Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Red Lines: Preserving Peace with Egypt

James Colbert
JINSA Policy Director
The Sentry
21 February '11

To the average Egyptian, news that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had taken charge of the country and, surprisingly, had vowed to go forward with the elections already scheduled for September was seen as a resounding victory for the Tahrir Square protestors and their compatriots in Alexandria and other cities. The announcement, carried live on state television, also contained in it the promise that law and order would be swiftly restored, a supremely important issue for Egyptians shocked by the anarchy and wanton criminality that gripped their cities for the past several weeks. In Washington and Jerusalem, however, attention was focused on the Council’s pledge to honor previously signed treaties including, it was inferred, the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

It is now clear that, for at least the past week, a behind-the-scenes struggle within the highest corridors of power was waged. The tussle pitted “old guard” leaders like Vice President Omar Suleiman, a long-time Mubarak confidant and former head of Egypt’s notorious intelligence service, against army officers led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Now clearly in control, Tantawi suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament, leaving Suleiman and pretenders such as former IAEA head Mohammed elBaradei and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa to take their chances at the polls.

The power struggle on the Nile provided a fresh angle from which to understand Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s almost preternatural calm in the face of the 20 days of Egyptian chaos. Some have chalked it up to better intelligence, others to greater discipline within his government, but comparing the measured Israeli response to the Obama administration’s near daily flip-flops cannot be avoided. Depending on who is asked, Egyptians are angry with the U.S. for both announcing support for Mubarak and for abandoning him. America’s remaining Arab partners share the latter thought. So with perhaps more to lose and less desire to appear to be leading events, Israeli silence contributed to defusing a tense and fluid situation.

The implications of what is called the Egyptian Revolution have not been lost on Israeli military planners nor on Pentagon strategists. No matter how benign Cairo’s new rulers reveal themselves to be or if the Supreme Council clings to power or a civilian government takes over in late autumn, Israel Defense Force (IDF) planners will no longer be as sanguine when they look to the west. For the time being, however, the Egyptian military’s assumption of power appears to have reinforced what Israeli officials had been hearing via backchannel communications since the demonstrators first started gathering in Tahrir Square.

To prevent a slide back to the conflict-ridden decades before the peace treaty, the United States, as the provider of tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid over the past 30 years, should be prepared to unambiguously communicate “red lines” that no Egyptian government, military or civilian, can cross without incurring American opprobrium. Fulfillment of the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, unfettered passage of international shipping through the Suez Canal, prevention of smuggling across Egyptian borders, securing the Sinai Peninsula, and a zero tolerance for the presence of terrorist organizations on Egyptian soil are good places to start.

James “Jim” Colbert is a Policy Director at JINSA and is Deputy Editor of JINSA’s semi-annual scholarly journal, The Journal of International Security Affairs.

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