By George S. Hishmeh
The surprising but determined refusal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in office for nearly 30 years, to step down immediately has probably stunned many world-wide and especially the hundreds of thousands of his ever-increasing opponents who have been demonstrating for days against his regime in Egypt’s main cities.
Equally alarming were Mubarak’s brief televised remarks, broadcast late at night, that he would not seek re-election but promising an orderly transition before his term expires in September. Again, the Egyptian leader declared emphatically that he would never leave Egypt but would “die on its soil.”
All this raised concerns locally and internationally that Mubarak’s belated concession may touch off a bloodbath in the country since his opponents in Egypt and in the Arab world are equally determined to kick out the former army general who took over the presidency after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat.
What has been intriguing here has been the intimate relationship between the U.S. and its all-important Egyptian ally and his ties with Israel. Indeed, President Barack Obama had to walk a thin line ever since the historic Egyptian uprising and some shocking statements by his vice president, Joe Biden, who refused to describe Mubarak as a dictator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was, for example, criticized in a Washington Post editorial for making “foolish” statements in defense of the Mubarak regime.
In his statement after Mubarak announced last Tuesday his intention not to run for re-election, the American president appropriately lauded “the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt (which) has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.”
But then Obama added an ambiguous sentence that is bound to have several different interpretations when he said it “is my belief that an orderly transition (in Egypt) must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now (italic added).”
Whether this meant that the American leader expected more from Mubarak in the next few weeks, probably, an early step down, or was this his tepid endorsement meant that the Egyptian leader can stay in office till the end of his term in September remains to be seen. The latter probability is a position that is bound to rankle the Egyptian people and others in the region.
The virtual ouster of Mubarak, triggered by the recent Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, has also troubled Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign in 1979 a peace treaty with Israel and remains a firm protector of the Egyptian-Israeli border especially between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Moreover, Israel has privately been urging several western governments, especially the United States, to curtail their criticism of the Mubarak regime in the hope of maintaining stability in the Middle East. Israeli diplomats in key western countries as well as China and Russia have reportedly been instructed to maintain a low profile about the turbulence in Egypt.
But Israel’s fear of an emerging hostile Egyptian government, reported the Telegraph of London, may “force Israel into a major adjustment of its military strategy.” The paper pointed out that “since the two states have signed a peace treaty Egypt has received billions of dollars in military aid from the United States, making its army a much trickier battlefield prospect.” The London paper overlooked the fact that Israel receives at least 50 percent more U.S. military aid than Egypt does.
Yet Israel has recently allowed Egypt for the first time since the countries signed their peace treaty to deploy two battalions in the Sinai Peninsula. The Israeli are said to be especially worried that “Palestinian militants take advantage of the (Egyptian) unrest to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border.”
While Israel continues trying to endear itself to the U.S. and Egypt, a newly elected Republican senator and Tea Party representative, Rand Paul, has astonishingly suggested that the U.S. should stop all foreign aid including financial assistance to Israel totaling $3 billion a year. This prompted several pro-Israeli Congressmen and organizations, and surprisingly the so-called J Street, described as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, to severely criticize the Congressman.
In reply Rep. Paul said that a recent Reuters poll found that 71 percent of Americans “agree with me that when we’re short of money … we certainly shouldn’t be shipping the money overseas” and wondered why, “are we funding an arms race on both sides?”
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at: [email protected]