Roula Khalaf
The Financial Times (Opinion)
December 22, 2011 - 1:00am

A senior Israeli official called in journalists for an unusual briefing this month. Arab societies were simply not mature enough to hold free and fair elections, declared Moshe Yaalon; they needed a long period of “education”.

Mr Yaalon, a close aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, did not specifically refer to Egypt. But it could not have been far from his mind, since the country had just voted for Islamist parties in the first round of its staggered parliamentary elections.

For Israel, no neighbouring country matters as much as Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and the first (of only two) to have signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state. When it agreed to the 1979 Camp David accords, Egypt neutralised the prospect of another Arab-Israeli war. That Egypt is going through a historic transformation, shedding the authoritarianism with which Israel had been comfortable and embracing a new political system in which Islamists are dominant, is a source of anxiety for many western governments, but most of all for Israel.

Everything from the fate of the peace treaty, to the relationship between Egypt and the Palestinians and Cairo’s future diplomacy in the region has now been thrown into question. Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, tensions between Egypt and Israel have escalated. Egyptians were infuriated by the August killing of five soldiers during a border gun battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants and many were disappointed by the ruling military council’s failure to take any retaliatory measures, such as withdrawing the Egyptian ambassador.

The frustrations led to a series of protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, which were cheered by the public. A young man who had reached the top of the embassy and taken down the Israeli flag was celebrated as a hero and even awarded an apartment by the government. The protests eventually took a nasty turn, however, as crowds stormed the building in September, forcing the diplomatic staff to evacuate, and further straining relations between the two countries.

The revolution was primarily about Mr Mubarak’s 30 years of repression and mismanagement rather than his diplomacy. There was no burning of the Israeli flag in Tahrir Square. But the revolution’s message was also that Mr Mubarak had belittled Egypt and sapped its dignity, and part of the popular frustration was over the erosion of the country’s regional influence and the perception that it bowed too often to US and Israeli wishes.

The demise of the Mubarak regime unshackles Egypt from long-held unpopular policies. But the break with the past is likely to be gradual and it will be complicated by a clumsy and protracted political transition.

Cairo can be expected to become more assertive and independent-minded in its foreign policy. Within weeks of the revolution, a new interim foreign minister, Nabil el-Arabi, said Egypt was seeking to open a new page with Iran, departing from the Mubarak regime’s line that eschewed dialogue with the Islamic republic. Mr Elarabi has since become the Arab League secretary-general.

Signs of a changing attitude were also in evidence in Egypt’s successful mediation of a reconciliation plan between Palestinian factions. The agreement struck between the secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas in April was made possible partly by the more even-handed role played by Egypt, which had in the past sought to manipulate Hamas.

Senior Arab diplomats say Cairo has been increasingly active in the efforts to ratchet up pressure on the Syrian regime, which now faces Arab League sanctions. But while the reclaiming of Egypt’s traditional leadership role would appear inevitable in the long term, the country will be looking inward for the foreseeable future, with the domestic political transition and the economic crisis provoked by the revolution taking priority.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is set to be the largest party in parliament, has said it will not abrogate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel but could seek to review it. Its policies, however, remain vague, and are likely to shift if it is charged with the job of governing the country.

Whatever new government takes over, however, it will have to be far more sensitive to public opinion on foreign policy, which means a greater distance from Israel and acting on policies that are sympathetic to Palestinians. But the extent to which civilians in government will be able to influence foreign policy will also depend on whether the army, which receives funding from the US, manages to carve out an oversight role for itself, something it has been seeking.

Moreover, Egypt’s economy will require assistance from foreign and regional partners and this could limit a government’s room for manoeuvre on the foreign policy front. Cairo’s new government will have to strike a delicate balance between satisfying popular sentiment and keeping wealthy neighbours and generous allies on its side.


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