Saturday, February 26, 2011

Carefully Watshing Egypt

By Musa Keilani
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 27/02/2011
The collapse of the regime of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was something Israel - and indeed many in the region and beyond - did not expect to happen. They thought that the regime would unleash the strong police and security forces, including the military, against the pro-democracy protesters, and that the protest would be over in a matter of hours, given the record of the Egyptian police and security forces.

Well, it did not happen that way. Mubarak hung on for 18 days before accepting the inevitable and stepped down in an ignoble exit for a man who ruled Egypt with an iron first for 30 years.

In mid-January, Tunisian strongman Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee his country. And now, perhaps by press time, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi may have realised that he could not hope to win when he wages war on his own people, and it is time for him to give up power. Who knows,a fate worse than Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s might be waiting for Qadhafi.

The well-choreographedupheavals in the three Arab countries would have a profound impact on the region, but the country to be watched most closely is Egypt, the most populous member of the Arab League.

Now that Mubarak, who held fast onto his country’s commitment to peace with Israel, is ousted, Israel is anxiously looking for signs of how post-Mubarak Egypt will behave.

The Israelis were relieved that the military generals took charge of Egypt after Mubarak quit because Israel could always speak the language of the generals and do business with them. Indeed, the generals of Egypt sent the Israelis a positive message that they will continue to respect the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement.

Since then, however, the signals were not to Israel’s like. The first came when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces allowed Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a Sunni preacher and one of Mubarak’s foes, to return from exile and lead a victory assembly in Tahrir Square, on February 1.

He called for an Arab and Muslimmarch on Al Aqsa Mosque in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem. He also urged the Egyptian authorities to open the Egyptian-Gaza Strip border ruled by Hamas.

For Israel, Qaradawi is a bitter enemy since hehas justified suicide bombings against Israelis. Since he seems to have established a good relationship with the ruling generals, Israel is worriedhe will use his newfound freedom in Egypt against Israel.

Another negative signal for Israel came when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces permittedtwo Iranian warships to sail through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. It was the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution that an Iranian warship passed through the Suez. Israel called it an Iranian provocation. In private, some analysts said the Egyptian military was signalling an end to Mubarak’s policy of shunning Iran.

Yet another “bad” signal for Israel came when the generals permitted the Muslim Brotherhood to organise demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after refusing a similar privilege toother opposition groups.

Arguably, the Brotherhood is the best-organised movement in Egypt (as indeed in many other countries). It has a moderate agenda that has prompted American officials to announce that it might not be a bad idea to involve the group in the political transition process in the country. That does not suitIsrael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has raised concern that a Brotherhood presence in the corridors of political power will cast clouds on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The interpretation of the generals’ handling of the Brotherhood is that they wanted to dilute the role of other opposition groups in the anti-Mubarak revolt and also send a message to the US that Muslim “fundamentalists” could take power if the transition process is hastily rushed.

Obviously, the generals, who are mandated with supervising the post-Mubarak political transition, are not limiting their role to that process. They have their own politics and they are playing it. That raises concerns as to how fair they would bein restructuring the Egyptian political system and how far they would be committed to their pledge of a peaceful transfer of power in six months.

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