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Ariel Sharon once told me he was very worried by Egyptian military expansion: It could only be used against Israel. This was already two decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Yet he felt Egypt could turn into an enemy at some future time.
Egypt is Israel's most powerful neighbor, and sees itself as the leading Arab nation. Now that Iraq has been emasculated, no other Arab state has the same power, though some eclipse Egypt in wealth.
Events in Egypt matter to us all. Egypt is considering joining the nuclear club, it has satellites, described by Israeli sources as spy-satellites, and the largest of all Arab armies, drawn from a population of nearly 80 million.
Israel should be worried by the possibility that fanatical Islamists may take over Egypt's government. President Hosni Mubarak is already worried. Over the last fortnight, his security services have arrested and detained scores of influential members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
The MB, though technically banned, has a fifth of the members of Egypt's parliament and is the leading opposition in the country. It has managed to get its members elected by their standing as independents. Now Mubarak has been pushing legislative proposals through his parliament to make it very difficult for independents to stand for parliament. This is aimed at restricting MB members being able to stand as candidates for the legislature.
Those detained recently include members of the MB's guidance bureau, what Egyptian security officials have described as "cadres of their paramilitary wing," and businessmen accused of raising funds for the MB and for the military training of young people.
The MB claims 400 alleged members have been detained over the last months. Some think that Mubarak is taking decisive steps now, especially after 23 Al-Azhar University students took part last month in a military-style parade. The MB has denied responsibility.
But Mubarak is a military man - he headed the air force following the Yom Kippur War - and is aware of the acute threat posed to him and his regime by those with military methods.
THE DANGERS posed by the MB also shed much light on Palestinian Islamist threats to Israel, as the Brotherhood fathered both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The program of all three is the same: the replacement of all legal systems by Shari'a, and the reintroduction of the Caliphate worldwide.
The continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state next door to Egypt is intolerable to the MB. Just as Cato the Elder used to end all his speeches in the Roman Senate with "Delenda est Cartago" (Carthage must be destroyed), so the MB constantly harangues against Israel in the same terms. Indeed MB's response to the Begin-Sadat Camp David Accords of 1978 was to call for jihad against Israel in 1979.
These fanatical fundamentalists want no peace with a Jewish state of any kind, even if Israel were to sacrifice every inch of territory conquered in the Six Day War, including all of east Jerusalem.
(Israel has already restored to Egypt the entire Sinai Peninsula with all its oil, potential for enormous tourism revenues, and essential strategic depth needed for Israel's survival in case Egyptian tanks were to move toward Israel's population centers. But the Egyptian media do not mention this.)
WHEN PRESIDENT Sadat arrested many of the MB in 1981 for their opposition to him, Islamist extremists assassinated him. Many Egyptians who returned from fighting the USSR in Afghanistan joined the ranks of these extremist organizations and committed them to wage global jihad.
Fanatical Islamists have killed a prime minister, an interior minister, a National Assembly speaker, and, during Mubarak's presidency, 58 tourists in Luxor, Upper Egypt, in addition to over 120 victims in Dahab, Sharm e-Sheikh and Dahab - some of them Israelis. There are reports that there have been six attempts on Mubarak's own life at various times.
The MB may be only one bullet away from power, and then a new pharaoh may arise, who does not recognize Israel.
As the leading opposition in the Egyptian Assembly, the MB's views fill the media, and Mubarak's government worries it might seek to destabilize the country. Mubarak and Israel are not alone with reason to fear their rise.
Christians generally feel under threat from the MB. Their churches are guarded by the security forces. When I ask why, Copts whisper to me, "the Muslims." Churches were attacked in Alexandria in October 2005 and April 2006 by Islamist fanatics, leaving four dead and around 167 injured, though the government has done everything to stop such violence since.
THE LARGE stocks of explosives discovered by the Egyptian Security Services in January in El Arish, Northern Sinai, were probably going to be used against tourists, especially Israelis visiting Sinai, who come despite passionate anti-Zionist feeling among the Egyptian population as a whole. The Eilat suicide-bomber last week was stated by some security sources to have probably entered Israel through Egypt. Weapons are known to enter Gaza from Egypt in large quantities even now.
Egypt's security is Israel's security.
If the Brotherhood does come to power, it might spell disaster for all progressive-minded Egyptians, for Egypt's allies, and for Israel. In spite of the regrettable but inevitable restrictions on human rights that Mubarak's crackdown entails, perhaps the West would be wise to let the Egyptian rais do what is necessary, without undue criticism.
The writer, currently in Egypt, is a British international barrister and human rights lawyer, and former fellow of the Harry S Truman Institute for Peace Studies. www.rosemarine.co.uk