Justified Jitters

Israel has been chided internationally for taking a dark view of events in Tahrir Square. But a look at possible political scenarios in Egypt does not bode well for the Jewish state.

Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff
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Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff

You couldn't help but admire the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square this week. Without any violence, without any confrontations with the security forces, they managed to create a tent city. In the evening, its "permanent residents" were bolstered by tens of thousands more (on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands showed up ), demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The demonstrators sang the national anthem, listened to national songs, played music and were attentive to the speakers who addressed them. The media, both Western and Arab, described the spectacle romantically. The television images were of young men and women in Western garb, with fashionable haircuts, many of them English speakers. They had effectively taken up residence in the square, tirelessly reiterating that they wanted their regime removed.

The Israeli-Egyptian border. It’s likely the war between Egypt and Hamas will fade away.Credit: AFP

Wael Ghonim, the young Cairo resident and Google executive who created the Facebook page calling for the demonstrations - which have been going on since January 25 - became a symbol. After being detained by the state security service, he was released and arrived in the square Tuesday, to urge the crowd not to give up. In a television interview he broke into tears, and his influence grew even more.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague this week reprimanded Israel, urging it to drop its "negative stance" toward events in Egypt. The U.S. administration, flipping and flopping in its attitude toward Mubarak's future, continues to speak in praise of the rebellious young Egyptians.

Similarly, journalists in Israel, Europe and the United States continue, on the one hand, to be impressed by the Egyptians' attempt to foment a revolution, and on the other, to assail Israel for its approach, unanimous in their agreement that the Jewish state has to stop being afraid.

But a slightly more realistic approach would show that Israel, in fact, has good reason to be afraid. True, it's not certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will take control of Egypt, that the 1979 peace treaty will be nullified and that the Egyptian Army will close the Straits of Tiran (once again ). But along the way, quite a few scenarios are possible that would not necessarily enhance the security of Israel's citizens.

The explosion in the pipeline near El Arish, which disrupted the supply of natural gas to Israel (even though the pipeline served Jordan ), could be just the beginning. On Monday, the Internet site of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported, in a small item, that Egyptian security forces had arrested five armed men in Sinai - three Palestinians and two Egyptians - who had crossed the border from the Gaza Strip into Egypt. The five were apparently on their way to perpetrating a terrorist attack, either in Israel or against Israelis in Sinai. The weapons they were carrying came from Hamas, the report said. That same morning, several mortar shells were fired at a police station in northern Sinai. The next morning, a state security command post in El Arish was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The Egyptian security forces in Sinai are mostly engaged in protecting themselves and guarding main roads to ensure access to tourist sites and the Suez Canal. In the past, Hamas has smuggled arms through Sinai and used it as a launching ground for rockets aimed at Eilat and Aqaba, and to slip terrorists into Israel. Since the start of unrest in Sinai - in tandem with the furor in Cairo - the border between Egyptian Rafah and Palestinian Rafah has been almost totally breached.

Last Saturday, the longest-serving Hamas prisoner in Egypt, Ayman Nofal, reached Gaza after escaping from a Cairo prison. Interviewed on Israel's Channel 2, he said he had made contact with Hamas activists in Gaza, who sent escorts to assist him, and was back home within a few days. Although there has been a decline in the movement of goods from Egypt to the Strip (such as heating fuel ) via the smuggling tunnels, when it comes to people, the situation has become easier.

A stronger Brotherhood

That said, Sinai appears to be a tactical problem compared with what might happen in the wake of democratic elections in Egypt, slated for September at the latest. It seems unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood will obtain a parliamentary majority. It's also very doubtful that the organization will run a candidate of its own in the presidential elections. If that's the case, then why are Israelis fearful of the Brotherhood, especially considering the fact that the Egyptian Army, which is the strongest institution in the state, has no connection with the Islamic movement and that senior Brotherhood activists have declared they have no intention of revoking the peace treaty with Israel?

The Brotherhood scored its greatest achievement in 2005, winning 88 seats in the parliament (about 20 percent ) in an election that was not completely free. The organization was led by a group of reformers and pragmatists who supported political participation. In January 2010, the organization's leadership changed. Mohammed Badie, the current general guide, as the movement's leader is titled, has advocated a policy of greater separation from Egyptian politics, and has also made efforts to remove the reformers from the Guidance Council, the organization's governing body.

At present, the Brotherhood is not pursuing a cohesive policy with regard to involvement in the demonstrations or in terms of its readiness to negotiate with Egypt's newly named vice president, Omar Suleiman.

Young members of the organization have hooked up with those of the April 6 movement and want to see the Brotherhood at the heart of the protests, without making any compromises until Mubarak's departure. Badie and his aides did send representatives to the talks with Suleiman. Afterward, under pressure from the masses in Tahrir Square, they insisted they only wanted to voice their demand that the president step down immediately.

According to Prof. Yoram Meital, who heads the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, free elections in Egypt would result in a considerably changed political map. Many groups of young people would band into new political parties, and, together with the party of Mohamed ElBaradei, would win big.

The momentum, Meital says, is now coming from the new nationalist streams, not necessarily the religious ones. The National Democratic Party, Egypt's ruling party, is in the worst political shape, he adds, "even in worse shape than [Israel's] Labor Party." The liberal Al-Wafd party, which did not take part in the demonstrations, could also suffer.

Meital: "More than half of Egyptian society, who until now were the silent majority, will vote for young new parties and not necessarily for the Muslim Brotherhood. You have to remember that until now, the Brotherhood was the only alternative to the government. They will continue to play a central role, but will lose the exclusivity they had as the only possible substitute for the NDP."

But given the expected increase in young, secular parties, which are unlikely to unite (even now, they haven't been able to ), the votes of the silent majority could be split in a way that would give the Muslim Brotherhood one of the largest parliamentary blocs, if not the largest.

Whichever party ends up leading Egypt in the future, if democracy is established in the country, it will have to take account of the Brotherhood's strength and co-opt it into the government, or at least comply with its wishes. In the past few days, Rashad al-Bayoumi, Badie's deputy, has made it clear that his organization does not want the peace treaty with Israel. Last November, on the eve of the parliamentary election, Badie said: "If the day comes when the Muslim Brotherhood occupies a position of policy influence, it will work to end the illegitimate marriage with Israel." Still, this doesn't necessarily mean that the treaty would be annulled and that Egyptian forces would soon be dispatched to conquer Israel.

On the domestic front, one of the organization's leaders, Mohamed al-Kahtani, said on Wednesday that the Brotherhood would not run a candidate for president and is not bent on installing a religious regime in Egypt. However, it is unlikely that the Egyptian Army will continue to wage its war against smuggling through the tunnels - and it is likely that the quiet war between Egypt and Hamas will fade away. Arms smuggling through Sinai will increase, as will the flow of armed individuals seeking to enter Israel from Gaza.

Thus, despite reassuring words from Europe and the United States, and the scolding Israel has taken for being fearful of Arab democracy, an examination of possible scenarios in Egypt shows that its concerns are justified.

Back to the square

Even as the festival continued in Tahrir Square, violence broke out elsewhere in Egypt, among other places in Wadi al-Jadid, in the southwest of the country. According to reports on Wednesday, three people were killed and roughly 100 were wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces there. This raises the big question: How long will the protests in Cairo be able to continue peacefully?

The Egyptian economy is taking a drubbing, and government operations are partially shut down. Demonstrators who have taken up positions in front of the government headquarters and the parliament prevented Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq from getting to his office, forcing him to move his meetings to the offices of the Civil Aviation Authority. At the same time, Suleiman has made it clear that Egypt will not put up with continued protests in Tahrir Square. It's difficult to know what the objectives of Egypt's opposition are and whether it should just be satisfied with the significant achievements it has racked up so far.

Perhaps, as in Israel, the final call will be made by the Egyptian trade unions. Some 6,000 employees of six government companies that form part of the Suez Canal Authority announced midweek that they intend to join the struggle and will strike until Mubarak leaves office. Workers in industries in a few other cities followed suit. In the absence of an Egyptian "Ofer Eini" to head a trade union federation, this might be the force that ultimately undoes Mubarak and his regime.



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