Mubarak’s departure caused much speculation pertaining to the future of Egypt’s bilateral relations with Israel and stability in the region in general. Prior to Egypt’s revolution, world democracies considered the Mubarak regime to be a protector of peace and an important actor in maintaining regional stability, thus justifying their support for his government. However, after almost three decades of rule, it seems the Egyptian people could not tolerate Mubarak’s corrupt regime any longer. The extent of the corruption, revealed after the regime’s departure1, made it difficult for Egyptians to understand the stance of the world democracies in the early days of the upraising. It was difficult for them to choose between the people’s demand for democracy and the continuity of autocracy and despotism.
Egypt was governed as an artificial state and the regime maintained power only through brute force. Peace and stability cannot be maintained through despotism. Neither can despotism continue forever. Democracy; freedom and justice should be considered as tools that might work to enhance stability and peace in the Middle East. In the words of a popular presidential candidate, ‘any regime that comes to govern Egypt will not come to launch a war but to enjoy the outcome of the revolution and to launch a war on poverty, corruption and injustice’2.
Ousting Mubarak was the first of the people’s major demands, a development which left Egypt in the hands of the army. This provoked questions about the future of Egypt. Could the army bring about the implementation of true democracy and the rule of law? Can the army be trusted to transfer power to a civil government? These and other legitimate questions have been asked and widely discussed.
In all its post-Mubarak communiqués the army affirmed its commitment to transfer power to a democratically elected civil government. In the words of the spokesman for the army, ‘The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces aspires to guaranteeing a peaceful transition of authority within a free and democratic system that allows for the assumption of authority by a civilian and elected authority to govern the country and build a democratic and free state’3. The military, as emphasised by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is working according to a schedule set for the transfer of power and is ‘trying to achieve many of the important tasks at one time’.4
Having successfully navigated its way through this delicate period thus far, the army must have an understandable degree of public trust. Now there is a roadmap to a truly representative government, with elections for the two houses of parliament scheduled for November 2011. October 12, 2011 marked the beginning of campaigns for the parliamentary election. A new constitution is to be drafted, and a referendum on the constitution and presidential elections is to take place in early 2012. The elections will involve varying parties with varying interests and ideologies. Whatever the outcome, it will be one derived from the ballot box and must therefore be respected.
In terms of the Middle East, the revolution has restored Egypt to its regional and global position in a model that has never happened before. The change in Egypt is filled with a lot of meaning for, not only Egypt itself, but also for the region in general. The explosive demonstrations that are calling for regime change in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia might illustrate this point. The peoples of the region saw Egypt’s revolution as a model that might bring an end to what they have considered dictatorial and oppressive regimes5.
After 8 months of war, the armed Libyan revolutionaries have successfully brought the curtain down on the era of Gaddafi and his regime to begin a new era in Libya. The National Transitional Council of Libya announced on October 20, 2011, the end of the legendary tyrant Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, which continued for 42 years. The success in Libya breathed new life into the Arab Spring and brought to it new momentum. In each Arab country, the protestors are vowing that the regime in their country will be the next.
The Arab uprising has been largely aimed at internal reform toward true democracy. This has also affected the major regional and international actors. All political actors in the region are adjusting their policies based on the reality on the ground. However, so far there has been no major shift in the balance of power or the basic pattern of regional relations.
As for Egypt’s bilateral relation with the U.S., one should note, undoubtedly, that the U.S. is one of the major and important actors in the Middle East. It played a leading role in the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Egypt and the U.S. always sought ways to strengthen their strategic relationship. In the words of Egypt’s Foreign Minister Muhammad Amr, Egypt’s ties with the U.S., ‘are not limited to one era or one regime; this is a strategic relationship that benefits both sides actually, not one side. I think both parties are very much interested in not only maintaining their relationship but also strengthening it in the future’6.
Certainly, both Egypt and the U.S. have gained extensive benefits from their political alliance. In the context of the war on terror, however, the U.S. turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s abuse of power. The combination of ‘restrictive laws, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests made it extremely difficult for citizens to choose freely the people they want to represent them in parliament. Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely unlikely’7.
Stressing the role of the U.S. in the Middle East, in 2009, President Obama gave a powerful speech in Cairo entitled “A New Beginning”. He reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to ‘governments that reflect the will of the people’ through transparency and accountability. In the name of stability, these words were not acted upon, as the U.S. maintained the status-quo of policies that do not benefit the people, but rather the financial and political elite. This also stirred discontent, providing the fuel for the revolution that has now introduced a new reality and made it difficult for the old world order to continue in the region. The people want their country’s decisions to be independent. The U.S. also responded positively, revised its policies and made its relations to be not only with the government but also with the people.
Compared to the Mubarak regime, the future foreign policies of Egypt will be more free and independent while remaining allied with the United States and the West. The new Egypt’s bilateral relations with the United States ‘will be closer than ever.’8
Focussing on Egypt’s bilateral relations with Israel, one should note that the two countries signed a peace treaty on March 26, 1979. This treaty was the direct outcome of Camp David Accord which was also signed by Egypt and Israel on September 17, 1978. This means that these two agreements were and still are, strategically interrelated and politically communicated. The Camp David Accord is, in fact, the framework and road-map to peace in the Middle East, including peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Thus, the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is really a historic landmark in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Accordingly, Egypt and Israel have evidently enjoyed good relationships in the past three decades of peace. Despite the political transition in Egypt, this peace between the two nations will continue. Instituting real democracy in Egypt will strengthen the peace commitments, not weaken them. All signs indicate that the bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel will continue and the peace treaty will remain in place. Both the military leadership and the presidential candidates have voiced support for the peace agreement.
Egypt’s interim leader who also heads the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the military’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, reaffirmed what they repeatedly said that Egypt will still honour all international treaties and commitments: ‘Egypt intends to keep all previously signed agreements and will keep working toward achieving a stable and sustainable peace in the Middle East’9.
It is true that there are those in Egypt who hope to see the peace treaty with Israel abrogated. There are also others who hope to see the conditions over the agreement renegotiated. In either case, these views do not reject peace as such and should be considered within a wider context of hopeful peace in the Middle East. These views are motivated mainly by Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, as also noted by Nabil al-Arabi who became Egypt’s foreign minister after Mubarak’s ousting. Al-Arabi (now, Secretary General of the Arab League), reaffirmed that ‘Egypt is going to comply with every agreement and abide by every treaty it has entered into’. ‘Egypt was the first Arab country that established diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1979, but Israel remains deeply unpopular with some Egyptians because of its policies towards Palestinians’. As one that helped negotiate the Camp David Peace Accords, al-Arabi noted that the negotiations were difficult in the beginning: ‘but once it was done and everything was signed, both sides abide and comply faithfully’10.
Egypt’s current foreign minister Muhammad Amr emphasised that the peace treaty with Israel was Egypt’s ‘Landmark’ and that the treaty will always be respected. He indicated that the relations with Israel are governed by the United States who brokered the peace agreement and that Egypt honoured all its treaty commitments as long as the other party did the same ‘in letter and spirit’.11
Similarly, the Israeli government is not worried about the relationship between Israel and Egypt and does not consider the peace treaty with Egypt to be under any risk. The Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak emphasised that he is not concerned the relationship between the two nations will ‘fray’: ‘I don’t think the relationship between Israel and Egypt is under any risk or that there is any kind of operational risk awaiting us. Egypt is a country of institutions, and has always made it a point to honor its legal commitments’.12
Referring to Egypt’s legal commitments, Samih Shukri, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, said: ‘this is a legal commitment that’s undertaken, one which one could expect, and rightfully so, that it would be upheld. The peace treaty has benefited Egypt, has benefited the region in terms of creating stability and peace and giving an opportunity for Egypt to concentrate on its development. ... It has been in the best interests of the Egyptian people’.13
Muhammad Bassiouni a former General who served as Egypt’s ambassador to Israel for over thirteen years (from 1988-2001), referred to the peace treaty as strategically important and different from any other bilateral ties because of a number of reasons of which Egypt’s security and national interest, Egypt’s economy and relationship with the United States and the West are only a few to mention. In his interview with the London based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (April 2011), Bassiouni stressed Egypt’s bilateral relations with Israel as important for the general peace in the Middle East and for the many difficult issues that remain outstanding in the region. He acknowledged that Egypt’s peace with Israel ‘not only returned Sinai Peninsula from Israel, but also cut Egypt’s military spending, increased foreign investment and enhanced the country’s ties with the West’. Certainly the peace treaty has ‘brought untold benefits to both Egyptians and Israelis and must under no circumstances be annulled’.14
As a matter of fact, the treaty has achieved momentous gains for both countries and brought an end to the conflict between the two nations. The liberation of Egyptian land is the outcome of peace. Following Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai Peninsula, Egypt recovered all oil fields, and the navigation in Suez Canal was regularised. While the peace treaty allowed Egypt and Israel to reduce their military budget, it has also increased foreign investments in Egypt, on the one hand, and between Egypt and Israel on the other hand. Trade relations between the two countries have developed in varying spheres of which machinery, textiles; vegetables, cotton and chemicals are a few. Between 1994 and 2000, Israel’s exports to Egypt were valued at $181 million, while Egyptian exports to Israel reached a total of $1.606 billion, for the same period. The level of trade between nations generally fluctuates, however, trade between Egypt and Israel has grown by 144% between the years 2004-2005. In addition to the current gas contract, tourism, and the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) protocol, the benefit of peace affirm its strength and no government of Egypt would abolish the peace treaty with Israel.
As for those who support the treaty’s abrogation, one might note that there is nothing after peace but war, and nothing after war but peace. Thus, it is entirely irrational to disrupt what you have already accomplished in peace. This perhaps might illustrate the maxim that President Sadat constantly repeated: ‘Peace is much more precious than a piece of land... let there be no more wars’.15
(1) Rida Hubayshi and Ali Hassan, “Ahmad Ezz in his First Appearance after the Collapse of the Regime”. Al-Youm al-Sabi‘, February 14 (2011).
(2) Sha‘ban Abd al-Sattar, “Hamdeen Sabahi Li al-Sharq al-Awsat: No Political Organization is able to Achieve Majority to Rule over Egypt Individually”. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 16 (2011), No 11768.
(3) Dalia Othman and Wafa Bakri, “The Army confirmed its respect for Democracy and the inauguration of an elected civilian government, ” al-Masry al-Youm, February 13 (2011).
(4) Al-Masri al-Youm, “The military council is proceeding according to the schedule for the transfer of power … We strongly support it”, al-Masri al-Youm, October 16 (2011).
(5) The Economist. “Egypt’s Revolution: Staggering in the Right Direction: Ex-President Hosni Mubarak and his Sons are detained”. The Economist, April 14 (2011).
(6) The Huffington Post. Com, Inc. “Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty Will Be Respected, Says Egypt's Foreign Minister In AP Interview.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/26/egypt-israel-peace-treaty_n_982... (accessed 12 October, 2011)
(7) Kaitlin Travers, “Egypt’s Revolution & the Impact on U.S. Middle East Policy”, Nextgen Journal, February 9 (2011).
(8) The Washington Post, “Egyptian Foreign Minister Optimistic about Ties with US”, The Washington Post, May 8 (2011).
(9) Jack Khury, “Egypt military leader: We will respect all previously signed agreements”, Haarets.com, October 19 (2011), http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/egypt-military-leader-we-will-re...
(10) The Washington Post, “Egyptian Foreign Minister Optimistic about Ties with US”, The Washington Post, May 8 (2011).
(11) The Huffington Post. Com, Inc. “Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty Will Be Respected, Says Egypt's Foreign Minister In AP Interview.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/26/egypt-israel-peace-treaty_n_982... (accessed 12 October, 2011).
(12) The CNN Wire Staff, ‘Israeli defense minister: Relations between Israel, Egypt not at risk’, The CNN Wire Staff (February 13, 2011) http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/02/13/egypt.israel/ (accessed 15 October, 2011)
(13) The CNN Wire Staff (February 13, 2011), ‘Israeli defense minister: Relations between Israel, Egypt not at risk’, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/02/13/egypt.israel/ (accessed 15 October, 2011)
(14) Oren Keessler, “Egypt ex-envoy: Don’t cancel peace treaty with Israel”, The Jerusalem Post (April 28, 2011), http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=218265&R=R3 (accessed 15 October, 2011)
(15) Time Magazine, ‘Middle East: Sadat: The Hour of Decision”, Time Magazine, December 5 (1977)
Dr. Sayed Khatab is a Senior Research Fellow in politics with special focus on Middle East, and Islamic political thought and movements in the modern world.He works in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University as a Senior Research Fellow.