The Egyptian Revolution, democracy and Israel

Emad Gad , Sunday 13 Mar 2011

Until now, Israel has relied on the support of undemocratic regional regimes, but after the Egyptian Revolution this formula is no more

In an article entitled “Democracy, a problem,” Yoav Bromer wrote in Haaretz on 19 October 2009 that as democracy spreads in Middle East countries it becomes a problem for Israel. According to him, this is because Israel signs and maintains peace agreements only with undemocratic regimes. These regimes invest a great deal of effort in defending these agreements, and use a variety of tools to confront opposition to such ties.

Bromer declared this theory at a time when tensions were rising between Israel and Turkey, saying that that the Turkish governments that launched and maintained relations with Israel were not democratically elected, or did not take public opinion into consideration when making such decisions. Once the governments in Ankara were elected democratically, and hence more sensitive to the positions and opinions of the public, these governments were pressured by public opinion to begin imposing more restrictions on ties with Israel.

Bromer’s theory is not new, but the novelty is that an Israeli admits the converse relationship between the spread of democracy and the type and development of Israel’s relations. For a long time, Israel had promoted the trinity of “peace, prosperity, democracy,” meaning that peace between the Arabs and Israel would encourage economic development in the region, and when combining Israeli ideas with Arab capital and Egyptian workers, prosperity would quickly spread in the region. According to this logic, economic prosperity would increase demands by the people in the region for democracy.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres had predicted this three-way dynamic in his book The New Middle East, a Middle East where there are no more wars and countries are focused on development, cooperating with each other to achieve prosperity for everyone. Under Israel’s leadership of the region, all the countries would progress and after enjoying the rewards of development and better living, there will be more demands for democracy. And in this way, the regimes in the region will morph into different forms of democracy.

When the Egyptian Revolution took place on 25 January 2011, the Israeli government was caught off guard and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued several stern warnings claiming that the Egyptian Revolution would usher in a fundamentalist regime in Egypt, similar to that in Iran. Also, that the new regime will terminate the peace treaty with Israel and revive confrontation. At the same time, the Israeli government exerted intense efforts to convince the US administration not to abandon the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Once the revolution forged ahead and Mubarak’s regime waned in the face of the revolutionaries, Netanyahu withheld comment on developments in Egypt and asked members of his government not to make any statements in the media about Egypt. The focus now was the future of the peace treaty, an issue which was resolved once Statement No 4 by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on 12 February 2011, declared in item five that “the Arab Republic of Egypt is committed to all regional and international commitments and treaties.” This closed the door on further discussion about the position of the Egyptian Revolution regarding the peace treaty with Israel; the Egyptian Armed Forces had committed Egypt to all regional and international treaties.

The Egyptian Revolution and Israel’s regional role

The success of the revolution in Egypt and the departure of Mubarak’s regime came as a shock to Israel, so much so it began a comprehensive reassessment of its intelligence and military capabilities because no Israeli agency had anticipated the revolution, and there was no clear perception of what the new regime would look like. The reassessment began by blaming the Israeli government of mismanaging the crisis by taking hostile positions towards the revolt against Mubarak’s regime, although the revolution was not triggered because of the peace treaty with Israel or Egyptian-Israeli relations. The Egyptians were looking to the future, establishing a democratic regime, fighting corruption and improving economic conditions.

There were demands that Netanyahu stop talking about the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Egypt similar to Iran in 1979, and allow Egyptians to establish a new democratic regime. There were also calls on the Israeli government to adopt a positive outlook towards the Egyptian Revolution and to stop “making enemies of the revolutionaries in Tahrir”.

Others even wanted Israel to abandon the old formula that relied on a regional order based on dictatorships, and to immediately and quickly launch genuine political negotiations to reach a settlement with its Arab neighbours in order for Israel to become “a welcome neighbour and accepted by countries in the region”. Some urged Netanyahu to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative that he had previously ignored, because now was the time to stretch a hand in peace and work on creating a new democratic and stable Middle East.

Israel knows that the success of the Egyptian Revolution has denied it a strategic asset in the region for Tel Aviv, and overturned a regional dynamic that Israel had often relied on. This formula relied on authoritarian regimes in Arab states, especially neighbouring countries, which oppress their people and reached an understanding with Israel and the US that read: “We know our people better; they are hostile towards you and hate you, and are incapable of democracy. Let us rule them as we please and we will carry out all your regional and international commands.”

But this formula collapsed with the success of the Egyptian Revolution and Israel until today is pondering a new formula, or waiting for the features of the new Egyptian regime to become apparent. After that it will formulate its policies towards the region and a political settlement. In summary, the departure of Mubarak’s regime represents a huge loss for Israel, which must now construct a new and alternative policy in an environment that filled with the unknown.

The writer is an analyst at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

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