Islamist gains in Egypt leave Israel rattled
Protests against military rule last weekend
The dispute over the actual outcome of last weekend’s Egyptian presidential elections, as deposed president Hosni Mubarak lingers at death’s door, is beginning to look rather superfluous.
Even if, as now seems increasingly likely, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi is the new president of Egypt, the army is unlikely to leave him with very much power.
On the other hand, despite the decision of the military-backed constitutional court to effectively dissolve the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, it is also clear to the generals that they will have to take the aspirations of the Islamist movement, currently Egypt’s largest political grouping, into account.
Over the past week in Cairo, there seems to have been a quiet understanding at work between the Islamists and the military.
The Brotherhood’s leaders condemned the military court’s decision and called upon their supporters to demonstrate. The Islamist party also hit out at the subsequent announcement of the Scaf (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) that it would decide the powers of the new president and appoint its own committee to draft a new constitution.
However, the Brotherhood stopped short of urging its followers to defy the military’s authority or to push for another revolution. The generals have also held back — while placing troops outside the parliament to keep out the Brotherhood MPs, they have not, so far, arrested any of its leaders.
Many in Egypt believe that there is a covert power-sharing arrangement being worked out between the army and the Islamists. Once that is in place, it will be the secular democrats, those who sparked off the Egyptian revolution a year-and-a-half ago, who will lose out.
Meanwhile, the power vacuum in Egypt is having adverse effects further afield.
No matter who is in control in Cairo, under the present climate, the response of any Egyptian administration to a major Israeli operation in Gaza would be drastic. With so many other issues dividing Egyptian society, support for the Palestinians and animosity towards Israel would be powerful rallying calls.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead with the tacit approval of the old regime. At the time, Mr Mubarak did not have to take public opinion into account, but his successors cannot afford that luxury. This week, for nearly the first time since Cast Lead, Hamas played a major part in attacking Israeli targets. The terror group had been leaving that job to the smaller, more radical factions in the Strip. Hamas leaders have calculated that, with Egypt in the balance, Israel will not take a risk with a heavy retaliation.
The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has repeatedly promised over the past year that, despite its ideological opposition to Israel, it will not cancel the Camp David Peace Accords once in power. But with Islamists controlling the border region, a skeleton staff maintaining an invisible Israeli embassy in Cairo and the hopes of “normalisation” a distant memory, those accords seem almost totally devoid of meaning.
“We can’t even begin to talk about our relations with Egypt,” said one senior Israeli official, “for over a year, we haven’t even known who is in charge there, and we still don’t.”