Monday, July 1, 2013

Israel Should Think Long-Term On Egypt

After massive protests yesterday in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military today gave the parties 48 hours to resolve their differences.  If they cannot do so, it will force a power transition in Egypt.  In the wake of the statement, five Egyptian ministers have resigned from the Morsi government: Tourism, Communications and IT, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Water, and Environment.  

Today's ultimatum sets up a showdown that is unlikely to be resolved without major and potentially violent conflict.  16 people have been killed so far in the protests.  The army's threat to intervene is credible, precedented, and supported by the throngs of people in Tahrir Square (though not necessarily by all Egyptians).  On the other hand, President Morsi is the elected leader of Egypt and likely to appeal to his base for legitimacy.  Despite a lack of progress towards economic recovery or political stability, the army's intervention could uproot the nascent democratic process in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) are also likely to mount major resistance against removing President Morsi.  In other words, neither side is likely to back down.

For Israel, the situation merits considerable caution.  The Egyptian military has positioned at lease 30 tanks on the Sinai-Gaza border for the first time in years.  Given their good post-1979 relationship with the Israel Defense Forces, Israel is likely to look favorably on Egyptian military intervention in the political crisis.  The fact that this intervention is against an Islamist who once referred to Jews as "apes and pigs" doesn't hurt either.  

However, Israel may be well-advised to temper its support.  The popularity of military intervention would wear off quickly in Egypt if it were to occur.  When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held power in the months following President Mubarak's downfall in 2011, Egyptians became frustrated with its grip on power.  The excitement over a potential for change and progress will give way to similar feelings if the military again holds power for a long time.  Israel does not stand to benefit from aligning to closely with this regime.  Doing so would harm both its legitimacy and that of the military itself.  

In a greater sense, a more democratic Egypt in the long-term would be beneficial for Israel.  While there are strong anti-Israel voices in Egypt - not all of them fair - a neighbor with similar values would overall open up more opportunities for collaboration and interdependence.  Egyptians have proven tenacious in their thirst for better governance, and this tenacity shows a common respect for the values of representation, fairness, and justice between the two countries.  The path towards a better Israel-Egypt relationship will be long and rocky at best, but is worth the costs given the other sources of animosity against Israel in the region and the international community.  

As the dynamic and potentially dangerous situation continues to play out in Egypt, Israel should keep its analytical head above water.  It should consider the long-term as well as the immediate effects of any action it takes towards this precarious situation.

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