Egyptian uncertainties

Egyptians might be willing to pay the economic price of cutting relations with Israel and the US to promote their Islamist agenda.

Egypt Army 480  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt Army 480
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Watching from the sidelines in Israel as central Cairo is torn by deadly clashes in the run-up to parliamentary elections, one cannot help but fear for the future. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties that openly oppose the existence of the Jewish state are expected to do well in the elections.
And even so-called liberal parties vying for Egyptians’ votes are far from pro-Israel in their outlook.
For instance, Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa announced in August that “Israel should know that the era in which our sons are killed without a harsh response on our part is over for good.”
He spoke after Israeli forces killed six Egyptian border guards in a counter-raid designed to capture Palestinian terrorists who infiltrated Israel near Eilat and killed eight Israelis.
Just a few weeks later, Egyptian crowds stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, also an Egyptian, have both announced that the Camp David peace treaty isn’t “sacred” and may have to be altered.
And these views seem to reflect popular opinion. By a margin of 54 percent to 36%, Egyptians said their country should annul the treaty with Israel, according to a Pew Research Center poll published in April. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that no major public figure interested in being elected in what will probably be Egypt’s first truly democratic elections is willing to declare peace with Israel to be a national interest that needs to be protected.
Widespread anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians is, more than anything else, the product of decades of state-sponsored incitement by the Mubarak regime as a means of deflecting criticism from its own repressive policies at home. But Israel’s many critics will conveniently ignore this fact and instead single out Israel’s settlement policy in Judea and Samaria as the source of Egyptian antipathy.
And Egypt’s new political leadership, interested in portraying itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, might attempt to justify downgrading relations with Israel by arguing that this is a legitimate move to exert pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians. Some Europeans might see such a move as justified as well.
EU Ambassador Andrew Standley said at a press briefing in Jerusalem this week that it would be wise for Israel to move quickly now and reach an agreement with the Palestinians, to remove Israel as an issue on the Egyptian street. The idea that there is “linkage” between the Palestinian question and our relations with Cairo is being internalized locally.
Politicians on the Left, such as Labor’s MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, have called publicly to launch a renewed effort with the Palestinians in an attempt to improve relations with Egypt, as if Israel alone was responsible for the deadlock in peace talks.
Further complicating Israeli relations with Palestinians is the warming relations between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza. Ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are strong. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, was a Muslim Brotherhood member. If, as expected, the Muslim Brotherhood becomes a major political force in post-Mubarak Egypt, any conflict between Israel and Gaza could escalate into a regional one. Israel might have to think twice before retaliating against rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. No longer able to rely on a stable peace with Egypt, the IDF would be forced to allocate more resources to our southern border while fewer resources would be available to deal with terrorism on the West Bank and Hezbollah in the north.
Perhaps pragmatism will win out in the end. Since 1979, the year the peace treaty was signed, Egypt has averaged $2 billion a year in US aid. Congress has hinted that if Cairo annuls the peace treaty, this aid might be curtailed. Egypt is in desperate need of this money. Its currency has dipped to its lowest level in almost seven years. Its foreign reserves have tumbled from $36b. on the eve of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster to just $22b. in October. Yield on an Egyptian dollar-bond soared to its highest since March.
On the other hand, Egyptians might be willing to pay the economic price of cutting relations with Israel and the US to promote their Islamist agenda. It would not be the first time religious fervor trumps logic.