January 31, 2011

“Convoluted and Painful Process”

The issues are anything but simple, and resolution of the situation in Egypt will not happen overnight, or in a week or a month. I do not intend to focus exclusively on this situation. And yet… it is so important, and so fraught with major consequences, that we must continue to keep a very watchful eye.


At present there is a sort of holding pattern, or stalemate. Mubarak is refusing to step down. He has appointed a new cabinet and instructed the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to “allow wider participation” of political parties, and to address unemployment concerns.

These orders touch upon two key issues.

Financial difficulties being endured by the Egyptian people have a great deal to do with what brought tens of thousands into the street. (Anxiety about the subsidization of bread — a staple in Egypt –because of Egyptian fiscal policies that have brought higher prices may have figured into this.)

Wider participation of political parties is meant to signal the very beginning of governmental reform; what actually happens in this regard remains to be seen.

The “new” cabinet has seen some people replaced, but still consists of many familiar faces.


In the meantime, the protests are still going on in the street, with tanks roaming about and helicopters overhead. Protesters insist they are not stopping until Mubarak leaves.

The expectation in many quarters is that Mubarak will resign shortly and make way for his vice president, Suleiman — who certainly has the experience and capacity to take control.

Zvi Mazel, who served as ambassador to Egypt, has written:

“The people are no longer clamoring for food and work, they want him gone, and it is doubtful that they will settle for less. Even if Mubarak manages to hold on, it will be as a diminished president…” (Thanks here to Lily S.)

What seems most clearly the case is that if there is to be stable reform in Egypt — that moves even tentatively in the direction of democracy — it must be done via a moderating and reformulated version of the current regime, and not via a takeover by the street.

If Mubarak is to finish his term, writes Mazel, “he will have to implement political and economic reforms, including significant salary raises and increased subsidies, though it is not clear where the money will be coming for. The emergency laws which granted him extraordinary powers will have to be scraped, together with the special clauses introduced in the constitution to limit the possibility for an independent to be candidate for the presidency.”


There is much talk about who the leaders of the protest movement are and which ideologies they represent. Young people — educated and often radicalized — are seriously invested in the rebellion. But what becomes more and more evident is how deeply involved is the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it has not moved to officially assume leadership.

As Shmuel Even, writing for the Institute for National Security Studies, put it:
“The outcome of the riots may not necessarily be connected to what or who ignited them, rather to whatever power structure is created and those who succeed in leveraging it for their own benefit.”

The Brotherhood has announced official backing for El-Baradei, who first demanded Mubarak’s ouster, and now has the Brotherhood’s blessing to negotiate a “unity government.”


Down the road, it goes without saying, the Egyptian military, and the leader it supports, will have considerable effect on what happens.


At first, with Israeli consent, the Egyptian army placed troops on its Sinai border with Gaza, to prevent Hamas terrorists from infiltrating.

Consent from Israel is necessary because according to our peace treaty with Egypt the Sinai, a buffer zone, is to remain demilitarized.

Now news has broken of something more significant. Israel reportedly gave permission yesterday for Egypt to station two battalions – about 800 soldiers – in the Sinai. This is the first time Egyptian troops will have been stationed in the Sinai since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty 32 years ago. They are to be based in the Sharm el-Sheikh area on Sinai’s southern tip, far from Israel.

This is being done to enhance Egyptian government stability, and, I am assuming, to increase its army’s ability to respond quickly against Hamas militants in the Sinai.

This is not about to be confirmed on the record. Israeli officials who spoke to YNet about this did so anonymously because of the Netanyahu ban on discussing the situation.



There was a time when Egypt having troops in the Sinai would have been a source of great turmoil, as it would have been seen as a threat here in Israel. As it is now, the Israel government is demonstrating a readiness to support the Egyptian regime — the only nation prepared to do so.


For the record, not everyone was pleased with this. MK Uri Ariel (National Union) protested that:

“This government does not have the right to enable Egypt to break even a comma of the peace accords. It’s a terrifying precedent for the future.

“Anyone who knows the Middle East knows that forces which improved their positions against Israel won’t withdraw easily and it doesn’t matter if they’re commanded by Mubarak or his successor.”


Meanwhile, President Shimon Peres said today (not specifically in response to Ariel’s comments) that:

“We always have had and still have a great respect [for Mubarak]. I don’t say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing for which all of us are thankful to him: He kept the peace in the Middle East.”


Lest there be any misunderstanding about this: The Brotherhood is Islamist. Whatever pseudo-popular or faux-democratic machinations they might rely on in the interim, they are seeking a Muslim state run according to Sharia, the elimination of Israel, and then the ultimate goal — a world-wide caliphate (employing a “grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization “).

Barry Rubin has provided this quote from a Brotherhood member of Egypt’s parliament:

“From my point of view, Bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi [the leaders of al-Qaida who staged the September 11 attacks and massive killings in Iraq] are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities, since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists….”


With reason, there are analysts who see Iran’s hand in what is going on in Egypt.

Turkey has gone Islamist; Syria is in Iran’s camp; Hezbollah, an Iranian puppet, is now controlling Lebanon; Hamas, another Iranian surrogate is in Gaza; and Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Strategic Affairs, says there are Hezbollah elements there as well.

For the last hold-out, Egypt, to go this route as well in the course of time would be cataclysmic. This is the case foremost for Israel. But also for the stability of the entire region and the interests of the US. Consider, with everything else, what it would mean if Islamists controlled the Suez Canal.


Barak Ravid, writing in Ha’aretz, says that Israel is calling on the US and a number of European countries to moderate criticism of Mubarak in order to preserve stability in the region. Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime.

He cites a senior Israeli official, who said:

“The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren’t considering their genuine interests. Even if they are critical of Mubarak, they have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications.”


This theme is also reflected in the words of Dore Gold, Director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs:

“Precisely when the Egyptian government had its back to the wall with the worst protests in recent history, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs threatened the embattled President Mubarak with a cut in U.S. foreign aid. What kind of signal did the White House press secretary’s threat about cutting aid send to King Abdullah of Jordan or to President Saleh of Yemen, as well as to other allies in the Persian Gulf? Did it mean that as soon as an Arab leader gets into trouble, he starts to get disowned?”


If the leaks by Al-Jazeera last week pretty much sank the already near-moribund peace process, what is going on now may deliver the final blow.

PA leaders, after being embarrassed by leaks ostensibly showing their willingness to compromise, are bound to be more intransigent than ever. And now, facing the instability in Egypt, Netanyahu — who already has expressed concern for Israeli security in any final agreement — will be all the more convinced that if regimes surrounding us are not stable it is essential to hold on to strategic territory.

In the course of time, I hope to address some of those who persist in the delusion that “peace” is attainable now.


With this, a ray of light:

Last Thursday, key leaders of the US House sent a letter to President Obama urging that he veto a resolution at the Security Council that would declare Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, and including eastern Jerusalem, to be illegal.

The letter stated that:

“The passage of this resolution would simply isolate Israel and embolden the Palestinians to focus on further such pyrrhic victories, immeasurably setting back prospects for achieving real peace.”

It asked that Obama “pledge in response to this letter to veto any UN Security Council resolution that criticizes Israel regarding final status issues.”

The letter was sent by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking member Howard Berman (D-CA), incoming Middle East subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH) and ranking member Gary Ackerman (D-NY).


January 30, 2011

“Exceedingly Worrisome Situation”

I write with the assumption that (almost) everyone reading this will have been following the news regarding Egypt, at least at a minimal level. And I write, as well, aware that within hours after I send this out, the news may have shifted. In fact, my best efforts to get this straight notwithstanding, it’s close to impossible to get a handle on the shifting details.

It’s clear to everyone following these events that they have less than nothing to do with Palestinian Arabs or a “two state solution.” Egyptians are most decidedly not rioting in the streets because there is no Palestinian state. This should (unfortunately, it won’t) put to rest once and for all the fallacious idea that what happens between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is at the heart of what goes on elsewhere in the Arab/Muslim world.


The uprising that started on Tuesday and has escalated for days since — with rioting in the streets, more than 60 dead and over 2,000 injured, refusal to obey curfews, and more — has been directed against the repressions of the Hosni Mubarak regime of almost 30 years. Those repressions — as well as wide-spread corruption, economic problems, and failure to enact promised reforms — are very real. Most hated are the police, whose vehicles and stations have been attacked and torched.

Chaos has been exacerbated by prison break-outs at first in four different sites, with thousands of prisoners, including terrorists and political prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood, going free after clashing with guards and starting fires. They have gone on a rampage of looting, with marauding gangs releasing even more prisoners.


The army has replaced the police now in Cairo, a teeming city of 18 million, with tanks stationed everywhere. This morning there was uneasy quiet in the streets of the city. But this, I believe, had as much to do with the need of demonstrators to rush home and protect their families and properties from the escaped prisoners as it did the actions of the army. There were stories of householders standing off looters with razors and broken bottles.

Now thousands have returned to central Cairo, with more soldiers and tanks being brought in, and reports of helicopters overhead. Jets have been heard overhead as well.

Egyptian Internet was shut down the other day, and apparently Al-Jazeera has now been cut off as well.


Mubarak, who earlier was reportedly in hiding in Sharm El-Sheikh, has since visited military headquarters. He has fired his government, promised real reforms, and perhaps most significantly, appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to fill the post of vice president — a post that had been empty.

Suleiman, 74, has been serving since 1993 as the head of the General Intelligence Directorate. Egyptian journalist Issandr Amrani, cited in today’s JPost, describes the Directorate as an organization that “combines the intelligence-gathering elements of the CIA, the counterterrorism role of the FBI, the protections duties of the Secret Service, and the high-level diplomacy of the State Department.”

In other words, Suleiman is one very powerful man, and has proved himself adept at handling terrorists and controlling Islamist elements in Egypt. Additionally he has frequently served as a diplomatic envoy and is savvy with regard to Israeli issues. He is considered corruption-free. While he is said to be considerably more popular than Mubarak, there are elements among the protesters who reject him because of his association with the old regime.


What seems clear now is that if the regime holds, ultimately Suleiman will replace the much-hated Mubarak. Mubarak had been grooming his son to succeed him, but this is not going to happen. In fact, there is the possibility that succession by Suleiman might take place fairly imminently. It is the disappearance from the scene of Mubarak that the crowds are clambering for.

This is what I am hoping will happen (ideally with some genuine reforms enacted), and I will explain why…


The rioting protesters, including a good percentage of educated young people, at present are pushing for democratic reforms. There is the impulse to applaud them and to wish them well in turning Egypt around.

However, this group is not well organized and has no charismatic leader at its helm. Because it is diffuse, it is vulnerable to take-over by non-democratic elements.

I am greatly concerned that Mohamed El-Baradei — from 1997 to 2008 Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — has returned to Cairo from Vienna, where he lives, to join the protestors and help bring Mubarak down. El-Baradei is an enemy of Israel, make no mistake about it.

According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, in 2009 El-Baradei is reported to have said, “Israel is the number one threat to the Middle East given the nuclear arms it possesses.”

More significantly, he cut Iran slack, turning a blind eye with regard to Iranian nuclear developments on several occasions, so that he bears some culpability for the nuclear progress Iran made over time.


Of even greater concern than El-Baradei is the potential role of the (Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood, which has joined protests but is not taking a leadership role now. Should this group ultimately move to take over, and should there be an Islamist government in Egypt in time, this would represent a worst case scenario for us and the whole region.

It would undercut US interests in the area, present a threat in terms of exported revolution to other Arab states (most notably a very frightened Jordan), and would greatly increase the likelihood of war.


I know there are those who have lamented former prime minister Menachem Begin’s readiness to reach a peace accord with Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, and point to the cold peace that exists — with anti-Semitism rife in Egypt. I have never been of this mind. Better a cold peace than no peace.

Egypt is the largest of the Arab nations with the largest standing army and the most sophisticated military (thanks to US assistance). As long as the peace has held, other Arab nations have thought better of going to war with Israel on their own. Heaven forbid that this dynamic should shift at some point down the road: For there is considerable likelihood, if not certainty, that an Islamic Egyptian government would abrogate its peace treaty with Israel.

Mubarak has been staunchly anti-Iran (in some good measure because of Sunni-Shia tensions) and is no fan of Hamas. Hamas, after all, is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, and he has seen Hamas presence in Egypt as exacerbating Brotherhood unrest. Turn this around and picture what an Islamist Egyptian government would do to strengthen Hamas in Gaza.

Not surprisingly, Iran has come out with words of support for the rebellion.


It has to be noted that there is an abysmal record with regard to democratic revolutions successfully taking hold in the Middle East. As Barry Rubin wrote last night, if the regime falls and power is up for grabs, we have the following precedents:

“Remember the Iranian revolution when all sorts of people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.

“Remember the Beirut spring when people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon.

“Remember the democracy among the Palestinians and free elections? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.

“Remember democracy in Algeria? Tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing civil war.

“It doesn’t have to be that way but the precedents are pretty daunting.”



When we talk about the Iranian revolution and how abysmally that ultimately failed, we have to look at the role of then-president Jimmy Carter, who sided with the revolutionaries.

There are analysts now who are deeply concerned about Obama pulling a “Carter,” and with reason.

According to the Egyptian paper Almasry Alyoum, as reported in Haaretz, Obama secretly met members of the Muslim Brotherhood who live in the US and Europe, in early 2009. While according to WikiLeaks, as cited by the London Telegraph, in the last three years, members of the US government have communicated with an Egyptian activist who was involved in top secret plans for transition to a democratic government. Two years ago (which would have meant after Obama took office), the US ambassador to Egypt allegedly helped keep the identity of this activist from Egyptian police.

While I report these items, I cannot attest to their absolute veracity. There has been a suggestion that the fact that WikiLeaks has now revealed the connection between the US and this activist might have helped spark what is transpiring. This may be a bit far-fetched.

More immediately there is concern that the Obama administration is publicly coming down too hard on Mubarak and that this may help bring him down.


As evidence of this:

Secretary of State Clinton, in a press conference this morning, said:

“I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future.

“It’s not a question of who retains power…. It’s how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path. Clearly, the path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future, that economic opportunity that people in the peaceful protests are seeking.”

Is she being briefed at all? Is she smoking something? Peaceful protests?

Continuing, she said that what was needed was “an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy…

“We are totally committed to working with the Egyptians that are interested in a true democracy.”

Well, where does this leave everyone? And does this help the situation?

She just wants an orderly transition to real democracy in a nation that has never had democracy, and in which riots are currently taking place.


With regard to our current situation, Maj.-General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, who headed research and assessment for the IDF, declared:

“We need to understand that we are living on a volcano. Conditions can change from today until tomorrow.”

Switching metaphors, he then said, “We are on thick ice, but even that melts eventually. There’s no immediate fear of any security escalation. The main question is: In the long term, will we be ready for all scenarios?”


At first the government of Israel was entirely mum on what’s going on. Now Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that Israel is “anxiously monitoring” the unrest in Egypt.

“Our efforts are designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region

“I remind you that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue.

“Of course, at this time, we must show maximum responsibility, restraint and sagacity and, to this end, I have instructed my fellow ministers to refrain from commenting on this issue. Naturally, we are also holding consultations in the appropriate government forums.”

Netanyahu has also been in phone consultation with Obama and Clinton.