By David Faris
Temperatures may be falling across the Middle East as the long, hot summer finally recedes into fall, but the political heat is rising. Arab publics are using their newfound freedoms to express their displeasure with the regional status quo, nowhere more spectacularly than in Egypt, where protestors stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo on September 9.
With Egyptian elections looming on November 21, policymakers have been focused on the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood without seeing or understanding the broader shift that has taken place in the Arab world. Many are clearly still reading Egyptian politics through the prism of Camp David and the waning regional pre-eminence of Israeli power.
For years, American policy towards Egypt was guided by one word: stability. Washington’s interest in preserving the cold peace between Israel and Egypt led successive administrations to look the other way while the regime of Hosni Mubarak brutally suppressed civil and political rights at home.
America brokered the cold peace between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1978 with the expectation that this separate peace would be followed by a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians within five years. When those five years turned into 20 and now 33, it put Egypt’s authoritarian rulers in the untenable position of enforcing a peace deal that the public read as selling out the Palestinians.
The regional cold peace also necessitated infringements of the sovereignty of neighboring states, none more so than Egypt, which was restricted from stationing troops in parts of its own territory in the Sinai peninsula. In addition to turning Sinai into an internal security nightmare for the government, these fetters on Egyptian sovereignty never sat well with the general public, which was nevertheless prevented from expressing its displeasure in free media or open elections.
With the Mubaraks toppled from power by a popular revolution, a revival of Egyptian national pride has led the public to question not just the Sinai compromise, but the entire shaky edifice of the cold peace. Contrary to those who want to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for everything, dissatisfaction with the foreign policy status quo is actually an Egyptian national consensus that unites the country’s disparate ideological camps.
The truth is that this status quo suited both the Americans and the Israelis quite well. The Americans were eager consumers of Mubarak’s package deal — “It’s me and my henchmen or the crazy Islamists. You choose.” American investors were also happy to see Egypt turned into a stable playground for global capital. The Israelis, freed of the military threat from the Arab world’s largest power, mostly pursued settlements and expansion rather than peace.
It should be clear to leaders in Tel Aviv and Washington that this corrupt bargain is unsustainable. If Israel wants peace with its neighbors, it will now have to earn it just like other states, with painful compromise. And there is no sign that Israel’s increasingly insular right-wing coalition government has any such plans.
The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by demonstrators should not be interpreted by American and Israeli elites as a sign that Egypt’s transitional military rulers should crack down on anti-Israeli dissent. Rising frustration with Israel should rather be seen as proof that Camp David — negotiated by unelected and long-dead Egyptian leaders — can no longer serve as the pillar of Israeli security strategy or American regional interests. The SCAF may be carrying out arrests of those responsible for the embassy fiasco, but in the long run the Egyptian government will not be able to hold back the tide of its people’s frustration.
Egyptians will go to the polls in November to elect the first truly free government in the country’s history. This is a moment of extraordinary importance for both Egypt and the broader Arab world, which has been forever changed by the popular uprisings that started in Tunisia and spread throughout the region. It is important for the United States to understand and properly respond to the foreign policy consensus likely to be expressed in those elections.
The Egyptian public does not want a war with the mighty Israeli military machine any more than it wants chaos in the streets of Cairo. What the Egyptians want is first, to have no further part in serving as a warden of the open-air Palestinian prison of the Gaza Strip, and second, to achieve a full restoration of the unfettered external sovereignty enjoyed continuously and without question by the Israelis.
No democratically elected Egyptian government which remains responsive to the needs and desires of its people can possibly back the regional status quo embodied by the cold peace. The Arab uprisings have ushered Western-backed autocrats off the world stage, and now present Israel with a nascent arc of confrontational Arab and Muslim democracies from Tunisia to Turkey.
For decades it was the Palestinians who were isolated by bargains between Israel and the corrupt authoritarian status quo. Instead of leveraging this privileged position to achieve a full peace with the Palestinians, the Israelis invested billions in the settlement project and walled themselves off from their neighbors. Now a resurgent Palestinian national movement may force a UN vote on statehood, while Arab publics will have the opportunity to vote for candidates who will promote Arab unity and seek a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egypt’s elections mean that the meter is now running on America’s stalled Middle East policy. The question is not who will come to power in Cairo, but whether Washington is willing to continue paying the fare on Israel’s taxi to nowhere.
David Faris is an American political commentator and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania for which he did extensive research in Cairo. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.