When locked away at the Camp David resort back in 1978, United States officials from the Carter administration would often say: “Menachem Begin needs to consult his people, given that Israel is a democracy, before committing to any concession to the Egyptians.” That would immediately be followed by another phrase: “It shouldn’t be a problem for president [Anwar] Sadat; there is no public opinion that matters in Egypt — or anywhere else in the Arab world. Arab leaders can do as they please and get away with it without being questioned or scrutinised by their own people.”
Similar remarks were made by the Israelis at every juncture of the Middle East peace process, notably in Madrid, when Yitzhak Shamir said he could not yield on the issue of colonies because hardliners were threatening to walk out on his Likud government. The Israeli negotiator in Madrid, Yossi Ben Aharon, would often remark that Shamir has to make sure his people are consulted, whereas the Arabs could grant concessions left and right, without reporting to their people. That seemed to be so true for the Arab world, where for many years leaders took very unpopular decisions that pleased the West, often in complete contradiction to what their constituencies wanted. A clear example is the Gulf War of 1991, when the Arab street was pro-Saddam while Arab leaders were engaged in Operation Desert Storm that strove to eject his army from Kuwait. Petitions were signed and declarations were made against joining the Americans in the Arabian Desert but at the end of the day, Arab leaders did as they pleased — and got away with it. That entire logic collapsed — probably never to return — the minute “public opinion” began to matter, bringing down Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, on February 11, 2011.
Mubarak’s thundering fall from grace was due to a variety of reasons: corruption, nepotism, misuse of public office and the president’s wish to bequeath power, which he had held for 30 long years, to his son Jamal. Another reason that cannot be overlooked is his insistence on taking decisions, vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, in complete disregard for what the Egyptian street wanted. During the war on Gaza in 2008, for example, the Egyptians were furious with Israel and begging the government to open the Rafah Crossing to ease the suffering of the Palestinians. Mubarak did not care what his people were saying; as far as he was concerned, if Hamas prevailed in Gaza, his borders would no longer be with the embattled Palestinian strip but, rather, with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even during the 18-day revolt that prevailed in Tahrir Square, Mubarak’s intelligence services, and some Egyptian dailies, were saying that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the uprising in Cairo, showing just how strong Iran-o-phobia was in the upper echelons of the Egyptian government. Young Egyptians even toyed with the idea of chanting anti-Iran slogans to shelter themselves from the ready accusations of being “agents for the Shiites”.
Shortly after Mubarak’s resignation, the Egyptian military command came out saying that they would uphold all international agreements signed by the previous regime — which includes the Camp David Accords. That agreement, very unpopular among grassroots Egyptians, was a reality of life that they had to accept and live with. The same cannot be said, however, for many of Mubarak’s foreign policies vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. Precisely because he believed that “public opinion does not matter”, Mubarak went to great lengths trying to please the Americans and Israelis during his 30 years in power, starting with the 1991 decision to back the second Gulf War, to his 2008 indifference to what was happening in Gaza. In a nutshell, Mubarak was pro-American, anti-Iranian and certainly both anti-Hezbollah and anti-Hamas. Whoever succeeds him in the Egyptian presidency next September will certainly be an exact opposite of Mubarak — in age, ideology, character and policies. The Egyptians are not expecting another Jamal Abdul Nasser, but certainly someone who is more committed to the Arab world than Hosni Mubarak was.
There are immediate winners and losers in the new equation that will emerge in Egypt. The obvious losers are Israel and the US, who, furious at having lost a traditional ally, are still uncertain about how to deal with the new Middle East, “where public opinion matters”. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose own days are numbered in power, will also feel uncomfortable with no Mubarak in power, and so will the former Egyptian president’s Lebanese ally Sa’ad Hariri. Syria is certainly to gain, welcoming back a traditional ally that had always been committed to Arabism in its broader form. “Big Sister Egypt”, after all, was the cornerstone of modern Arab nationalism from 1952 until the late 1970s. Many in Syria hope the ouster of Mubarak will bring the clock back ticking — even if symbolically — to pre-November 19, 1977, the day Sadat landed in Occupied Jerusalem. Hezbollah shares this view and Iran is thrilled to see the end of Mubarak’s reign, regardless of who succeeds him at the presidency. Hamas is more concerned, given Mubarak’s strong support for the Fatah Movement and their opponent, President Abbas. During the hours of reconciliation talks that took place in Cairo 2007 onwards, Mubarak clearly took sides with Fatah, trying to pressure Hamas leaders into taking positions that empowered Fatah in the Occupied Territories, at their expense. They are now keeping their fingers crossed that the new leader of Egypt will continue to play the go-between in Palestinian reconciliation talks, more in favour of Hamas or, at least, more at arm’s length from both Palestinian groups.
Symbolically, ten days after Mubarak’s ouster, two Iranian warships en route to Syria were allowed through the Suez Canal. Israel snapped that this was a “provocation” but its words fell on deaf ears in Cairo. Mubarak would not have let it happen but post-Mubarak Egypt did not seem to care that the Israelis were furious. The Iranians were making a statement: They could send their ships to the Mediterranean, which Nato countries consider their maritime backyard.
Although the ships were not carrying weapons, Israel’s hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman barked: “To my regret, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations. The international community must understand that Israel cannot forever ignore these provocations.”
This was the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iranian ships have passed through the canal, an act that is likely to be repeated in different forms in the next few months. All options are now on the table, ranging from granting a licence for Hamas to operate in Egypt (which will be strongly lobbied for by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) to quarantining the Israeli diplomatic mission in Cairo. Pro-Palestinian sentiment will be freely allowed on the streets of Egypt, in the mass media and in the new parliament.
The haunting commitment to the closure of the Rafah Crossing will probably end; new Egyptian authorities have already opened it for three hours daily, permitting more than 600 Palestinians to cross into Egypt from Gaza.
The anti-Hezbollah tone of the Egyptian press will be quieted while Egypt’s involvement in Lebanese affairs, which often ran in direct confrontation with Hassan Nasrallah — much to Israel’s pleasure — will come to a halt.
An example that comes to mind is how revolt leaders in Iran shut down the Israeli embassy in Tehran, tore down the flag and gave the premises to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after ousting Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. The Iranian youth then did not want to sound, look or act like the pro-US and pro-Israeli shah. And today, the new Egyptian leaders will not want to sound, look or act like Hosni Mubarak.
— This article appeared in Gulf News (Weekend Review) on March 4, 2011 entitled, “Times Turn with the Tide.”