By Barry Rubin
What does the Egyptian revolution mean for Israel? A great deal and, unfortunately, none of it is particularly good, though Israel will have to adjust to these new circumstances.
People who don’t know very much predict some great chance for peace in a rosy democratic dawn. I’ve even heard moderate Egyptians claim that the only reason people there hated Israel was because it was associated in their minds with the Mubarak regime and now there’s no reason for friction. But this kind of argument has nothing to do with reality.
The implications for Israel should be divided into two categories: those that relate to Egypt directly and those arising from the event’s fall-out on the regional situation.
Even if one assumes a best-case outcome in Egypt—a stable, moderate Egyptian democracy—it presents Israel with some difficult problems. The simplest way to put it is that certainty has been replaced by doubt.
The single most salient issues is whether the new government preserve the peace treaty with Israel.? Not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also the two best-known oppositionists (Ayman Nour and Muhammad ElBaradei) have spoken of the need to revise the treaty, hold a referendum, or dispense with it altogether. Even if they never do it, Israel must assume that this kind of thing is in the realm of the possible.
What is most likely is that the treaty will not be formally torn up—due to Egyptian fear of losing U.S. aid or of Israeli retaliation—but rather emptied of content. If Egypt violates the treaty without admitting it, Israel may have trouble convincing the United States to act. And how does Israel respond without triggering a confrontation?
There are many steps the Egyptian government could take: letting weapons flow and terrorists walk across the Egypt-Gaza border; not trying too hard to stop terrorists from crossing the Egypt-Israel border; not providing proper protection to Israeli citizens travelling in Egypt or to the Israeli embassy; recalling Egyptian diplomats from Israel; stepping up hostile and official anti-Israel incitement; and so on.
The most critical, which would be a treaty violation, would be to disregard the limits on Egyptian troops being stationed in Sinai. The Egyptian army might want to avoid this as being too provocative. But if it did send additional forces, Israel would have to turn to the United States and ask President Barack Obama to keep the U.S. pledge to enforce the treaty by putting massive pressure on Egypt. And you can complete the paragraph on your own.
There is another and most critical point being swept under the rug. Even if the Egyptian government doesn’t actually violate the treaty, Israel cannot depend 100 percent on peace with Egypt surviving a number of potential crises. If Hamas or Hizballah attacks and Israel retaliates will Egypt remain passive? What about the possibility of a future Israel-Syria confrontation?
Arguing that Egypt will not provoke or go to war with Israel is based on a Western assessment of Egyptian interests. The regime might well decide to interpret those interests in its own way. Thinking this could not happen is the same kind of reasoning that implied Egypt would not provoke a war with Israel in 1967, Iraq wouldn’t invade Iran in 1979, Saddam Hussein wouldn’t pretend he was working on nuclear weapons and thus incur sanctions and then an American attack, and Yasir Arafat would accept a compromise solution to get a Palestinian state.
In other words, it is a line of reasoning that has repeatedly failed in the past, yet those asserting it have learned nothing from decades of harsh experience.
This altered Egyptian factor will now have to be taken into account in every major Israeli decision. Beginning after the 1967 war the strategy of the PLO and other groups was to attack Israel with terrorism to try and trigger a crisis that would bring the Arab states into a full-scale war. In the late 1970s, with Egypt-Israel peace, this ceased to be a threat. It has now become one again, with Hamas, Hizballah, and even al-Qaida in place of the PLO.
Another problem is border security. Again, we are told that it is in the interest of Egypt, especially the army, to avoid having terrorists cross the border into Israel. Yet similar logic has often proven mistaken in previous, similar cases. With junior officers and soldiers sympathizing with Islamism or radical nationalism, the orders of the generals back in Cairo might not be followed with a high degree of discipline. There are already reports of al-Qaida planning to infiltrate into the Sinai to launch cross-border attacks.
And so Israel is going to have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild its defenses along the long border with Egypt. Thousands of Israelis will have to spend more time in reserve duty to man the reinforced Southern Command. No matter how many international or Egyptian assurances are given, Israel cannot depend on what might turn out to be wishful thinking.
Then there’s the Gaza problem. Helping Hamas is considered a national and religious duty by most Egyptians. Maintaining sanctions on Gaza and a tightly controlled border is unpopular. Can any elected government resist the popularity to be obtained by opening the border or want to sustain the unpopularity in maintaining the status quo? Here’s an Israeli intelligence evaluation of Iranian efforts to expand arms shipments to Hamas.
Such a step would further embolden Hamas and entrench it in power. More arms and more sophisticated weapons are going to flow across the border. With the Muslim Brotherhood legalized, it will be free to stir up massive support for its Palestinian branch, Hamas. Indeed, these things are already happening. Consequently, the possibility of a renewed Hamas-Israel war in several years is increased.
And, as noted above, suppose Israel needs to retaliate against a Hamas attack as happened in Operation Cast Lead? Can one assume that an Egyptian government would stand by and do nothing? Maybe; perhaps even probably; but not definitely. As we have seen in the last round, even if Hamas fires scores of rockets and launches cross-border attacks the Arab world (even the world more broadly) would not support Israel’s retaliation as a reasonable act of self-defense.
The least important bilateral issue is the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. Out of economic interest the Egyptian government wants to keep open the pipeline. But what if it comes under repeated attacks by terrorists, the first of which has already happened, and soon no longer functions. Egypt could also demand a price increase for gas, which will end up losing it Israel’s business–but that would be a public relations’ plus for an elected Egyptian government. Of course, Israel now has its own natural gas reserves so this is not a big problem if there is time to make the transition.
Finally, there is the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. While the likelihood of the Brotherhood taking power in the near future is very low, the chance of it gaining power in the long run is now enhanced. At any rate, the Brotherhood is going to be an important force in Egypt and perhaps an influence on the government. As it spreads its message of hate, this is not likely to lead to a love-fest for Israel.
And the situation also enhances the threat to the Jordanian monarchy from the Muslim Brotherhood there as well as the threat to the Palestinian Authority from Hamas.
Yet the most likely alternative to Islamism in Egypt, radical nationalism, is also a threat. An Egypt that goes down that road could renew its alliance with Syria, for instance.
But won’t the Egyptians just concentrate on raising living standards and enjoying freedoms? Perhaps. Yet the problem is that there is no money for improving the Egyptian economy and angry frustration is more likely than prosperity. We have seen often in the Arab world how a government that cannot deliver the goods provides foreign scapegoats instead.
In light of these factors and of the possibility of anarchy and terrorism within Egypt, Israeli tourism is likely to become untenable. It certainly would not be advisable.
The situation can be summarized by saying that so far Egypt has gone from positive to neutral. The question is whether it will go over into the negative.
What about the regional situation? Is Egypt likely to be a democratic light unto other Arabic-speaking societies? The radical regimes—Iran, Syria, Hizballah and its allies in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip—are not going to politely surrender to Facebook-organized demonstrations. Their armies and security forces are willing to shoot to kill. There may be demonstrations but there won’t be revolutions.
The wave of popular upheavals is more likely to destabilize more moderate regimes that aren’t hostile to Israel than radical ones that are. In the end, though, probably no governments will fall. But they—and especially Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—will be intimidated. They know that any compromises with Israel or friendly relations with it will not sit well with the masses and those who would agitate them into anger and action.
Another consequence, then, of the Egyptian revolution is to put the peace process, already frozen, into the very deep freeze. Those who believe that events in Egypt and anti-government demonstrations accord some great opportunity for advancing negotiations overlook this basic fact of how internal politics restrain the flexibility of leaders in the Arab world. To make matters worse, friendly Arab governments now have to worry whether America is a reliable ally that would protect them. Who knows whether Washington might declare them to be a dictatorship and support their opponents?
And there’s also a message for Israel. How can Israel be expected to take risks and make concessions when it sees the very real possibility that anyone with whom it makes a deal may be overthrown and their successors not honor their pledges?
Finally, since Iran, Syria, and other Islamist forces see the Egyptian revolution as, at minimum, the destruction of their strongest Arab opponent and, at best, a possible gain for their side. They are likely to be emboldened. After all, they have virtually taken over Lebanon without any strong U.S. response and have entrenched the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.
How can I present such a gloomy analysis while the Western world is celebrating a joyous event in Egypt? Because it’s unfortunately an accurate assessment. Yet the gap between Israeli and Western perceptions is still another aspect of the problem.
Ignorant authors with far bigger audiences than mine will assure people with a wave of a hand that no problems exist and that everything will be just fine. But even in the best case analysis, the main Arab power opposing the expansion of the revolutionary Islamist forces–the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah-Lebanon government-Turkish government alliance and the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods–is gone.
Will the example of Egypt and Tunisia prove to Arab peoples that democracy is better than Islamism? Will it so shame the Iranian regime and its allies that they will leap into the dustbin of history? Well, first these would-be role models have to succeed and that’s a long way from happening.
When one looks at how Egypt weighs its national interests, consider the following story that I heard first-hand: The U.S. government some years ago came up with an idea to fund Egypt-Israel-Jordan cooperation to keep the Red Sea clean. A U.S. official was sent to Israel and Jordan. Both agreed. He then went to Egypt. A high-ranking Egyptian official told him that Cairo would not participate in the plan. The American asked why since Egypt would also benefit from the project. The Egyptian explained that his government couldn’t do anything that helped Israel even if it also helped Egypt.
The current situation reminds me of an old joke. The passengers are seated and everything is ready on the airplane when a voice comes over the loudspeaker from the cockpit:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the world’s first fully automated airplane, piloted by an infallible computer and not a mere human being. It has all of the most modern and sophisticated technical devices. Nothing can go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…go wrong….”
There’s no danger like one that potential victims refuse to notice. Hoping for a best-case outcome is one thing; basing one’s strategic calculations on it is quite another.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: http://www.gloria-center.org His blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.