Egypt protests - AP - Jan. 26, 2011
Egyptian riot police clashing with anti-government activists in Cairo, Jan. 26, 2011. Photo by AP
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Israel expects the Egyptian government to weather the protests roiling the country and to remain in power, an Israeli Cabinet minister said Thursday, providing Israel's first official assessment of the crisis affecting its powerful southern neighbor.

The minister said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, backed by his powerful security forces, was strong enough to overcome the unrest, though he did not rule out the possibility of further violence.

"His regime is well-rooted in the military and security apparatus," the minister said. "They will have to exercise force, power in the street and do it. But they are strong enough according to my assessment to overcome it."

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a sensitive diplomatic issue with a key ally.

Anti-government protests in Egypt entered their third day on Thursday, with activists trying to oust President Hosni Mubarak throwing rocks and petrol bombs and playing cat-and-mouse with police, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators.

The riots are threatening to destabilize Mubarak's regime, which has ruled for 30 years. An Islamist insurgency challenged Mubarak in the 1990s and was crushed by his vast security apparatus.

But this is the first time since taking office in 1981 that he has faced such widespread protests from Egypt's large, youthful population. The protesters have vented rage over the government's neglect of poverty, unemployment and rising prices.

Egypt was the first Arab country to reach peace with Israel three decades ago. It remains one of Israel's most important allies by acting as a bridge to the wider Arab world.

Mubarak took power in the wake of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who reached peace with Israel. Mubarak has preserved that agreement, turning himself into a force of moderation and Western bulwark in a region where Islamic radicals have gained increasing strength.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that the government is closely watching the situation in Egypt.

"Egypt is the most important country in the Arab world. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and we think that the treaty, that the peace treaty with Israel is very strong and the (mutual) interests between the two countries are very, very big and important," he said. "For the time being," he added, "Israel does not see a threat to those relations."

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said it is in Israel's interest for Mubarak's regime to survive since the alternatives, ranging from an Islamic government to the secular opposition, would be far less friendly to the Jewish state.

"I am very much afraid that that they wouldn't be as committed to peace with Israel, and that would be bad for Egypt, bad for Israel and bad for the U.S. and the West in general," he said.