There goes the neighborhood

An Islamic takeover in Egypt would pose an enormous strategic threat to Israel, but there are also less ominous scenarios.

By LESLIE SUSSER
February 16, 2011 15:14
Egyptian border policeman

Egyptian border policeman. (photo credit: Associated Press)

AS THE MILLIONS clamoring for a free Egypt massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Israeli decisionmakers looked on with growing apprehension. This was the specter of their worst strategic nightmare: The emergence from the chaos of a hostile Islamic republic and the ensuing collapse of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of Israel’s regional policy for the past three decades.

“Our most serious concern is that in a situation of rapid change, and in the absence of the foundations of modern democracy, what could emerge, and already have emerged in a number of countries, including Iran, are repressive radical Islamic regimes that suppress human rights, allow no freedoms and no rights and also pose a terrible threat to peace and stability and to the interests of all civilized people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at a joint news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem, in late January.

Netanyahu raised the prospect of a twostage seizure of power: a quasi-democratic government soon ousted by the most organized political force, in Egypt’s case, the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood. That, he observed, was what had happened in the 1917 Russian revolution, with Alexander Kerensky and the Bolsheviks. Closer to home, he could have pointed to Shapour Bakhtiar, prime minister of a democratizing Iran for a few months between the fall of the Shah and the 1979 seizure of power by the Ayatollahs; or to Hamas in Gaza gaining a foothold in parliament in January 2006, and then forcibly expelling the Palestinian Authority the following year.

“In a situation of chaos, an organized Islamic force can take over,” Netanyahu warned.

Should the prime minister’s worst-case scenario transpire, the strategic threat to Israel would be enormous. Israel would face a large, modern, American-equipped and Americantrained army on its southern border, an Islamist government in Cairo aiding and abetting Hamas in Gaza, and a possible domino effect, leading to a hostile Islamist regime in Jordan and an augmented military threat to the east. That could leave Israel even worse off than before the 1979 peace deal, facing a combined military challenge from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians – with the added menace of a fundamentalist Iran seeking nuclear weapons and fueling proxy rocket and missile threats from Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Israel could also face an Egypt that would exacerbate regional tensions rather than cool them down as its now-embattled President Hosni Mubarak has done for decades. The second Palestinian intifada in 2000-2005, the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the fighting in Gaza in 2008-9 could easily have triggered wider regional hostilities; but, in each case, in the teeth of region-wide popular sentiment against Israel, Mubarak adamantly rejected calls to commit Egyptian soldiers. On the contrary, he was critical of Hizballah in Lebanon and of Hamas in Gaza for provoking senseless killing and he played a significant role in achieving post-war cease-fire arrangements.

“Not everything Mubarak did was right,” President Shimon Peres declared in late January. “But he did one thing for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He kept the peace in the Middle East.”



The Israeli public seems as concerned as its leaders. An early February poll by the respected Dahaf Institute showed that 65% of Israelis thought Mubarak’s fall would have negative implications for Israel, while only 11% said its effects would be positive. Fully 59% thought an Islamic regime would come to power and only 21% perdicted a secular democracy.

The hazy future has exacerbated differences on peacemaking between the Israeli right and left. Right-wingers maintain that the possible collapse of the peace deal with Egypt shows that Israel cannot rely on peace treaties for its security, and, in any peacemaking process, will need to put more emphasis on security arrangements.

The Netanyahu government is already suggesting that it will be less willing to take risks for peace, a stance that could slow peacemaking even further.

Left-wingers counter that, on the contrary, the prospect of a more Islamist Middle East means that Israel should speed up peacemaking efforts and cut a deal with the Palestinians as quickly as possible to take the sting out of the radical opposition to Israel and prevent regional isolation. Ironically, now, with the regional moderates under pressure, Israel could find partners for this, the left-wingers say.

BUT IS AN ISLAMIST TAKEOVER of Egypt, the most populous (more than 80 million) and influential country in the Arab world, really the most likely scenario? Some Israeli pundits are adamant that the Egyptian army will never allow that to happen.

They argue that the most likely outcome of the current unrest will be more of the same: a Mubarak-like military-backed regime, with only sops to democracy and a different public persona, a new president from the ranks of the military, fronting it.

Others maintain that Egypt is on the cusp of a truly democratic revolution, and that democracy, rather than Islam, will sweep the country and then the region.

Indeed, there are three main schools of thought in Israel on what the future holds in store. The non-revolutionary view: that the unrest, no more than a blip on the Middle Eastern historical chart, will soon die down with an almost seamless reversion to the old army-based autocratic ways; and two opposing revolutionary views: one holding that a tidal wave of Islam is about to sweep Egypt and the region, and the other that, in the world of Twitter and Facebook, a new Middle Eastern democracy is about to take root.

Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University, is a leading exponent of the new democracy view.

Meital, an expert on Egypt, argues that without Mubarak, the entire political edifice on which his regime was built is likely to crumble. “We are talking about a huge pyramid of power, from members of parliament to regional governors and municipal councilors, parts of which are already beginning to fall,” he tells The Report.

A first inkling of this came in early February, with the resignation en bloc of the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party. Moreover, in Meital’s view, Omar Suleiman, the newly appointed Vice President, will prove no more than a transitional figure on the way to democratic reform in a more open society. He dismisses notions that the army will keep Suleiman, a former head of intelligence, or someone like him, in office – the way it has kept military men in power – Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak – ever since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

“The only thing reminiscent of the colonels’ coup in 1952 is that people have been urging Mubarak to leave Egypt the way the king did,” Meital insists. “They are saying, ‘Choose a yacht or a plane and we will give you a 21-gun salute. But just leave. It’s over.’” Contrary to widespread fears in Israel, Meital does not anticipate an Islamist takeover in Egypt. In the free democratic space that he sees filling the void left by the disintegration of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Meital maintains that the Muslim Brotherhood is more likely to decline than to grow. “Large segments of the Egyptian people will have political alternatives that weren’t available to them before. In other words, new parties will emerge, which could siphon off some of the Muslim Brotherhood vote. The Muslim Brothers will remain an important part of the Egyptian polity, but not the biggest or the most important part,” he contends.

As for relations with Israel, Meital argues that the huge socioeconomic, foreign policy and security challenges any new Egyptian regime will face will propel it towards maintaining the peace deal with Israel, as part of its calling card to the West and especially the US, which provides Egypt with a massive $1.3 billion in annual aid. On the overarching strategic level, he says, the army understands this and, while it will not take control of the government, it will insist on keeping the peace with Israel.

Still, on the government to government level, Meital anticipates growing friction.

“That’s because I see a connection between the new political domain in Egypt and the policy of the incoming government. In other words, it will be more attuned to popular sentiment in Egypt and, therefore, more critical of Israeli policies. The voices of criticism already present in Egyptian society will find their way into parliament and into the government,” he predicts.

Meital also foresees serious friction over Gaza, with far less cooperation in intelligence on Hamas and in the battle against arms smuggling.

As for the regional ramifications, Meital describes the unrest in Egypt as “a model lesson in civil protest,” which could spread across the entire Middle East with the same democratizing results. “If it brings Mubarak down, it won’t be just a new page in Middle Eastern history, but a new chapter,” he declares. “As for Israel, we should not underestimate the old threats, which will remain with us. But we should recognize that the Middle East is changing before our very eyes and not necessarily in a negative way.”

FOR DAVID BUKAY, A HAIFA University political scientist who focuses on the Middle East, all this is pie in the sky. Bukay argues that in Arab/Muslim political culture there are only two regime options and democracy is not one of them. In his view, Arab or Muslim regimes can be either praetorian – sustained by the armed forces – or Islamist. The praetorian model can be republican as in Egypt or monarchic as in Jordan.

Turkey and Iran are examples of the Islamist model. If given a free choice, Bukay contends, Egyptians would almost certainly vote for an Islamist government, too. But, he says, the army will not allow that to happen.

Therefore, he predicts that a government similar to Mubarak’s will continue to hold sway. “There might be a bunch of slogans, quasi reforms and so-called national unity governments.

None of that matters. The dominant power will still be the army, and it won’t allow anyone to turn Egypt into an Islamic republic,” he tells The Report.

In his view, Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, simply does not have the basic political and cultural infrastructure for a democratic outcome.

Those in the West who think it does are simply imposing a mirror image of their own societies on a country whose basic values are very different. “I am amazed at the wishful thinking of people who want democracy at any price. As if you just have to say the word and snap your fingers and you will have it. But in the Arab world, where are there democratic institutions, democratic parties or democratic procedures? Democracy is not something that can come out of nowhere,” he asserts.

Bukay is extremely critical of the US for failing to understand this. Like many Israelis, he was baffled by the speed with which President Barack Obama turned his back on Mubarak, for decades a central pillar of American strategy against the radical forces led by Iran. At the very least, this sent a deeply disconcerting message to America’s moderate allies across the region.

Far worse, though, are the potential consequences of the US trying to impose its values on Egypt, according to Bukay. Free elections and the sidelining of the military will lead almost inevitably to the rise of an Islamic republic, hostile to both Israel and the West, he insists. “As far as potential regional implications go, [US President Jimmy] Carter’s betrayal of the Shah in Iran is small potatoes compared to Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak.

Iran was and still is isolated. Egypt is at the hub of the Middle East and what happens there will affect the entire Arab world,” he declares.

WHILE BUKAY IS CONFIDENT the Egyptian army will prevent this nightmare scenario, Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, is not so sure. On the contrary, Shaked holds that the prospect of Egypt becoming an Islamic republic is very real. “If parliamentary elections are held in Egypt before the summer based on the fair and free democratic election model the Americans are demanding, there is a very high probability that the Islamists will come to power,” he tells The Report. “And all the Americans will have achieved is getting a dictator friendly to the US replaced by one who isn’t.”

In the last relatively free elections in Egypt in late 2005, the Islamists won 88 seats in parliament, less than 20 percent of the total. So why is Shaked so certain they would win power now? He argues that the elections then were partially rigged; that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys wide popularity as a provider of social services; that with an 83- year-long history, it is by far the most organized and best financed of the contenders for power; that if it were allowed to form a full-fledged political party and to campaign, it would poll even more votes; and that its secular opponents are deeply fragmented.

“Even if they get only 30-40 percent of the vote, they will be the strongest party and the dominant force in the parliament. They will be able to form a coalition with other Israel-haters, like the neo-Nasserists, and I see only trouble ahead for Israel,” he declares.

Shaked says he does not think an Islamist Egypt will be in a hurry to go to war with Israel. But he is certain that there will be some sort of downgrading of the peace deal with Israel, a populist move that will win plaudits for the new regime from large segments of the Egyptian people. “There is a lot of hatred and hostility towards Israel, and terrible anti- Semitism,” he maintains.

FOR ISRAEL, THE MAIN STRATEGIC significance of the peace with Egypt was that it was able to take the threat of full-scale war against its strongest foe out of the military equation.

But what if the IDF had again to take the possibility of armed conflict with Egypt into account? Just how much of a threat would the huge Egyptian army under a hostile regime pose? By far the most powerful in the Arab world, the largely American-equipped and Americantrained Egyptian army numbers around 700,000 men (450,000 in the standing army and around 250,000 reserves), with 12 ground force divisions and about 3,400 tanks and 500 fighter planes. Some of the equipment is state-of-theart, including approximately 1,000 Abrams M1 tanks, produced and assembled under license in Egypt, and just over 200 F-16 fighters.

Although the Egyptian army is more or less the same size as the IDF and has some of the same weapons systems, Israeli experts doubt whether it has similar combat capabilities. In assessing the Egyptian army, Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, says there are two key questions: The quality of its manpower and the extent to which it has adopted and integrated advanced Western military doctrine, especially the game-changing “revolution in military affairs” (RMA). On the manpower issue, Shapir points out that although there are high-school graduates among them, most Egyptian soldiers are less well-educated.


More importantly, the Egyptians have not even begun to incorporate RMA. “RMA is not just accurate long-range firepower. It’s more a case of real time interoperation between intelligence, command and control and accurate weapons systems, which requires a great deal of training of a very special kind. In my view there are just two armies who have these capabilities at the highest level: the US Army and the IDF.

And simply buying the systems does not give this kind of capability,” he tells The Report.

Indeed, largely because of the RMA disparity, Shapir says that in the event of war between Israel and Egypt, he would expect a result similar to that achieved by the American army in Iraq in 2003. “The American army in Iraq was not any bigger than Israel’s standing army. They had only three divisions, one of which came late. True their air force was much bigger, but it was mainly because of the advantages of RMA that they defeated an army of 21 divisions in two weeks,” he observes. “I would expect the IDF to achieve a similar result, perhaps not quite so easily or with so few casualties.”

But in Shapir’s view, even the thought of full-scale conflict with Egypt is a long way down the road. “Even if a hostile government were to come to power tomorrow, I don’t think it would cancel the peace deal. It’s too important for Egypt’s relationship with the US. And even if they do eventually abrogate it, it is hard to see them throwing the American-led multinational peacekeeping force out of Sinai and moving their army in. So when the dust settles, even if we see things going in a bad direction, we are talking about years until it takes on really threatening proportions,” he maintains.

Like a slumbering giant, the Middle East is slowly awakening to new realities. The masses in Tahrir Square are clearly harbingers of change, which, for better or for worse, will force Israel to adapt – economically, politically and militarily – or face the consequences of life in a potentially even less hospitable neighborhood.


Related Content