Egyptian unrest puts Israel on an uncertain road
Local experts ‘unclear’ about future without strongman Mubarak
A Princeton University professor who has served as American ambassador to both Egypt and Israel does not think their 30-year peace accords will fall apart after President Hosni Mubarak leaves office.
“I do not believe Egypt will turn away from the peace treaty. This is a treaty based on an important set of Egyptian interests,” said Daniel Kurtzer.
But in a Feb. 3 phone interview with NJ Jewish News, Kurtzer conceded that “Israel’s strategic position is certainly more challenged today because of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the upheaval in Egypt.”
Kurtzer was appointed ambassador to Egypt in 1997 by former President Bill Clinton. Four years later he was named ambassador to Israel by former President George W. Bush. He is currently Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.
He told NJJN the Egyptian army holds the key to the country’s future. “The army is still the arbiter of power in Egypt. They appear to have retained the confidence of the people,” said Kurtzer. “And they appear ready for some kind of political reform. But they don’t want the system they created in the 1952 revolution to be overturned.”
Kurtzer declined to speculate on how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood could become in the reconfiguration of the Egyptian government. The Islamist organization, officially banned in Egypt, is still considered the largest single opposition party in Egypt.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization dedicated to creating an Islamic state,” he said. “It is an organization that has been, since its founding 82 years ago, tactically flexible. But they have not changed their long-term goal.”
Other experts agreed that Israel’s position appears precarious in the wake of the more than two weeks of unrest.
“Any way you look at it, it is not a happy situation for Israel,” said Normal Samuels, professor and provost emeritus at Rutgers University. A political scientist, Samuels teaches seminars on terrorism and security studies at the university’s Newark campus.
“Israel cannot come out of this better than it is now. It can only come out worse off,” he told NJJN.
Even if the two nations maintain their peace treaty, Samuels said, “there could be a great loss of cooperation between Egypt and Israel in intelligence and security things. The Egyptians have a very good idea about what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza and Lebanon and they do a lot of talking with the Israelis. If that dries up, it will be a very serious loss.”
The end of that cooperation would force the Israeli government to focus on protection of the Sinai Peninsula as well as its other borders, said Samuels, a former president of the board of trustees of NJJN.
‘A hopeful moment’
But Christopher Taylor, professor of Islamic studies and chair of the Religious Studies Department of Drew University in Madison, is optimistic — with reservations — about developments in Egypt and how they might affect Israel.
Taylor served as acting executive director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad at the American University in Cairo and lived in Egypt for seven years.
“It is a hopeful moment, but that does not mean it is guaranteed to go toward democracy, even if that seems to be the tendency,” he said.
Noting that “everything is unclear right now,” Taylor said his own sense was “the regime has not cracked down because it knows the game is up. They are not going to cause a lot of bloodshed in order to save an 83-year-old guy who has said he is not going to run again. I think there are extensive negotiations going in to come up with a formula that will bring this thing to an end peacefully.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will be 83 in May.
“The Mubarak regime has been playing on fear of the Muslim Brotherhood for a very long time, saying Egyptians had only two choices: a police state run by him or a radical Islamic state run by the Brotherhood,” added Taylor. “He deliberately tried to prevent the growth of any secular opposition.”
He said the “best estimate” is that the Brotherhood would win 25 to 30 percent of the vote in a democratic election, even though it is far better organized than the “very large number of young highly secular Egyptian youths — who are very tech-savvy and aware of the world around them. The old-line leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is in for a surprise as well. I think there is going to be a push from their own younger tech-savvy members to take over and their old guard to pass away.”
Taylor said if Egypt attains a genuine democracy, he would expect “a full discussion of all issues, including the relationship with Israel. Does the average Egyptian love Israel? No. Are they ready to go back to war with Israel? Absolutely not. Even the Muslim Brotherhood realizes that return to war with Israel is totally unacceptable,” Taylor said.
Gilbert Kahn, who teaches the Arab-Israeli conflict as a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, told NJJN if the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty does not last, “Israel will have to make a major shift in its strategic thinking about how it looks at threats from the south.”
But Kahn, a columnist for NJJN, said he is “not totally clear about how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood is. When a group has been repressed for as long is it has, I don’t think we know.
“I am not as worried as some of my colleagues might be about Israel’s future,” he said. “I don’t think Israel is in immediate danger, but depending on how things evolve, it could be very serious.”