Fresh Fear In Israel Over Chaos In Egypt


Tel Aviv — When the revolution against President Hosni Mubarak broke out two years ago, Israel feared that Egypt would suffer the fate of Iran and fall under the sway of an extremist Islamist rule.

Now, with Egypt teetering on the edge of a second revolution, Israel has a different fear: chaos.

The fall on Wednesday of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi after a standoff between the millions of anti-Islamist protestors and the Egyptian army has raised the specter of a further weakening of central rule in Cairo in a country already considered an economic basket case, say Israeli analysts.

That would be a recipe for allowing militant groups to move into a massive security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel’s southern border and an unchecked flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip. More broadly, though, it would mean the implosion of Israel’s most important neighbor, one with which it has a peace treaty.

The army deployed tanks and troops in major cities around Egypt late Wednesday and convened an emergency meeting of civilians and religious leaders in an attempt to form an interim government after forcing Morsi out of office, the New York Times reported. The ouster came after Morsi, who has said he would abide by the accord brokered at Camp David in 1979 with Israel, failed to meet a 48 hour deadline to address concerns about his one-year stewardship.

“For Israel, stability is the main interest,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo.

“The situation is deadlocked between the Islamists and all the others,” he said. “Tension is gaining ground every day. This is a signal that something urgent must be done in order to prevent a civil war.”

Indeed, the civil war to the north, in Syria, already has Israeli security chiefs losing sleep about a spillover of the fighting and the transfer of strategic weaponry into the hands of Hezbollah and al Qaeda-linked militias.

What that conflict magnified, observers say, is the importance of having one “central address” across the border to deal with. Even if the ruling power is a hostile one (see Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Syria’s Assad), Israel prefers dealing with unsavory interlocutors than a state of anarchy.

That means that even the continued rule of the Muslim Brotherhood — which many here see as a dangerously anti-Western and ideologically hostile to the Jewish state — would be considered preferable to the uncertain collapse of the government.

Israel wants “someone in charge, someone who can handle things, someone you can talk to,” said an Israeli official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the events in Egypt. “But it seems it’s going the other way. With more instability, there’s nothing good in it for Egypt and nothing good in it for Egypt’s neighbors.”

The ability of Egyptian “street” to dictate change is also being seen as more evidence of the weakening of the central government.

The one upside amid all of the instability has been the public relations blow suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood just one year after coming to power. Just as its victory in elections was seen at the time as a potential watershed that would strengthen groups like Hamas, the images of Egyptian protesters ransacking the Brotherhood’s offices is a sign of a shift in fortune.

“It may be kind of a Rubicon,” said Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank. “The Islamists ran on the slogan ‘Islam is the solution.’ The people around the region will understand that Islam is not the solution. This will be evidence that it didn’t work.”

But Israel cannot afford to engage in Islamist schadenfreude.

The best scenario, according to analysts, would be some sort of political compromise between the Islamist rulers and those who oppose the government.

While the Egyptian army is viewed in Jerusalem as the most amenable to working with Israel, analysts note that the military does not have a vision of the way forward any more than the millions of protestors in the streets.

Israeli analysts noted that despite the official hostility by Muslim Brotherhood officials toward Israel, security coordination with the army during the Morsi presidency has been maintained relatively well.

Indeed, a sign of that cooperation was on display on Tuesday as Israel’s army gave a green light for Egyptian forces to boost their presence along the border, making a rare exception to the clauses in the 34-year-old treaty that stipulates a light security deployment at the border.

News services reported that the deployment included armored vehicles.

An Israeli army officer declined to say whether the special deployment was related to the demonstrations in Egypt. The Israeli officer did say Israel is concerned that Palestinian militants will take a “U-turn” route to attacking Israel via the Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks, Gazans complained as Egyptian forces shut down activity at the tunnels under the Gaza Strip — apparently as they tightened security ahead of the demonstrations timed for the one year anniversary of Morsi’s ascendance.

One of the reasons the Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation has endured is because Egypt’s leaders have been too busy dealing with the country’s teetering domestic situation to think about shifts in the country’s foreign policy.

Israeli analysts say that the country’s socioeconomic woes will take years to solve, and that it will require foreign financial assistance. Foreign currency from tourism has tapered off because of the instability.

With a high birthrate, illiteracy and low job creation that leaves the vast majority of young educated Egyptians out of the workforce, the country is fast becoming a basket case.

“Unless Egypt’s economy experiences a surprising turnaround, it will become a failed state, like Somalia and Afghanistan,” wrote Ron Ben Yishai, a military commentator for Yediot Achronot. “Regional and global history has shown us that the violent nightmares in failed states also affect neighboring countries.”

Ben Yishai wrote that Egypt is need of massive influx of foreign aid —a modern-day Marshall Plan — in order to stabilize its economy.

Ruth Wasserman Lande, a former deputy ambassador to Egypt, said the country’s woes are about “the economy, the economy and the economy.

“It is completely dysfunctional; it was bad during the Mubarak era, and the unemployment is astronomical,” she said. “Over 90 percent of newly graduated Egyptians can’t get jobs. It doesn’t allow for any kind of vision of anything — let alone normalization with Israel.”

She said there needs to be “a complete revolution in the economy,” “Nothing is working and everything is at standstill. … This is the first and foremost central issue. All the rest is noise. If Egypt falls and disintegrates in terms of the economy, the implications are serious.”