As Egypt votes, ties with Israel falter

Women pose with their inked fingers after voting in Cairo this week

Women pose with their inked fingers after voting in Cairo this week

Enthusiasm and optimism were in good supply in Cairo on Monday as people flocked to what one voter in al-Maadi neighbourhood described as "my first chance to really determine my future myself".

"In the past, the polling stations were empty on election day, as we knew that whatever we voted, the results would be the same," said the voter.

However, the soldiers cradling Kalashnikovs at the entrance to the polling area were a reminder that a genuine democracy in Egypt is still far from guaranteed.

While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) continues to hold the real power in the country following President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February, it is under intense pressure from the pro-democracy forces and the Obama administration to transfer authority to an elected civilian government.

Such a government is expected to include a significant Islamist presence, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Freedom Party projected to be the main victor in the parliamentary elections.

While the generals have promised to eventually transfer some of their powers, they are demanding that a new constitution grant Scaf a central role in a future government.

Genuine democracy is still far from guaranteed

Meanwhile, the Israeli government is expecting relations between Israel and Egypt to deteriorate in the wake of the elections.

Over recent months, the main contacts between the Israeli and Egyptian leaderships have occurred via the commanders of the two armies and other senior defence officials. But IDF officers admitted last week that these communications are dwindling.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee: "We don't expect to have the same level of intimacy with Egypt with the new regime."

Not all Israelis, however, are that pessimistic. One veteran intelligence analyst said this week: "We should not be so simplistic. Not all Egypt is Islamic Brotherhood and not all the Islamists want to go to war with Israel."

At Friday prayers in Al Azhar mosque last week, one of the sermons promised that "from Tahrir Square we will liberate Palestine, all of Palestine". And yet, the Brotherhood has not publicly called for cancelling the peace treaty with Israel.

"We can have peace with Israel," said one Brotherhood activist, "but first Israel must respect the rights of the Palestinians."

Israelis are not alone in their concern. The largest religious minority in Egypt, the Copt Christians, are worried that an Islamist-dominated government will deepen discrimination of their community.

"As it is we can't get senior government jobs or licences to build new churches," said Hani Boutrous, a Copt leader in Alexandria, "and police and army officers have not been prosecuted for attacking Copts. But things can get even worse."

Only last month, a demonstration against discrimination in central Cairo was violently mowed down by military armoured vehicles and 24 Copts killed.

"Copts are joking now that we should all move to Sinai so that Israel can protects us," says one member of the community bitterly, "but we say so quietly so as not to get arrested."

"That's all we need now," said a senior Israeli officer, "another reason for argument with Egypt. Our best policy right now is not to be involved in Egypt until we know how things turn out."

Last updated: 12:16pm, December 1 2011