Conflict and Opportunity in Post-Mubarak Egypt
Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule in Egypt is nearing an end and though the denouement of events there is still unclear, the new polity is almost certainly to be shaped by the military institutions and popular sentiments. This is causing considerable dismay in Jerusalem and Washington. National security institutions tend to think in worst-case scenarios, but recent events in Egypt present opportunities for the long sought after solution to the Palestinian problem.
Public sentiments that erupted in Egypt, like those in Tunisia and Jordan and Yemen, are based on a large youth segment that sees only dismal opportunity in a country whose economy is sluggish, corrupt, and dominated by the regime and its coterie of supporters. This demographic bulge will not be easily mollified and its concerns and demands will shape the politics of the region for decades.
Not too far below the surface is anger over Mubarak’s acquiescence to Israel’s actions toward fellow Muslims. Israel, in the eyes of the Egyptian public, has brutalized the Palestinian people, expanded settlements ever deeper into the West Bank, and inflicted great casualties on the people of Gaza and Lebanon.
The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel – so highly prized in Israel and the US – has served not to further peace in the region but to give Israel a free hand in dealing with Muslims along its periphery. Once the matter of a new government is settled – a process that will take many months or more – attention will turn to the east.
Anger toward Israel is also plain in the Egyptian military. Owing to conscription, the military is not aloof from public sentiments. Indeed, the younger officers share the public hostility toward older elites, in and out of uniform. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have been placing adherents into the military for several decades now, where they are now reaching the higher ranks.
Generational dynamics are visible as well. Beneath the lofty heights of the general staff there is a brooding sentiment that sees political, military, and business leaders as an intertwined elite that has forsaken national interests in exchange for US subsidies and Israeli commerce.
The officer corps and general staff are infused with institutional myths based on wars with Israel. It was then that Egyptian forces performed quite well attacking across the Suez Canal and driving well into Sinai. Israeli forces were in retreat, their leaders in near panic, until US assistance broke the Egyptian air defense system, leaving Egyptian infantry and armor columns at the mercy of Israeli airpower.
The Egyptian military, though steeped in notions of power and defending the people, has had to sit by as Israel roughly imposed its will on Palestinians and Lebanese. Ongoing events may encourage them to reassert themselves on the world stage.
The Form of Conflict
Public anger directed toward Israel and a military pervaded by myths based on wars against Israel might seem to make another war inevitable. For all the emotion and momentum, however, an outright war along the lines of the ones in 1967 and 1973 is unlikely.
The new government in Cairo, military or Islamist or an amalgamation of both, will be charged with reforming the economy and providing opportunity for the energized young generation. War with Israel would end a considerable portion of the trade between the two nations and as well the large US subsidies that have come since the peace agreement of thirty years ago.
In any event, for all the US training and equipment, the Egyptian military – whether alone or in conjunction with Syria – is no match for the Israeli military. Though thwarted twice by Hizbullah guerrillas In Lebanon, the Israeli army remains a potent conventional force. It still enjoys advantages in cohesion, training, and technology.
Israel’s airstrike on Syria in 2007 ably demonstrated its ability to defeat air defense systems and the Stuxnet virus that damaged Iranian nuclear facilities last year will give pause to any military commander, who can never know if his command and control system will be operable. Further, few can doubt Israel’s willingness to use nuclear weapons should it face a crushing conventional defeat.
A more likely form of conflict will lie in providing limited material support to various groups in and out of Israel – Hamas in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank, and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Such pressure will force greater Israeli defense spending, reduce foreign investment in Israel, and raise the specter of widespread emigration – especially by educated, secular Israelis so vital to the military and economy. Another form of support for the Palestinians will lie in increasing the diplomatic pressure on Israel to find an answer to the Palestinian issue.
Limited material support and more forceful diplomatic pressure will confer prestige and legitimacy on the new government in Cairo. This will provide time to embark upon far-reaching economic policies that must offer opportunity for the expansive, restive youth segment – a program that farsighted Israeli figures might well see as in their interests as well.
A New Approach To Peace
In recent years, peace talks come and go with little if any progress. Israel continues to expand its settlements on the West Bank, moving closer to a de facto annexation. US efforts to stop the settlements and bring about meaningful talks have failed once more. Mubarak’s fall will bring about new forces that could well lead to meaningful peace talks.
Israel will soon face an ominous coalition along its periphery comprising a newly-strident Egypt, a Lebanon with Hizbullah on the rise in government, and Syria which has resisted efforts to divert it from its longstanding hostile stance. And of course Jordan could follow the Egyptian path in coming weeks.
Short of intermittent and possibly endless wars, there is only one way to counter this emerging coalition: settling the West Bank issue by forming a Palestinian state there.
Arab pressure on the periphery will also cause Israel to rethink its clandestine operations in Iran. In recent years Israel has supported insurgencies, bombings, and assassinations throughout Iran in order to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program and to stop its support of hostile actions by Hamas and Hizbullah. The former is probably unstoppable but the latter could readily be part of a regional peace agreement.
Israel will have to balance Iran against Arab powers, as it long did, or more likely, balance Arab forces against Iran, as it was attempting to do prior to the turn of events in Egypt. Otherwise, Israel will face a powerful Arab-Iranian coalition. Not even the vaunted Israeli military and intelligence service can take on so many foreign powers. Not even the once bottomless American military and fiscal assets will want to support that for an extended period.
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The passions and fissures of the region make a transformation into a harmonious land unlikely, but with the new disposition of post-Mubarak Egypt, a significant easing of regional problems is within reach. This will benefit the entire Middle East and prevent Israel from degenerating into a new apartheid state presiding over a growing underclass. It will also prevent the moral principles that many Israelis still pride themselves on from being further supplanted by the ruthless principles of national security.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org