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The Future of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty

5:12 PM, Feb 17, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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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. 

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