Israeli and American leaders are clearly nervous after Egypt’s election results as the state system lays in ruins
By RON KAMPEAS
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi is the declared winner of Egypt’s presidential race and his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, reportedly continues to lie near death in a coma — just like the legacy he tried to craft for himself and his country.
Mubarak, 84, once the entrenched leader of his land, was supposed to be leaving behind an Egypt preeminent in the region and at peace with its neighbors. The final moments of his public career, however, are now another dramatic episode of the so-called Arab Spring, which began in late 2010 when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest his country’s government.
Since then, popular uprisings have threatened or toppled Arab leaders once firmly in power not only in Egypt and Tunisia but also in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
For his part, Mubarak once wielded the type of power that ultimately did him in when early last year his country’s powerful military — whose air force he once commanded — sided with throngs of protestors across the nation, but particularly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mubarak subsequently was sentenced to prison for the deaths of hundreds of those protesters.
Despite new demonstrations in recent weeks — this time against the military — the grip of the armed forces on the country does not seem threatened for now. The Egyptian military has rewritten the country’s constitution and persuaded judges to strip much of the power of the presidency. The judges have dissolved the country’s parliament, which had a Muslim Brotherhood majority following last year’s elections.
During Mubarak’s reign from 1981 — just after Anwar Sadat’s assassination — until early last year, the Muslim Brotherhood was a target of the now-ailing leader’s security apparatus. But on Sunday, Egypt’s electoral commission said Morsi would be sworn in as the president, having bested Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and reportedly the favored candidate of the country’s powerful military.
Israel’s government reacted cautiously.
“Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects the results of the presidential elections,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. It added, “Israel looks forward to continuing cooperation with the Egyptian government on the basis of the peace treaty between the two countries, which is a joint interest of both peoples and contributes to regional stability.”
Israeli and American leaders are clearly nervous; the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders have said they would honor but reexamine the landmark 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
As Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote last week on the Foreign Policy Web site, “It is not just Mubarak that is on life support at this moment — Egypt’s creaky institutions and its nascent democracy are as well.”
Cook added, “Its politics are broken, its infrastructure in disrepair, its economy near collapse, its state education system in disarray, and its public health system nonexistent. If anything, this is the legacy of Hosni Mubarak: the evisceration of his beloved country.”
Prospects of Mubarak’s comeback were in any case worse than nil, but news of his deteriorating condition prompted renewed consideration of what the deposed president bequeathed Egypt.
Gabi Ashkenazi, the former chief of staff of the Israeli military, spoke last week at the Israeli Presidential Conference of Mubarak’s importance not just in upholding the peace treaty with Israel but in encouraging other Arabs to do the same.
“When Arafat was slow to sign the Oslo Accords, Mubarak was the one who forced him to the table to sign — even using undiplomatic language,” Ashkenazi recalled, referring to Oslo II, signed in September 1995 in Egypt.
Mubarak, in a televised ceremony, literally nudged then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the table as a bemused Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, looked on. Israelis present insisted that they heard Mubarak whisper to Arafat, “Sign, you dog.”
“Try to think of an Egyptian president today doing that,” Ashkenazi said.
It was a concern echoed across the ocean, where Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima party leader, inaugurated his first Washington visit in his new role as deputy prime minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently formed national unity government.
“Whatever happens, we will be facing a more radical regime,” Mofaz told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank ahead of a series of meetings with top U.S. officials. He called the need to preserve his country’s peace with Egypt the “highest Israeli goal.”
Joel Rubin, the director of government policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a body that promotes peace initiatives, said the very autocracy that spooked Arafat and others into heeding Mubarak ultimately turned on his enterprise.
“Mubarak’s legacy is that he created a state system that collapsed underneath him,” said Rubin, a former Senate staffer and State Department Egypt desk officer who has visited Egypt multiple times. “He certainly maintained peace with Israel — a cold peace, but he kept the border relatively calm and fought against extremist groups in the country. But he left a crushing legacy on the economy and political system. Stability under strongmen is never really stable.”
Mubarak spurred privatization reforms in the 1990s that helped grow Egypt’s economy, but they did not trickle down because he also tolerated — if not encouraged — the kleptocracy of the Egyptian elites, said David Schenker, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute and a former Pentagon Middle East official.
As a result, people have come to associate a free market economy with crony capitalism,” Schenker said.
“There is no longer respect or fear of Egypt,” he said. “Mubarak presided over this.”
Ultimately, the thieving weakened Egypt’s economy and undercut its regional influence. Whereas in the 1990s Mubarak could strong-arm Arafat into peace, in the 2000s he was barely able to get the Palestinian polity, split between Hamas Islamists and Palestinian Authority moderates, to heed his pleas for a unified front.
Additionally Mubarak, while working closely with the United States to advance strategy, promoted a “safety valve” of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism through the state-controlled media. The resulting resentments have exacerbated resentments among Egyptians of the West and suspicions of Israel.
These resentments also were the result of successive U.S. administrations that failed to make democratic reforms conditional on the billions of dollars that Egypt was receiving in defense assistance, much to the chagrin of lawmakers from both parties in Congress.