Posted on Monday 31 January 2011
How quickly the world can be turned upside down. The political map of the Middle East is being revised almost more rapidly than analysts can describe what is taking place.
Most news watchers will have followed the events since the fire that Mohammed Bouazizzi ignited with his body on December 17; the desperate act that lead to the violent overthrow of Tunisia’s dictatorial regime in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution – set new fires across our region.
One month after the Tunisian’s self-immolation, four Egyptians copied him. The initial result of their attempted suicides was the same: Hundreds of thousands of Egypt’s 80 million-strong population poured into the streets, protesting and rioting in their effort to terminate with immediate effect the 30-year-long rule of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
At the time of writing, Egypt is poised for further convulsion in a seventh day of riots and protests, organizers hope will culminate in a “million man march.” Mubarak is said to now be clinging to what could be his last moments in power and could have to face off against Mohammed ElBaradei - the Nobel Prize for Peace Laureate, recognized for his work as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei stood in a crowded Cairo square Sunday evening, demanding the immediate and unconditional departure of the president and all those associated with him.
A couple of weeks ago Israelis were anxiously following developments to the north, where the Iranian-founded Hizb’allah has maneuvered to upgrade its control over Lebanon. With that situation still in flux, Israeli eyes have nervously swung around to watch the mushrooming potential for an equally threatening development on their southern doorstep.
When the protests erupted on January 25, Israeli analysts were almost dismissive, positive that Mubarak would quickly crush the dissidents. How wrong could they be?
In fact, Israel’s new chief of Military Intelligence has been hauled over the coals in the local press for his failure to foresee what has happened. In his debut appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on the very day protests began in Egypt, Major-General Aviv Kochavi’s assessment was that Mubarak’s regime was not under threat.
Six days later, in both Jerusalem and Washington, everything was being revised. Statements and assessments from recent months, and policies and approaches that have been in place for years – the whole lot’s under review.
Here in Israel consternation is acute. Eager to not antagonize Mubarak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his government to keep quiet on the crisis, and has called on the international community to curb criticism of the Egyptian leader. Jerusalem has observed with unease how the tune out of Washington DC has changed, from initially defending Mubarak as “no dictator” who should be secured in power to now officially talking about the need for transition to a new leadership.
Why so concerned?
For more than 30 years, a peace agreement has been in place between Israel and Egypt.
Israelis have called it a “cold peace,” at least from the Egyptian side, where Mubarak himself has helped keep alive the deeply rooted hostility towards the Jewish state.
Despite this, the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty has worked to maintain a state of quiet along their common border even as tensions have ebbed and flowed between Israel and nations to the north, and east – Lebanon, Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Jordan, until the peace agreement with that state in 1994.
For Israel, which has had to fight a war at least once every decade and is constantly anticipating the next one, not having to spend its strung out military resources in the south has been a big deal.
More than this, the Egyptians have been richly rewarded for signing that peace treaty: The United States has poured billions of dollars worth of military equipment and know-how into the country, transforming the Egyptian army into the mightiest Arab force in existence today.
The fear is that if Mubarak is taken down, the peace treaty will be swept away. The long-suppressed but well entrenched Muslim Brotherhood may ascend to some level of power – possibly as part of a new coalition government. And everything will change.
According to Fox News Monday evening, a source “at the highest level of government in Israel” said “they are terrified that Egypt will become another Iran on the southern border.” Israel could suddenly find itself facing an Arab version of the its Persian foe – a powerfully armed (by America!) and well-trained Islamist state eager to ally with – even once again lead – Syria and Lebanon into war against the Jewish state. And all backed by Turkey, Iraq and an, about-to-go-nuclear, Iran.
The transformation is happening as we speak. Israel’s news media has already reported that a regime change in Cairo may force the IDF to boost its forces in the south.
And the latest news: Israel has agreed to allow Egyptian troops to enter the Sinai for the first time since 1979. By helping the Egyptian leader secure himself against the popular uprising it appears Israel has decided to take a stand on Mubarak’s side.
No one seems to know how things are going to turn out. Some experts say Mubarak will manage to hold on until his term expires at the end of this year and then hand over the reins to the man he swore in as Vice President – former spy chief Omar Suleiman.
Others, knowing how volatile the Arab world can be, are bracing for the worst-case scenario described above.
It could suddenly become the new reality facing Israel and the West.