Israel watched with muted concern over the weekend as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 30 years in power and millions of Egyptians celebrated for days on the streets of Cairo, marking what they hope is the end of dictatorial rule in their country.
The region has seen this kind of thing before, and historically it has not turned out well. But Israel has more immediate worries as Egypt is concerned.
First, while the peace between Israel and Egypt under Mubarak was cold, it still served to balance Israel’s rivalry with Iran and mounting tensions with Turkey. As the situation stands now, there is no regional Arab superpower tipping the scales in Israel’s favor.
“Egypt has completely lost its status in the area, while Turkey and Iran are on the way up,” former Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Zvi Mazel told Israel’s Ynet news portal. “As long as we had Mubarak, there was no void in our relations with the region. Now we’re in big trouble.”
Mazel also cautioned Egyptians not to get too optimistic. They may have removed Mubarak and his martial law, but Egypt will now be directly ruled by the military until new elections can be held and a consensus government can be formed, which could take a year or more.
And when elections are finally held, there is no telling who will emerge as Egypt’s next president, and whether or not he will ultimately become a dictator.
At present, former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) directory Mohammed ElBaradei is emerging as the leading opposition figure. But ElBaradei is aligned with the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which has vowed to return Egypt to a state of war with Israel if it ever came to power.
The Brotherhood has said it will not directly contest the presidency, but exercising influence over a puppet like ElBaradei would be enough to drastically and catastrophically alter the regional balance that existed prior.
On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Egyptian military for announcing that it will continue to honor all of Egypt’s international agreements. But there is no guarantee that won’t change once a new president is elected, depending on which party he hails from.
It should be remembered that Mubarak’s former boss and predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood because he made peace with Israel.
There is also growing concern in Israel that amidst the chaos, Egypt will lose control of the Sinai Peninsula, which will become a new terrorist breeding ground. Already there are reports that Egyptian police forces are abandoning positions that are coming under attack by local Sinai Bedouins.
“There is real concern that if the Egyptians don’t get the Sinai back under their control, it could develop into a major threat to Israel,” a senior government source told The Jerusalem Post.
And then there is US President Barack Obama and his role in this regime change and its aftermath.
Throughout the two weeks of anti-government protests when Obama was joining with many Egyptians in demanding Mubarak’s immediate ouster, the US president consistently failed to insist that whoever takes over Egypt next must honor its peace treaty with Israel.
Other world leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, felt it was fitting to directly address the issue. “We also expect future Egyptian governments to pursue peace in the Middle East so that the contracts were signed with Israel, are respected and that Israel’s security is guaranteed,” read Merkel’s statement released on Saturday.
Obama’s much longer response to Mubarak’s downfall did not mention Israel or Egypt’s peace agreement with the Jewish state at all.
Israeli media analyst Dr. Aaron Lerner summed up why this is so disconcerting to Jerusalem:
“The very unfortunate message from Mr. Obama to the Egyptians in particular and the Arab world in general is that as far as he is concerned, Egypt honoring peace with Israel is at best of tertiary importance in his eyes.”