due at the same time.
There is ample room
for conflict on any and all those issues, and the people might take to the
streets once more. The Brothers with their heavy parliamentary representation
will do their utmost to give the constitution a deep Islamic slant while
granting more and more power to the parliament at the expense of presidential
prerogatives. They will also do their best to ensure that a president
with a “true Islamic background” is elected.
The character of the new
constitution and president will both have far reaching implications for the
nature of relations with Israel. True, Israel and Egypt have common security
interests and the dialogue between the relevant services are ongoing, but would
a government led by the Brotherhood put a stop to these vital exchanges? What
about trade relations, and the sale of natural gas to Israel? What about the
existence of Qualified Industrial Zones, which in cooperation with Israel let
Egypt export its products – and especially cotton – to the United States without
having to pay import duties? Should the agreements be revoked, the entire
Egyptian textile industry would be at risk of collapse.
Then there are
Sinai, Hamas – which is the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and last but
not least, Iran, long seen as an enemy by Hosni Mubarak but which is now trying
to ingratiate itself with the new regime.
So many questions... and so few
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The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,
is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.