Given the size of its territory and population and the educational standards of its people, Egypt could be a power to reckon with and could, if it chose, play an effective and beneficial role in African, Arab and Muslim affairs. Instead, its government has chosen to serve the US’s interests, including the survival of Israel, the drastic limitation of Palestinian ambitions and the suppression of Islamic revivalism. This decision stems from the mistaken view that a firm alliance with Washington can entrench president Husni Mubarak in power and enable him to pass it on to his sons. To pursue this policy, Egypt has played down its weight in African and Islamic affairs, posing instead as an ‘Arab superpower’. To do so, it has even refused to helpSudan, its southern neighbour and fellow-member of the Arab League, to resist Western-backed non-Muslim secessionist groups that can – if allowed to establish separate states – inflict great damage on Egypt’s own water resources by tampering with the Nile, Egypt’s famous lifeline.
Mubarak used to try to keep his links with Israel very discreet, and claimed that his alliance with Washington was designed to serve Palestinian and Arab interests, while secretly putting pressure on Palestinian and Arab leaders to ‘moderate’ their aspirations and disown Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But now that recent events in the Middle East have made Arab leaders less secure, Mubarak has thrown caution to the winds, even publicly signing trade agreements with Israel and backing the US-led war on Islam. The government-controlled media (al-Ahram daily, for instance) continue to dish out the old argument that the US, as the only world superpower and Israel’s closest friend, is the only country that can force Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and that such a peace is the only guarantee for ending ‘terrorism’ in the region.
But despite this claim and the claim that the alliance between Egypt and the US is between equals, the trade-pact Cairo signed with Israel and the US on December 14 brings nothing but shame on a leading Muslim country and shows Mubarak and his regime as Uncle Sam’s errand-boys. The three-way trade-deal will enable Egypt to export some goods free of duty to theUS. Nor surprisingly, it has been hailed as the most important agreement to be reached by Israel and Egypt since they signed their peace agreement 25 years ago. There are even reports that Cairo may send an ambassador to Tel Aviv, and that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, Mubarak and the new Palestinian leader (after the elections later this month) may meet.
The Israelis are in no doubt that the agreement is beneficial to their country economically, politically and diplomatically. According to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli minister of trade and industry, the pact is “good business for all of us, and it will also be one more important ingredient to change the atmosphere in the Middle East”. The pact will enable Israeli firms to benefit from the low cost of labour in Egypt, making their products more competitive. Olmert estimates that the pact can increase Israel’s exports by $150 million a year. He also hopes that contacts between Egyptians and Israelis will multiply as a result of increased travel to Israel by Egyptians looking for business partners. Olmert’s optimism is well-founded because the goods Egypt will send to the US under the agreement will use Israeli input and will enable Israel to break out of its trade isolation.
The conclusion of a trade-agreement with Israel, however, is not the only outrage committed by Mubarak, as he has also begun unconcealed exchanges by telephone with Ariel Sharon as a prelude to a ‘security cooperation’ between the two countries’ intelligence organisations. It was Sharon who initiated the contacts, offering assistance to discover who was responsible for the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sinai: an ‘act of terrorism’, as he claimed and Mubarak agreed, that constituted a serious threat to both neighbours. The resulting cooperation in the ‘war on terrorism’ outraged many Egyptians and Palestinians at the time, but the outrage failed to dissuade Mubarak from joining Sharon in pursuing Islamic groups. It is true that Cairo has secretly shared intelligence information with Tel Aviv and has been an active supporter of the US-led ‘war on terrorism’, but joining Sharon so openly in tracking down Islamic and other resistance groups is new and indicates Mubarak’s desperation.
Nor is that all. Mubarak’s recent visit to the Gulf states and his strong pressure on them to open talks with Israel and establish diplomatic relations was widely reported at the time – enraging Egyptian public opinion, as did his other transgressions. Public anger surfaced dramatically on December 15, when about a thousand people demonstrated publicly in Cairo, calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule and to attempts to groom his son, Jamal, to succeed him. Jamal is already an influential member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
The main significance of the demonstration, arranged by the newly created Movement for Reform, lies in the fact that it was attended by representatives and members of most Egyptian opposition groups, including Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This clearly shows that Mubarak’s attempts in the past, largely successful, to divide secular and Islamic groups and individuals who are opposed to his regime, are now failing. The fact that about a thousand people were able to gather in public, shouting and carrying stickers reading “No to another term for Mubarak” and “No to his son succeeding him”, demonstrates how mistaken he is to believe that the US can maintain him in power with any assurance, or help his son to succeed him. He is known to be planning to stay in power for another five years after his current term ends this month, and new presidential elections are held. It is no secret, either, that he is paving the way for Jamal to succeed him after he himself has ruled for thirty years.
The president, who is already 76 years old and ailing, is ill-advised to seek another term. But he must believe that Jamal is not yet ready to succeed him, and that he needs time to make the necessary arrangements. He must, however, realise that his links with the US and Israel are guaranteed to defeat his plans, and that the Egyptian people would prefer to try to thwart any renewal of his term or Jamal’s succession: the best course for him and his family must be to quit now, while there is time.