Sunday, January 30, 2011

From Israel: Exceedingly Worrisome Situation

Arlene Kushner
Arlene from Israel
30 January '11

I write with the assumption that (almost) everyone reading this will have been following the news regarding Egypt, at least at a minimal level. And I write, as well, aware that within hours after I send this out, the news may have shifted. In fact, my best efforts to get this straight notwithstanding, it's close to impossible to get a handle on the shifting details.

It's clear to everyone following these events that they have less than nothing to do with Palestinian Arabs or a "two state solution." Egyptians are most decidedly not rioting in the streets because there is no Palestinian state. This should (unfortunately, it won't) put to rest once and for all the fallacious idea that what happens between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is at the heart of what goes on elsewhere in the Arab/Muslim world.


The uprising that started on Tuesday and has escalated for days since -- with rioting in the streets, more than 60 dead and over 2,000 injured, refusal to obey curfews, and more -- has been directed against the repressions of the Hosni Mubarak regime of almost 30 years. Those repressions -- as well as wide-spread corruption, economic problems, and failure to enact promised reforms -- are very real. Most hated are the police, whose vehicles and stations have been attacked and torched.

Chaos has been exacerbated by prison break-outs at first in four different sites, with thousands of prisoners, including terrorists and political prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood, going free after clashing with guards and starting fires. They have gone on a rampage of looting, with marauding gangs releasing even more prisoners.


The army has replaced the police now in Cairo, a teeming city of 18 million, with tanks stationed everywhere. This morning there was uneasy quiet in the streets of the city. But this, I believe, had as much to do with the need of demonstrators to rush home and protect their families and properties from the escaped prisoners as it did the actions of the army. There were stories of householders standing off looters with razors and broken bottles.

Now thousands have returned to central Cairo, with more soldiers and tanks being brought in, and reports of helicopters overhead. Jets have been heard overhead as well.

Egyptian Internet was shut down the other day, and apparently Al-Jazeera has now been cut off as well.


Mubarak, who earlier was reportedly in hiding in Sharm El-Sheikh, has since visited military headquarters. He has fired his government, promised real reforms, and perhaps most significantly, appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to fill the post of vice president -- a post that had been empty.

Suleiman, 74, has been serving since 1993 as the head of the General Intelligence Directorate. Egyptian journalist Issandr Amrani, cited in today's JPost, describes the Directorate as an organization that "combines the intelligence-gathering elements of the CIA, the counterterrorism role of the FBI, the protections duties of the Secret Service, and the high-level diplomacy of the State Department."

In other words, Suleiman is one very powerful man, and has proved himself adept at handling terrorists and controlling Islamist elements in Egypt. Additionally he has frequently served as a diplomatic envoy and is savvy with regard to Israeli issues. He is considered corruption-free. While he is said to be considerably more popular than Mubarak, there are elements among the protesters who reject him because of his association with the old regime.


What seems clear now is that if the regime holds, ultimately Suleiman will replace the much-hated Mubarak. Mubarak had been grooming his son to succeed him, but this is not going to happen. In fact, there is the possibility that succession by Suleiman might take place fairly imminently. It is the disappearance from the scene of Mubarak that the crowds are clambering for.

This is what I am hoping will happen (ideally with some genuine reforms enacted), and I will explain why...


The rioting protesters, including a good percentage of educated young people, at present are pushing for democratic reforms. There is the impulse to applaud them and to wish them well in turning Egypt around.

However, this group is not well organized and has no charismatic leader at its helm. Because it is diffuse, it is vulnerable to take-over by non-democratic elements.

I am greatly concerned that Mohamed El-Baradei -- from 1997 to 2008 Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- has returned to Cairo from Vienna, where he lives, to join the protestors and help bring Mubarak down. El-Baradei is an enemy of Israel, make no mistake about it.

According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, in 2009 El-Baradei is reported to have said, "Israel is the number one threat to the Middle East given the nuclear arms it possesses."

More significantly, he cut Iran slack, turning a blind eye with regard to Iranian nuclear developments on several occasions, so that he bears some culpability for the nuclear progress Iran made over time.


Of even greater concern than El-Baradei is the potential role of the (Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood, which has joined protests but is not taking a leadership role now. Should this group ultimately move to take over, and should there be an Islamist government in Egypt in time, this would represent a worst case scenario for us and the whole region.

It would undercut US interests in the area, present a threat in terms of exported revolution to other Arab states (most notably a very frightened Jordan), and would greatly increase the likelihood of war.


I know there are those who have lamented former prime minister Menachem Begin's readiness to reach a peace accord with Sadat, Mubarak's predecessor, and point to the cold peace that exists -- with anti-Semitism rife in Egypt. I have never been of this mind. Better a cold peace than no peace.

Egypt is the largest of the Arab nations with the largest standing army and the most sophisticated military (thanks to US assistance). As long as the peace has held, other Arab nations have thought better of going to war with Israel on their own. Heaven forbid that this dynamic should shift at some point down the road: For there is considerable likelihood, if not certainty, that an Islamic Egyptian government would abrogate its peace treaty with Israel.

Mubarak has been staunchly anti-Iran (in some good measure because of Sunni-Shia tensions) and is no fan of Hamas. Hamas, after all, is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, and he has seen Hamas presence in Egypt as exacerbating Brotherhood unrest. Turn this around and picture what an Islamist Egyptian government would do to strengthen Hamas in Gaza.

Not surprisingly, Iran has come out with words of support for the rebellion.


It has to be noted that there is an abysmal record with regard to democratic revolutions successfully taking hold in the Middle East. As Barry Rubin wrote last night, if the regime falls and power is up for grabs, we have the following precedents:

"Remember the Iranian revolution when all sorts of people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.

"Remember the Beirut spring when people poured out into the streets to demand freedom? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon.

"Remember the democracy among the Palestinians and free elections? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.

"Remember democracy in Algeria? Tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing civil war.

"It doesn't have to be that way but the precedents are pretty daunting."


When we talk about the Iranian revolution and how abysmally that ultimately failed, we have to look at the role of then-president Jimmy Carter, who sided with the revolutionaries.

There are analysts now who are deeply concerned about Obama pulling a "Carter," and with reason.

According to the Egyptian paper Almasry Alyoum, as reported in Haaretz, Obama secretly met members of the Muslim Brotherhood who live in the US and Europe, in early 2009. While according to WikiLeaks, as cited by the London Telegraph, in the last three years, members of the US government have communicated with an Egyptian activist who was involved in top secret plans for transition to a democratic government. Two years ago (which would have meant after Obama took office), the US ambassador to Egypt allegedly helped keep the identity of this activist from Egyptian police.

While I report these items, I cannot attest to their absolute veracity. There has been a suggestion that the fact that WikiLeaks has now revealed the connection between the US and this activist might have helped spark what is transpiring. This may be a bit far-fetched.

More immediately there is concern that the Obama administration is publicly coming down too hard on Mubarak and that this may help bring him down.


As evidence of this:

Secretary of State Clinton, in a press conference this morning, said:

"I want the Egyptian people to have a chance to chart a new future.

"It's not a question of who retains power. ... It's how are we going to respond to the legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path. Clearly, the path that has been followed has not been one that has created that democratic future, that economic opportunity that people in the peaceful protests are seeking."

Is she being briefed at all? Is she smoking something? Peaceful protests?

Continuing, she said that what was needed was "an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy...

"We are totally committed to working with the Egyptians that are interested in a true democracy."

Well, where does this leave everyone? And does this help the situation?

She just wants an orderly transition to real democracy in a nation that has never had democracy, and in which riots are currently taking place.


With regard to our current situation, Maj.-General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, who headed research and assessment for the IDF, declared:

"We need to understand that we are living on a volcano. Conditions can change from today until tomorrow."

Switching metaphors, he then said, "We are on thick ice, but even that melts eventually. There's no immediate fear of any security escalation. The main question is: In the long term, will we be ready for all scenarios?"


At first the government of Israel was entirely mum on what's going on. Now Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that Israel is "anxiously monitoring" the unrest in Egypt.

"Our efforts are designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region

"I remind you that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue.

"Of course, at this time, we must show maximum responsibility, restraint and sagacity and, to this end, I have instructed my fellow ministers to refrain from commenting on this issue. Naturally, we are also holding consultations in the appropriate government forums."

Netanyahu has also been in phone consultation with Obama and Clinton.


© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution

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