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Israel Fears Egypt First Step Toward Radical Islamic 'Earthquake' Across Middle East

Tuesday, 01 February 2011 12:19 PM EST

Israeli leaders are increasingly unnerved by what they see in Egypt as the beginning of the most significant regional upheaval since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

While many analysts outside the Jewish state have focused on the mass protests as an economic and political phenomenon, Israeli experts fear that fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will soon take command if the government collapses and the Egyptian military cannot maintain control.

While some Israelis doubt any successor to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak is likely to end the peace treaty with Israel, others say the rise of a less-friendly government in Cairo would have profound consequences. One big consequence would be the complications in a return to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, in which Mubarak has been a key intermediary, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials unabashedly proclaim hope that the mass anti-government protests in Egypt will lead to the emergence of a more Islamic Middle East that will stand up to its bitter enemies — Israel and the United States, according to a Reuters report.

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic of Iran, locked in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program, sees gains for its own geopolitical influence in the region if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. and Israeli ally, is swept aside.

“The sources of the instability, the central source, does not stem from radical Islam, not in Tunisia or Egypt,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in Jerusalem at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “But it is true that in a situation of chaos, an organized Islamist entity can take over a country. It’s happened in Iran and at other places as well.”

Israel has been watching protests in the Arab world in recent weeks, starting with Tunisia, where leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14 following mass demonstrations. Yemen also has been the site of anti-government rallies.

Israel’s shekel tumbled to a more than four-month low against the dollar during trading Monday as investors sought the relative safety of the dollar. The currency dropped as much as 1.4 percent to 3.7498 per dollar, the lowest level since Sept. 16, and traded 0.3 percent lower at 3.7080 per dollar as of 10:25 p.m. in Tel Aviv.

Egypt’s upheaval could have a “seismic” impact on the region, and no country will feel it more acutely than Israel, analysts say.

Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, has been cooperating with Israel to restrict arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Hamas Islamic militant group. Egypt and Israel share a 130-mile border and they also share a concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“This is a big blow,” former Israeli trade minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli Army radio on Jan. 30. Ben- Eliezer, the Israeli politician closest to Mubarak, spoke to the Egyptian leader during the weekend. Mubarak is “the only leader that I know who identifies himself, in a clear way, with the importance of the peace agreements with Israel,” the former minister said.

On Saturday, Mubarak named intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president, the first time in his 30-year rule that he has named a deputy, and former air force commander Ahmed Shafik as prime minister.

Suleiman as Mubarak’s replacement “would be the positive scenario” for Israel, said Eli Shaked, the country’s ambassador to Cairo from 2003 to 2005.

He’s “committed to peace with Israel, the special ties with the U.S., and the heritage of Sadat-Mubarak,” Shaked said. A likely scenario was that he would be a transitional figure, “paving the way for the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“We will be changing one dictator with another — one who will be very anti-American, anti-West,” Shaked said.

Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Center at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, said such a change in Egypt would mean “the way Israelis calculate their entire strategic position is going to change.”

It “could be a seismic change on the size of the Iranian Revolution of 1979” that brought conservative religious leaders to power, said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East’s Policy Project on the Middle East.

Israel established an embassy in Cairo, its first in any Arab country, in 1980, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About 50 normalization agreements have followed, largely economic and cultural, to enhance that peace, according to the Israeli ministry.

Mubarak’s hostility to Iran was on full display in 2008 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, in which he calls Iranians “big, fat liars” who “justify their lies because they believe it is for a higher purpose.”

Israel and Egypt have cooperated to contain Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and smuggles weapons into the territory through tunnels from Egypt. The U.S., EU and United Nations consider Hamas a terrorist group.

Israel and Egypt also are targets of the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Egypt arrested 49 alleged Hezbollah militants in April for planning to obtain explosives, among other things. And Egypt has come under attack from al-Qaida, a branch of which attacked the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh in 2005.

“They’ve seen the world more commonly than they’ve differed,” Makovsky said.

“Israel has to be concerned about how Mubarak’s downfall could affect the situation in the Gaza Strip,” said Yoram Meital, director of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy in Beersheba. If the Egyptian army halts cooperation with Israel, it could allow more heavy weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, to be smuggled into Gaza, Meital said.

“That would make a difference in any future military action that Israel may take in the future,” he said.

Continued stability is a likely outcome even in the event of Mubarak’s ouster, Makovsky said.

“The issue isn’t the individuals, the issue is the pillars of the regime,” Makovsky said, identifying those pillars as the military, the government bureaucracy, and business community. “They’ve been there so long that those foundations are strong and that coalition will withstand countervailing winds.”

In that event, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty probably would hold, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s easier to defend something you inherit and did not create,” he said.

The Iranian Front
Meanwhile, Iranian opposition politicians, encouraged by scenes of "people power" in Tunis and Cairo, are hoping they will prompt Tehran's hard-line rulers to allow greater freedom at home, Reuters reports.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, setting out Iran's official stance, said the people of Egypt and Tunisia had left foreign powers "bewildered" by rising up against U.S.-backed governments.

As the region assumes “a new shape and the developments under way, we would be able to see a Middle East that is Islamic and powerful and also that withstands the Zionist occupiers," he told a weekly news conference, using Iran's term for Israel, which it does not recognize.

Iran has praised the Egyptian protests, saying they echo the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

However, Tehran fears that uprising in Egypt could revive anti-government unrest that jolted Iran after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The Revolutionary Guards quelled the mass protests against a vote the authorities insist was the healthiest for three decades.

Iran's reformist opposition, which rejected the poll result as rigged, says the uprising in Egypt is inspired by the Iranian nation's fight for democracy in 2009.

"The slogans of the Iranian nation who took to the streets in 2009 . . . have reached Egypt," said reformist presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, opposition website Kaleme reported on Saturday.

"Now it is time for Iranian . . . rulers to show wisdom and respect the nation's demand to avoid facing violence," Kaleme quoted another senior opposition figure, Amir Arjomand, as saying.

Iran, the only country in the region with no diplomatic ties with Egypt, hopes that fall of the Egyptian government will lead to an Islamist takeover and boost its political power in the region, analysts say.

"A shift of power in Egypt from a U.S.-linked government to an Islamist regime will strengthen Iran," said political analyst Ahmad Ziaie. "The balance will switch in favor of Iran."

Mehmanparast said the emergence of "popular" governments would usher in an era of greatly improved relations with Iran.

However, the Iranians are overwhelmingly Persian Shi'ite Muslims, whom Sunni Arabs historically see as adversaries.

Attempts to restore relations between the two countries have long been stymied by Iran's refusal to change the name of a Tehran street renamed in honor of an Islamist militant who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said protests in Egypt and the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali "proved that the global arrogance's era of domination and control of the region has come to an end", state television reported on Monday. "Global arrogance" is Iran's term for the United States.

Mehmanparast taunted Washington for its mixed signals about support for Mubarak, seen as a vital U.S. ally in the region.

"This popular wave . . . because it is in line with . . . severance of dependence on arrogant powers, will most definitely jeopardize the interests of these powers," he said. "That is why you see an agitation and bewilderment of their foreign policy."

© AFP 2024

Israeli leaders are increasingly unnerved by what they see in Egypt as the beginning of the most significant regional upheaval since the 1979 Iranian revolution. While many analysts outside the Jewish state have focused on the mass protests as an economic and political...
Tuesday, 01 February 2011 12:19 PM
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