By Alex Traiman/JNS.org
Egyptian Defense Minister and Field Marshal General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on Jan. 27 was cleared by the country’s army to run for president, one day after an interim government announced that presidential elections would be advanced to take place within 30-90 days. Now, just three years after a revolution that toppled longtime secular Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, himself a military commander, Egypt’s current top-ranked army officer has become the country’s most popular political figure.
Many expect El-Sisi to win the presidential election overwhelmingly. What would his rise to power mean for neighboring Israel?
“Abdul Fattah El-Sisi is Egypt’s strong man right now and has been fighting against radical Islam and against the Muslim Brothers (members of the Muslim Brotherhood). This is very positive both for Egypt, but also for Israel and the entire Middle East,” former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel told JNS.org.
Member of Knesset Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Israel’s former defense minister, stated on Israeli radio that the Jewish state is supportive of El-Sisi, but cautioned that El-Sisi’s current popularity is no guarantee that he would be an effective president.
“If he fails as a president, then the current regime that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood would be dissolved,” Ben-Eliezer said. Such a scenario could once again pave the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to return to power “stronger and more determined than before,” he said, a situation that would ultimately be “bad news for Israel and the West.”
“We shouldn’t go out on the roofs and cry out in favor of El-Sisi. But what is going on in Egypt is positive for Israel, and you cannot deny it,” Mazel told JNS.org.
The announcement to advance presidential elections came just days after Egyptian courts opened the trial of ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. In less than two years, Morsi had attempted to monopolize legislative and judicial power and advanced an agenda to turn Egypt into an Islamic religious state.
Following weeks of imprisonment, Morsi was quoted as shouting at the opening of the trial, “I am the president of the republic, how can I be kept in a dump for weeks?”
According to Mazel, Morsi pushed his religious agenda too quickly, while failing to solve Egypt’s pressing economic and social problems. His failed agenda and restrictions on religious freedoms led Egyptians to take to the streets en masse for the second time in just more than two years. Egypt’s military, led by El-Sisi, brought about Morsi’s sudden overthrow.
In addition to pushing forward a religious domestic agenda, Morsi’s regime threatened the longstanding peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on several occasions, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was quickly turning into a terror haven—leading Israel to reconsider security along what had been a relatively stable border for three decades.
Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt “went through a number of crises” while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, leading many to worry whether or not it would ultimately hold, Mazel told JNS.org.
“The peace treaty is still in effect after 35 years. So we hope it will continue and become even stronger once Egypt re-stabilizes,” he said.
Currently, the Egyptian Army has placed troops in the Sinai to crack down against terror cells. The presence of troops in the Sinai could be perceived as a clear violation of the terms of the peace treaty, which prohibit any troop buildup there. Yet Israel’s government recognizes that its options are limited if it wants terror cells on the peninsula defeated, as Israel certainly cannot itself enter Egyptian soil.
“At this point it is not a violation, because Israel doesn’t regard it as a violation,” Mazel said. “We accept—at least temporarily—that some Egyptian troops should be stationed in Sinai, together with helicopters and other equipment to fight terrorism.”
“Once this fighting will be finished—and I am not sure it is going to be finished soon—we will sit with the Egyptians and figure out how to reconsider this issue,” he said.
In addition to combatting terror in the Sinai, the Egyptian army has unleashed a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was recently outlawed. This past month, Egypt’s interim government advanced a constitutional referendum that sought to reverse the efforts of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed constitutional referendum just a year ago.
The new constitution—backed by Egypt’s army—was passed with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote, demonstrating Egyptian dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood government. Many observers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have noted that the military’s crackdown on opponents leading up to the referendum may have led to the overwhelming poll results.
Kerry cautioned that the constitutional vote took place in a “polarized political environment.” The State Department and the White House had been outspoken supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood government.
Many Israelis were taken aback by America’s quick withdrawal of support for their longtime ally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. They were further surprised by America’s instant support for the Muslim Brotherhood, despite knowing that the Brotherhood was a longtime Islamist organization.
“For us in Israel, it is very difficult to understand recent American positions toward Egypt,” Mazel told JNS.org.
“When Morsi was elected, they gave him all this support, despite the fact that any good observer could see that Morsi was working to establish a new Islamic dictatorship, by monopolizing legislative and judicial powers and stuffing all the government ministries with Muslim Brothers,” he said.
“And when the second, or corrective revolution came, the U.S. was against it and threatened immediately to cut off military assistance,” continued Mazel. “This is hard to understand because this new temporary regime is fighting against the Muslim Brothers and radical Islam in general. And this is in the best interests of the United States, and obviously also in the best interests of Israel.”
According to Mazel, American policy toward Egypt is part of larger policy failings in the Middle East.
“With very complicated and twisted policies by the United States toward Iraq, and then what happened in Libya, Syria, and now Iran, many simply do not believe that American policy in the region is rational or reasonable,” he said.
“We try not to put this forward too much, but current U.S. policy is against the Israeli way of thinking, and it is affecting our security,” Mazel added.
According to Mazel, Israeli leaders and citizens alike have been forced to reassess the question of whether American policies are enhancing Israel’s security, despite the fact that American military aid and defense cooperation remain at all-time highs.
“There is a moral crisis in Israel with regard to the United States,” Mazel said. “We still need the United States, we lean on the U.S., we love the U.S., but we don’t understand the way that they deal with the Middle East. … America is our guarantor for security, in a way. So it is a big problem.”
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