Analysis: Egypt´s new politics make Israel ties a target (REUTERS) By Edmund Blair and Tom Perry CAIRO, EGYPT 04/24/12 3:50pm EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - To mark the day Egypt regained control of the Sinai
peninsula from Israel, a group of protesters pledged they would this
week cover a memorial to Israelis killed in the war with an Egyptian
flag bearing the words: "Sinai - the invaders´ graveyard."
The gesture will be one of the most public expressions of anger
against Israel since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, marking the
emergence of a long-repressed hostility among many ordinary Egyptians.
But while some of the new breed of politicians who emerged after the
revolution are only too happy to exploit such defiance, there are
still powerful reasons why mainstream leaders are not ready to burn
their boats with Israel.
Calls for such a public act of protest would have been unthinkable
under Mubarak, for whom the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was a
cornerstone of regional policy.
Under him, public antipathy towards Israel - a nation with which
Egypt has fought four wars - was kept in check, often brutally. It
changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted on January 25 last
year. Egyptians now openly voice frustrations and are demanding
Egypt´s new political class listen.
"After the January 25 revolution, the regime fell and with it
everything linked to treaties and protocols," said Saeed al-Qasas,
head of the Revolutionaries of Sinai, which vowed to cover on
Wednesday the Dayan Rock memorial, a large stone erected in the
desert with names of fallen air force personnel.
Egypt´s transition to democracy from autocratic rule is transforming
the political landscape at home but also promises to shift foreign
policy of the Arab world´s most populous nation which was the first
Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel.
None of the mainstream politicians emerging in Egypt have said they
would abandon the treaty, but the new order promises to make what was
often described as a "cold peace" colder still, raising tensions on a
sensitive border if mishandled.
Yet, even after handing over power to a new president by July 1, the
generals who have ruled since Mubarak´s fall are likely to act as
guardians of a deal that brings them $1.3 billion U.S. military aid a
Egypt, its economy in tatters, also can´t afford to alienate the
United States or other Western states whose governments and investors
are likely to be vital in reviving growth and creating jobs, crucial
points to any Egyptian political career.
But Israeli politicians are already fretting over the political
changes in Egypt and worry about the rise of Islamists, who swept the
parliamentary election and are strong contenders in the presidential
vote that starts on May 23-24.
One senior Western diplomat said the army, mainstream Islamists and
other leading politicians recognized the benefits of maintaining a
deal that kept the border peaceful for three decades.
"But there is zero traction in broader society," the diplomat said,
adding that this could encourage Islamists to test how far the
boundaries of ties could be pushed.
Islamists and their rivals in Egypt´s presidential race, the final
stage of a turbulent political transition, are already using Israel
as a political punch bag to chase votes. They are vowing no repeat of
Mubarak´s cosy ties with Israel.
"Democracy is about responding to public sentiment and public
sentiment has little interest in maintaining a real relationship with
Israel," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
He suggested Egypt could follow Turkey´s example where once-close
ties with Israel had worsened sharply after Israeli naval commandos
killed nine Turks in May 2010 in a raid on a ship carrying aid to the
"What people should be focusing on is how domestic developments in
Egypt will alter its foreign policy. I think the model here is
probably something resembling Turkey´s approach to Israel, that you
maintain diplomatic cooperation but there is a lot of anti-Israel
bluster and symbolic gestures," he said.
One such gesture may have been a decision this week to scrap a 20-
year deal reached in 2005 to export Egyptian gas to Israel. It drew
applause among the Egypt public, although both sides said commercial
differences not politics were behind the move.
Professor Uzi Rabi at Tel Aviv University said that gas deal decision
pointed to a region more "attuned to the street."
"We are in (the midst of) a continuing deterioration in Israel-Egypt
relations. One must hope that the interests will overcome the
inflammatory direction," he added.
The gas deal had long been criticized in Egypt´s opposition media and
by the public even when Mubarak was in office. They said the gas was
sold too cheaply and benefits were pocketed by Mubarak´s associates.
The pipeline was sporadically attacked.
But the number of attacks has soared since the anti-Mubarak uprising.
The line has been blown up 14 times in that period, halting the flow
for much of the time. Officials and former Mubarak associates behind
the deal have also been put on trial for corruption.
Islamists were swift to laud the gas deal´s cancellation and have
been among the most critical of Israel, although such criticism
crosses the broad spectrum of Egypt´s politicians.
"There is no doubt the peace treaty is unfair to the Egyptian side,"
Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman and a senior figure in Egypt´s biggest
Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, although he said
all treaties would be "respected".
He pointed to limitations on troop numbers allowed in Sinai since
Israeli completed the pull back in the 1980s from the peninsula it
occupied in the 1967 war. He also complained that Israelis were
allowed into that area of Egypt with no visa.
The outspokenness of politicians taps a deep vein of anger against
Israel but also reflects a desire since Mubarak was ousted to be more
assertive and end what many saw as Mubarak´s subservience to policies
of the United States and the West. Restoring Egypt´s "dignity" is a
common refrain in speeches.
"Egypt´s next president can´t be like his predecessor, he can´t be a
follower who executes policies put to him from outside," Mohamed
Mursi told his first news conference as the Brotherhood´s
The challenge for Egypt´s new politicians, keen to win over the
public, will be putting the genie back in the bottle as they respond
to the popular mood and test the boundaries of how far they challenge
ties with Israel.
A miscalculation risks riling U.S. politicians, quick to rally to
Israel´s defense, and alienating a major donor with the might to sway
international investment and support.
"It is not about explicit policies or some kind of master plan the
Brotherhood has, but how misperception breeds misperception," said
Brookings´ Hamid, adding there was a chance that Egypt, Israel or the
United States could misjudge events.
Some Israeli officials have shown increasing signs of worry as they
have watched Egypt´s political drama unfold.
Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said this
month he was "concerned" about future relations with Egypt and said
he was "not so sure" the Brotherhood was committed to peace, a break
with the usually cautiously optimistic line.
An Israeli newspaper cited Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying
Egypt was more dangerous to Israel than Iran, a country Israelis
accuse of building nuclear weapons. Lieberman would not confirm those
comments when asked later.
One of Israel´s biggest worries is the security vacuum in Sinai where
Islamic radicals, some blamed for blowing up the gas pipeline, have
gained a foothold as policing of the area collapsed after Mubarak´s
fall. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as
a "kind of Wild West".
Yet, the Brotherhood, the dominant group in Egypt´s emerging
democracy for now, may share Israel´s concern for the rise of
extremism on its border. The Brotherhood has long been branded too
pragmatic by more radical Salafis.
"So I think there is potential for a kind of understanding in the
Sinai," said Brookings´ Hamid, pointing to Gaza nearby where the
Brotherhood-inspired Palestinian group Hamas cracked down on hardline
And even the more hostile voices to Israel in Egypt seem to know
the "red lines" that shouldn´t be crossed over a peace deal that won
back the Sinai, which is now scattered with popular Red Sea tourist
resorts where Israelis mingle with other visitors.
The Revolutionaries of Sinai had originally wanted to Dayan Rock
memorial destroyed, but now said covering it in a flag would
suffice. "We will make do with this," said Qasas. "Though we call for
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller in
Jerusalem and Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by
Giles Elgood) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 04/24/12)
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