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The Trouble With Democracy: A New Egypt-Israel Reality Begins to Emerge

June 6, 2011

The Rafah crossing at the Egypt/Palestine border. Photo from c/o IMAMC

In opening the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Gaza, the Egyptian ruling military council is ending one of the key issues that symbolized the disaffection between President Mubarak and the people he ruled. The decision to permanently open the Rafah crossing and facilitate the movement of the Palestinians across it apparently annul visa requirements for Palestinians of all ages, making it possible for Palestinian students to study in Egyptian universities and for the ill and injured to receive treatment

While nothing like an abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel, which was predicted by both Glenn Beck and Donald Trump (and which the military council has publicly said it would not do), it is a reminder that a democratic Egypt–an Egypt more sensitive to public opinion and national interests–will be a very different kind of partner in the Middle East for both Israel and the U.S.

And the context in which the decision was taken seems chosen to underscore this message.

Egypt had just helped broker a reconciliation between Abbas and Hamas, which raised concerns both in Israel and Washington, alarming AIPAC enough to raise the issue during its meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington last month.

Moreover, Egypt gave authorization to Iran to move warships through the Suez Canal, in spite of pressure from the U.S. to restrict Iran’s use of the canal to merchant vessels only.

In addition, Egypt stopped the gas pipeline to Israel for six weeks after a series of explosions targeting the pipeline. Gas flows resumed June 10, but many in Egypt want the new government to renegotiate Israel’s contract to reflect actual market price. Some Egyptians claim that the Mubarak regime sold the gas for well below the market price, costing Egypt millions of dollars a day.

Finally, the opening of Rafah occurred shortly after Egyptian diplomat Nabil al-Arabi  was appointed as the new head of the Arab League. Al-Arabi is hardly anti-Israel in the most extreme sense–he was an adviser in the original Camp David Accords that led to Egypt’s recognition of Israel–but he criticized the Mubarak regime for not basing foreign policy son Egypt’s interests, and argued that Egypt needed to hold “Israel accountable when it does not respect its obligations,” according to the New York Times.

While a lot can be gained through lobbying, and offers to put development funds into pet projects, in the end elected representatives have to be at least sensitive enough to their constituencies to get re-elected. The opening of Rafah and the thawing of Egyptian-Iranian relations send an important message that if democracy persists in Egypt, the U.S. and Israel are going to have to be a lot more sensitive to Egyptian public opinion.

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