Saturday, February 5, 2011

Change is coming to Egypt, whether Israel likes it or not

The prospect of having the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a pivotal Middle Eastern regime is of course troubling, and not only for Israel, but Jerusalem’s desperation to maintain stability at all costs, has blinded it to the reality of change.

By Daniella Peled

If Benjamin Netanyahu had really wanted to derail the anti-Mubarak protests that swept Egypt this week, he could have resorted to some straightforward psychological operations: Simply bus in a load of protesters to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, hand them a selection of “Game over Mubarak” and “We are all Egypt” placards and let them march around a bit. By the third circuit of the square, after a spot of Al Jazeera coverage, the anti-regime protests in Cairo would have no doubt collapsed under the weight of Israeli solidarity.

In truth, I didn’t see much evidence of anti-Zionist feeling in Cairo this week − apart from one lonely middle-aged man at a traffic intersection, holding up a hand-scrawled sign reading, “Israel go to Hell.”
Instead, Bibi resorted to hugely clumsy diplomacy. Jerusalem’s instruction this week to select envoys to lobby their host governments to soften their statements about poor old Mubarak was more than shortsighted. It evidenced a lack of understanding of what was happening on the ground: how fast things were moving, how far they had moved on. With even Hillary Clinton calling for an “orderly transition to democracy,” Israel’s message was already superfluous.

The mentality of preferring stability at all costs still pervades Israeli decision making, and with some notable exceptions the country has long lacked any leaders able and willing to make bold moves. And yet change is happening, defying all kinds of standard tropes about the Arab world − not least the idea that Arabs only understand a strong hand, and that the only alternative to dictatorship is an Islamic fundamentalist regime.
The protesters on the streets of Cairo certainly challenge the conventional wisdom that if Mubarak falls, the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power. This is nothing but a ruse dreamed up by the regime to ensure Western support, they say, insisting that the people in the Muslim Brotherhood are intelligent and pragmatic; they are not Al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Indeed, the Brotherhood showed its tactical ability this week with its endorsement of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA head and Nobel Prize laureate − although in truth, his appearance has been a bit of a damp squib, and he seems to fall far short of a figure able to rally a revolution.

With the smoke barely cleared from the burned-out wrecks of police trucks scattered around Cairo, it’s perhaps premature to expect free and fair elections here any time soon. In any analysis of the situation, the Muslim Brotherhood would inevitably do well, relative to their size, simply because they are better organized than any other group, and can call on their network of mosques to help rally people to their cause. An outright win is harder to predict; an important role in any democratically elected parliament seems highly likely.

This all spells trouble for Israel − or at least a complete paradigm shift. However cold the peace may have been at times, the agreement with Egypt is Israel’s most important asset after its relationship with the United States. And Israel will have to continue to talk to any Egyptian government, even if it contains the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it respects that agreement. And maybe it will, because both sides stand to lose an unconscionable amount from a renewed conflict.

The peace cemented Egypt’s strategic partnership with the United States, along with the $1.5 billion in military aid the latter gives Egypt each year, and Egyptians most certainly do not want another clash.
“Relations with Israel are complex, sure, but we don’t want war,” said Hela Badri, a 55-year-old journalist and novelist, amid the crowds in Tahrir Square. “You can’t uproot Israel, it’s a nation, a state, a fact. We just want Israel to give the Palestinians their rights.”

Extensive military strategies must undoubtedly have been prepared ready to be put into place if the peace agreement broke down and, sure, Israel could beat Egypt on the battlefield, although at huge human and financial cost. But what about Israeli diplomatic contingency plans?

The Mubarak succession has long been one of Israel’s most pressing regional concerns. Surely the finest minds in Jerusalem could have come up with something better than Netanyahu’s hint this week that he wants to impose the same kind of ideological conditions on a new Egyptian government that he did on Hamas. If he thinks that his international allies will go along with this, as they did with Hamas, he is deluding himself.
A senior Palestinian negotiator told me recently that the only issue of concern remaining between Fatah-Hamas unity talks was the security brief. As for outside recognition, the major players all seemed to be in the bag. “The international community will respond very well,” he said. “It is only smart to say Hamas is part of the Palestinian electorate. If they are recognized, they can be very flexible.”

The international community’s attitude has changed since Hamas won the elections, influenced by the Gaza siege, Cast Lead and the flotilla disaster. Its patience with Israeli intransigence is wearing thin.

The prospect of having the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a pivotal Middle Eastern regime is of course troubling, and not only for Israel, but Jerusalem’s desperation to maintain stability at all costs, to maintain the status quo, has blinded it to the reality of change. If it is indeed game over for Mubarak, members of Israel’s political elite are going to have to tackle the strategic implications of a semi-Islamist neighbor that they have little choice but to acknowledge.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.


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