(February 4, 2019 / JNS)
Although Egypt is now marking the eight-year anniversary of the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak, this is no regular holiday. Many Egyptians would be glad to erase the date from their history books and forego the “pleasure” that ultimately ensued: Instability bordering on anarchy in the streets and years of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
Mubarak, the disgraced tyrant who was deposed, tried and even jailed, is back and has even become a legitimate, welcome persona. He was recently even summoned to court; not as the accused but as a witness in the trials of those who usurped him in power. Mubarak, whose allegedly failing health had become a hot topic of discussion towards the later stages of his rule, appeared in top form. After all, his former prison is now occupied by many of the young revolutionaries who triggered his downfall.
But in Egypt, as usual, there is room for only one ruler, and today that person is Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is determined to turn Egypt into a modern, advanced country. Not, heaven forbid, in terms of its human rights practices, but as far as being able to provide stability and meet the basic everyday needs of over 100 million citizens.
Many Egyptians will, therefore, agree over the common Middle Eastern refrain that the right to bread, a home and a living supersedes the right to say what you want, especially if saying what you want is incompatible with the former—as evidenced by recent experience in Syria and Egypt.
Last June, El-Sisi began his second four-year term in office. The Egyptian constitution, which was changed in the wake of the revolution, presently forbids a third term. It’s not surprising that a public debate is taking place—and consequently, a government-orchestrated propaganda campaign—to overturn that amendment, which would force him to step aside in three years.
The dilemma is obvious: El-Sisi has described Mubarak’s rule as successful but too lengthy. However, at 64, he is still a relatively young ruler, dynamic and energetic, such that his description of Mubarak doesn’t necessarily pertain to him.
One front where El-Sisi is seeking to advance Egypt’s interests, without paying much credence to domestic public opinion, is relations with Israel. Mubarak upheld the peace treaty with Israel, but never saw the need to strengthen and deepen the relationship—likely because he feared the public backlash over any measure of normalization or even refinement of security and economic ties with Israel.
El-Sisi doesn’t fear such criticism, and it appears that public opinion— certainly among the elites who control the country—doesn’t oppose bolstering security, economic and even diplomatic ties with Israel if it serves the Egyptian interest.
Egypt isn’t alone. Gulf States are following in its footsteps and have perhaps even led the way in certain areas, and soon several countries in North Africa will join the parade. Truth be told, these aren’t affectionate relationships or even fully normalized ties with the Israeli government. But it does seem that Israeli-Arab relations have taken a real step forward.
If in the past, Arab willingness to maintain peaceful relations with Israel was restricted to recognizing the need to end the conflict and begrudgingly come to terms with its existence, we are now transitioning into a phase of Arab acknowledgment of the inherent benefits to improving relations with Israel, for both sides.
Moreover, if in the past the Arabs only saw Israel as a way station to Washington, now Israel itself is the destination. Indeed, for many people across the Middle East, Israel has become a legitimate regional player with clout and ability to influence and a country with which relations should be enhanced.
We can assume this trend will intensify in light of Washington’s desire to disengage from the region and Iran’s menacing shadow, which poses a significant threat not only to Israel, but to many of its Arab neighbors.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.