Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority claims that Iran has scrapped plans to send two warships through the Suez, but Tehran denies it and says those vessels are still on their way. Whether those ships make it to the Suez or not isn’t important right now, because it’s only a test, and not just for Egypt’s military regime. The Iranians are also probing the Egyptian population to see where it stands on resistance—the ships were headed to Syria, another pillar of the resistance bloc lined up against Israel—for in the end the Iranians are testing Cairo’s peace treaty with Jerusalem.
Regardless of how Egypt turns out after the scheduled September elections, or five, ten years down the road, for the present the Iranians have some reason to gloat. They’ve been targeting Egypt since 1979, hoping in part to export the Islamic revolution to the largest Sunni state in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, but are generally content to destabilize it. Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Islambouli, has a street named after him in Tehran. For better or worse, Mubarak was an American asset and with him off the board the Iranians believe they are one step closer to undermining Washington’s position in the region—and since that position is anchored to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, you can be certain that the Iranians will keep pushing on it. The Egyptian army has no obvious interest in abrogating the treaty, but in the end that is only one factor among others.
While it is true that the demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s ouster tended to focus more on domestic concerns than his relationship with the U.S. and Israel, the fact is that the corruption denounced by the protesters is in large part a product of the peace treaty. Egyptians know very well that corruption is an integral part of their society—wasta, or connections, is an enduring political institution that will survive even the Pyramids. However, wasta is a fungible commodity—sometimes you have it and sometimes others have more, and there is no necessary reason why it should flow from one source rather than another. The peace treaty created a business and political elite by empowering one group of Egyptians at the expense of others, which is why if you were an Egyptian marching against Mubarak you’d have problems with the treaty, regardless of how you felt about Israel or the U.S.
Maybe it wasn’t entirely our responsibility to make sure that the $2 billion aid package to Cairo ($1.3 billion in military assistance) was spent more wisely, but there’s no escaping the fact that we enabled much of the corruption that sent millions of Egyptians to the streets over the last several weeks. U.S. aid was the cornerstone of Mubarakism. And there were many more entitlements in play than just the direct aid that filled the pockets of Mubarak cronies and colleagues.
Consider Hussein Salem, who owns the palace in Sharm el-Sheikh where Mubarak is reportedly staying. Salem’s company, according to the Jerusalem Post, “helped Mubarak carry out arms deals, utilize US aid to Egypt and export gas to Israel.”
That is to say, Mubarakism also consisted of the secondary effects, business deals that the treaty made possible, like Sinai gas and the manufacturing industries that were a part of the Qualifying Industrial Zone agreement that gave Egyptian ventures duty-free access to the U.S. market if a certain amount of the product came from Israel.
Even more numerous are the tertiary effects, or the concessions and monopolies—in hospitality, real estate, textiles, car factories, etc.—that went to the military and Mubarak associates. Finally, there was Gamal and his friends, technocrats who got rich thanks to their very powerful wasta—and at this point even the army, the richest and therefore most corrupt institution in all of Egypt, finally had to intervene.
Going forward, the army is not looking to impoverish itself by breaking the treaty but no one running Egypt can ignore that Mubarakism is entirely a product of the Camp David accords. What the Iranians want to know is how much of a consensus they can find inside Egypt against the treaty. Obviously the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are opposed to the treaty, but it came as a surprise to many when Ayman Nour, former presidential candidate, head of the Ghad party and poster boy of Egyptian liberalism, also came down against the treaty. The consensus is wide because even though there is lots of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment in the streets of Egypt, the most relevant issue right now is anti-Mubarakism. The treaty is vulnerable not because the Egyptian military wants to fight Israel, but because it doesn’t want to fight its own people.
Despite all the anti-Zionist invective and threats to toss the Jews into the sea that have been issued from Cairo, even during the tenure of the treaty, it’s not clear that Egyptian leadership has ever been very confident in its ability to defeat Israel. King Farouk wanted to stay out of the 1948 war, but as Michael Doran explains in his book, Pan-Arabism Before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question, there were domestic and regional dynamics that forced his hand. On the home front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s pro-Palestine stance was driving a wedge between the throne and the population. Externally, Farouq was worried that his Arab rivals—Syria but especially King Abdullah of Transjordan—might actually defeat the nascent Jewish state and in carving up the spoils strengthen themselves at his expense.
In 1967, Israel was clearly correct in its assessment that Nasser was clamoring for war, but according to some sources, like Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez’s Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, it appears that the Soviets forced his hand, while many of his frontline troops were fighting in Yemen. Egyptians may celebrate their victory in the 1973 October war, but Sadat’s strategy was based not on winning the war, but on securing what he believed he could present to the Egyptian people as a victory before signing a treaty and jumping from the Soviet side to the American one. In other words, whether or not the ruler of Egypt really wants to make war on Israel is almost beside the point.
The regional dynamics are different now than they were during the last full-scale Arab-Israeli war almost 40 years ago, but hardly less dangerous. Egypt’s intra-Arab competition is limited to Iranian allies, Syria and Qatar, or rather the Qatari emir’s most valuable strategic asset, Al Jazeera. The real rivalry is between non-Arab states, Iran and Turkey.
In the wake of Mubarak’s downfall, there’s been speculation that the new Egypt might come to look like Erdogan’s Turkey, much less friendly to Israel, but not at war either. That may be the case, and it is surely better than Egypt coming to resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it is worth remembering that Egyptian political modernity is essentially a rejection of several hundred years of Turkish domination. Arab nationalism promoted an identity separate from the Ottoman Empire; and Salafism grew out of dissatisfaction with how the Turks had let the caliphate wither and the belief that it needed to go back to the Arabs for the umma to flourish. Egypt is as likely to challenge Turkey as it is to emulate it.
The issue then is not the bilateral Arab-Israeli conflict that Cairo opted out of with the peace treaty; rather, it is a potential three-player system, with Turkey, Iran and an Egypt that may be reluctant to compete, even as it is compelled to do so, because of domestic as well as regional dynamics. Washington bought itself four decades of relative quiet in the Eastern Mediterranean, but no peace treaty is ever absolute. And the one that has clinched the American position in the region is starting to look more vulnerable than ever.