The signs not good for Israel

By John R Bradley, November 24, 2011
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When Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Yitzhak Levanon, left Cairo this week after completing his term of service, it was, reportedly, in the absence of an official farewell delegation from his hosts - a contravention of established protocol.

With Cairo again in flames and the Egyptian cabinet tendering its resignation amid a murderous crackdown on protesters reoccupying Tahrir Square, the military junta may just have been otherwise occupied.

Still, in retrospect, Levanon's solitary departure may come to be seen as rich in symbolism. We can certainly take for granted that his replacement will not be welcomed in public either.

Things look much more precarious for Israel than they did in February, when Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi led a coup against Honsi Mubarak. Then Tel Aviv breathed a sigh of relief.

The generals have blamed Jews for the mayhem

The popular Egyptian army, a strong supporter of the peace treaty and the recipient in billions of dollars in American aid, immediately stated that it was in favour of the status quo. But the Israeli embassy has since been gutted by rioters, and pipelines transporting gas from Egypt to the Jewish state have been repeatedly sabotaged.

The Muslim Brotherhood, committed to a radical reassessment of the 1979 peace treaty and to opening the Gaza border crossing, looks set to triumph in next week's parliamentary elections. With renewed mayhem engulfing Cairo this week, the army's support for the peace treaty was restated.

But will Tantawi and his generals be calling the shots for much longer?

Their support among the anti-Zionist Egyptian masses has been steadily eroded by continued human rights abuses and economic meltdown, as well as the perception that they want to rule forever. A pact between the Military Council and the Brothers - giving them legal status in return for supporting the status quo - is unravelling.

The numbers protesting against military rule in Tahrir Square are nowhere near what they were in February. The army, moreover, retains majority support among the people. The call by Tantawi for a referendum on his legitimacy, and his decision to bring forward presidential elections, will calm all but the die-hard revolutionaries.

But the danger lurks elsewhere. The Muslim Brotherhood has already withdrawn from Tahrir, but once in control of parliament, and in the absence of practical solutions to the country's dire social and economic problems, the group will resort to the tried and tested: shameless popularism. Israel-bashing is about to become the most popular past time in Egypt.

Israel expects a "grave erosion" of its peace agreement and is preparing for the historic deal to collapse altogether, Israeli minister for civil defence Matan Vilnai said on
Wednesday.

To retain some kind of legitimacy, the Egyptian junta may well have no choice but to whip up nationalist fervour. Already, the generals have proved eager to blame foreign saboteurs, including Israelis and Jews, for the mayhem. In the short term, this will mean cutting diplomatic ties with Israel. The longer term, of course, is more difficult to predict, and will largely depend on how well the Brothers poll next week.

The trend, however, is clear. Israel should indeed be preparing for the worst.

John R Bradley is the author of After the Arab Spring (Palgrave Macmillan)

Last updated: 12:55pm, November 24 2011