Tense calm prevailed in Egypt on Tuesday. The new military-led government laid out a timetable for returning to some semblance of civilian democracy in about six months.
The government also appeared to have come up with a broadly acceptable, technocratic, interim prime minister in Hazem el-Biblawi, an economist and former finance minister.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also reportedly planning to funnel billions of dollars in aid and loans to Egypt, which has been on the brink of economic disaster. During the one-year rule of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis withheld funds because of their hatred and fear of the Brotherhood.
The previous day, Monday, was of course much less quiet as government forces killed 51 Muslim Brotherhood protesters—or according to other versions, violent rioters. But the other major news on Monday was that—notwithstanding such disruptions—the Obama administration had decided to keep financially aiding Egypt despite calls by some to suspend aid over last week’s alleged “military coup.”
In other words, the developments for General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s interim military-led government look favorable at the moment with aid coming both from Washington and the Gulf.
From a Western standpoint, is aiding al-Sisi’s government the rational course?
According to reports in the Israeli press on Tuesday, Jerusalem fervently believes the answer is yes and may even have played a role in convincing Washington to back al-Sisi.
Haaretz cited a “senior American official” who said that last week Israel urged the U.S. “not to respond to Egypt’s coup by halting the $1.3 billion in aid America gives the Egyptian army every year.”
The official said Jerusalem and Washington held “marathon phone calls” about the coup over the weekend—and that specifically “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon spoke with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror spoke with his White House counterpart, Susan Rice.”
The Israeli officials, for their part, warned that cutting the military aid to Egypt could harm Israel’s security and further destabilize the area. Israel—relaxing the terms of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt—has been allowing Egyptian forces to fight Salafist and other ultra-radical terror groups in the Sinai for which even Morsi’s Islamist regime was too “moderate.”
According to the Haaretz report, Israel fears that stopping U.S. aid to Cairo could weaken the Egyptian army’s commitment to the treaty.
The Jerusalem Post, for its part, cited a “senior Israeli official” who told Israel Radio that the “Israeli government expects US President Barack Obama to avoid pursuing the same ‘naïve’ policies in its dealings with the post-Mohamed Morsi Egypt as he did in his handling of the crisis that brought down Hosni Mubarak.”
The official also said al-Sisi “was hopeful the Obama administration wouldn’t ‘nitpick’ over whether a military coup was carried out.”
Another way of saying all this is that Jerusalem hopes to bring Washington closer to its own understanding of the region as one that typically requires choices between lesser evils, and does not justify expectations of quick, grand transitions to democracy.
For Israel, the peace treaty with Egypt has always entailed a calculated risk where the U.S. constantly strengthens Egypt militarily while—ideally—exerting enough leverage to keep it faithful to the treaty.
At present, with Sinai part of sovereign Egyptian territory, Israel hopes to avoid creating severe, possibly calamitous friction with Egypt by operating against the Sinai-based terror gangs—which threaten both Israel and Egypt—itself. The only other alternative, and lesser evil, is to let the Egyptian military try and contend with them.
A report Tuesday evening that al-Sisi’s government had arrested 650 pro-Morsi protesters allegedly involved in Monday’s violent incident, with the Brotherhood calling for nationwide protests, indicates how volatile the situation still is.
It is not that Egypt abounds in genuinely moderate, democracy-friendly elements. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is a highly ideological, virulently anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Western, totalitarian movement whose defeat is a prerequisite for there to be any hope at all.
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