The announcement by the Obama administration of a temporary freeze on some military aid to Egypt met with robust opposition not only in Cairo, but also encountered almost equally vigorous criticism from Israeli officials. Their response represented both bewilderment and apprehension of the move, which might potentially weaken the current government in Egypt. This signifies an absurd yearning in Israel for the restoration of an order not far off from the one of the Mubarak’s Ancien Régime before the Tahrir Square revolution. Though most Israeli decision makers are bound to understand that this is unrealistic, their strategic predisposition is to oppose any U.S. measures which would diminish the Egyptian’s military role in influencing the country’s political and social fabric. For them, it equates to strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood whose demise they were hoping to see following this summer’s coup.
Admittedly the decision makers in Washington have been far from consistent in their policy towards the unfolding events in Egypt over the last three years. The American approach towards Egypt became even more perplexing since the military, led by General al-Sisi, ousted President Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood party back in July. The stuttering response from Washington and the unwillingness to identify whether the Egyptian army led a bona fide coup or not, did very little to enhance U.S. credibility in the region as a champion of reforms and democracy. The decision makers in Israel were less hesitant, and some might argue misguided, in breathing a sigh of relief at the removal of the elected president by the military. It should have been left to the Egyptian people to do it democratically, if they wished, as they expressed themselves through petitions and by flocking to the streets of Cairo in protest against Mursi’s policies. Indeed, in a year of presidency Mohammad Mursi was far from covering himself with democratic glory; some of his policies violated human rights and women’s equality. However, his removal from power and the brutal crackdown on his supporters was a throwback to the dark days of Egyptian dictators. Charging Mursi for killing protesters and arresting many of the Brotherhood’s leadership, including Supreme Guide Mohammad Badie, left little doubt that the generals intended to de-legitimize the Brotherhood movement as a whole.
The protestations from the international community over these events in Egypt were muted and were no more than lip service to the protection of human rights and democratic processes. It represents growing concerns for what many see as the spread of Islamism in the region, instead of more democratic and accountable governments, and unease that the Arab Spring will end as no more than a catalyst for the spread fundamentalism.
Peace with Egypt is the most important anchor of strategic stability for Israel in the regionYossi Mekelberg
Developments across the region, and especially the active participation of global jihadists in the civil war in Syria, gave apparent clout to this argument. Israel, can only watch these developments with a sense of haplessness, realizing that she has minimal impact on the outcome of events in neighboring countries, regardless of the massive impact of these radical changes on her own future.
Peace with Egypt is the most important anchor of strategic stability for Israel in the region, this treaty between the two countries presently deprives Egypt joining any future Arab alliance against Israel. A close look at the items that the U.S. decided to suspend reveals that they were not small weapons used against protestors, but actually big-ticket military items such as F-16 fighter jets or M1A1 Abram tanks among other sophisticated military hardware. The irony is that the U.S. is trying to influence the military to move towards “credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government,” through affecting its ability to deal with regional military challenges. One questions whether this move was intended to wound the Egyptian army’s pride and prestige?
The decision by some Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, to publicly express their discontent with the American decision, reflects their concern that pressure on the Egyptian army could have two major negative results. It would signal to the Muslim Brotherhood that the U.S. is not backing the army anymore and consequently would encourage them to intensify their opposition to the current government. Additionally, it would also weaken the Egyptian army, as a counter balance to Israel’s main nemesis at the moment, Iran.
The large scale military and civilian aid to Egypt is very much associated with the peace agreement of 1979, and it is regarded in Israel as an integral part of ensuring the maintenance of this peace agreement. A more immediate concern for Israel is the breakdown of law and order in the Sinai Peninsula. The prevention of attacks by Islamic militants from the Sinai is very much expected of the Egyptian army. Friction between the U.S. and the current Egyptian government might result, as feared by some in Israel, in less vigorous curtailing of such militancy either for tactical reasons to pressure the U.S. to reverse the suspension of military aid, or as a result of a shortage of resources. However, this argument ignores that restoring law and order in the Sinai Peninsula is first and foremost in the Egyptian’s interest.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government also sees the suspension of some aid to Egypt as another sign of the U.S. “going soft” in the region. First, they decided not to attack Syria despite setting the use of chemical weapons as a clear red line. This was followed by the budding rapprochement with Iran over the nuclear issue. Thereafter came the decision to send a message of disapproval to the Egyptian army, due the lack of sufficient progress towards democracy. Lumping these three actions together as a sign of a new coherent U.S. approach towards the region is giving the Obama administration too much credit. It leaves most observers quite confused by the Americans’ mixed signals.
While with regards to Syria, the U.S. was outflanked by Russia and was consequently able to climb down from the threat of using military force, in the case of Iran, testing the intentions and strength of the new President Rowhani is long overdue and makes perfect sense. Even cutting military aid to Egypt, considering the events in the last three months, was almost inevitable if the U.S. wants to keep any semblance of credibility in claiming to be a champion of human rights and democracy. However, seen from the Israeli leadership’s viewpoint, all of this is translated as harmful to her long term national interest, inflicted by her main international ally with very little consultation.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.