The New Egypt: Back to Belligerence?

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, May 5, 2011

Watching Egypt's revolution unfold earlier this year, apprehensive Israelis were reassured by European and American observers that they had little to worry about: Hosni Mubarak's February 12 departure had been provoked neither by anti-Israel fury nor by Islamist fervor, and shouts of "Up with Egypt" in Tahrir Square more than drowned out chants of "Down with Israel" or "Allahu Akbar."

Today, almost three months into the new regime, is it time to start worrying? The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, however long it lasts, was enabled by changes in Cairo's approach toward the Islamist fanatics of Hamas. Whereas the old regime dealt with the organization as a security problem, the new one has been dealing with it as a diplomatic partner. Mubarak distrusted Hamas—the Gaza arm, after all, of Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood—and nominally aligned Cairo with Fatah. Now Hamas is getting the kind of respectful treatment that terrorists crave; poised to join a restructured Palestine Liberation Organization, it will reportedly open a mission in Cairo.

Concurrently, the new Egypt's decision to throw open its Rafah border with the Gaza Strip will make it far easier for Hamas to send its gunmen to Iran for specialized training and to bring in ever more lethal weaponry for use against Israel. In protests on a bridge overlooking the Israeli embassy, Egyptians have also been demanding that their government sever ties with the Jewish state and stop exporting natural gas to it. The latter activity is portrayed as yet another instance of the old regime's corruption, generating wealth for Mubarak, who allegedly conspired with Israel to provide gas at below-market rates, at the expense of the Egyptian masses. Coincidentally or not, the pipeline carrying gas to Israel (and Jordan) has twice been sabotaged since the revolution and is now inoperative.

Scapegoating Israel has never been bad politics in Egypt, so perhaps it was to be expected that the new regime would ride the crest of antipathy toward the Jewish state. According to a Pew opinion survey, 54 percent of Egyptians want to scrap the peace treaty with Israel; another 10 percent "don't know." This includes even the sliver of the population that identified itself with Mubarak's liberal opposition. Meanwhile, a whopping 75 percent hold a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, than whom no one hates Israel more.

In an apparent arrangement with the ruling junta, the Brotherhood has pledged to compete for half the seats in forthcoming parliamentary elections. With political conditions so unsettled, and popular expectations so high, the Brothers may have prudently concluded that they are not yet ready to rule; as the most left-leaning (!) of eight Salafist groups active in Egypt, they may prefer to follow the Bolshevik approach of not seizing power until conditions are ripe. And they can afford to bide their time: already 62 percent of Egyptians say they want to live under a political system characterized by "strict" adherence to the Quran, with an additional 27 percent favoring a milder form of theocratic rule.

As for the new regime's official posture toward Israel, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by defense minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, has bolstered its legitimacy by turning down the thermostat on Mubarak's already "cold peace" by a few more degrees. Israel's protests of the Cairo-engineered Hamas-Fatah deal were summarily rejected; no less summarily, finance minister Samir Radwan remarked that the peace agreement with Israel does not obligate Egypt to sell it gas.

Still, Tantawi can be expected to keep the relationship on minimal life-support, if for no other reason than to avoid provoking Washington or jeopardizing U.S. aid, now at $2 billion annually with billions more "potentially available." He has also been keeping a close eye on the unfolding Syrian situation, seeking to limit criticism of the regime's crackdown at the UN Human Rights Council. Given all that is on his plate, Tantawi would not want to spook the IDF into accelerating existing plans to augment its capabilities on the Egyptian front.

Israeli emissaries have been discreetly meeting with the new regime. Were he interested, Tantawi could allay concerns and earn major points by leveraging Egypt's new relationship with Hamas to facilitate the release of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Positive gestures aside, however, Israeli officials are plainly troubled by what appears to be a strategic shift in Cairo's orientation, one that in the most optimistic analysis replicates the earlier Turkish turn against the Jewish state. Egypt's ultimate trajectory is impossible to forecast, but as far as Israel is concerned, the broad outlines of the new regime's approach are already ominously discernible. 

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