President Obama’s risky commitment to forge a diplomatic breakthrough on a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has placed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in a perilous position. Already the target of mounting criticism across the Middle East for his complicity in Tel Aviv’s war against HAMAS, Mubarak’s support and engagement is indispensable to reaching any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians—but at what costs to Egypt?

Since Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza, developments in the Levant are forcing Mubarak to adapt to changing internal and external circumstances or risk further destablization of his  government.  With HAMAS reconstituting its ranks, an irredentist Netanyahu government back in power in Israel and heightened pressure to end his crackdown on political opposition groups in Egypt, the landmines Mubarak has to negotiate are eroding his powerbase in Egypt and the Middle East.

For the 81 year-old Mubarak who threw Egypt’s weight behind Tel Aviv’s attempt to dismember HAMAS, an Israeli victory would have strengthened his grip on power and created a smoother path for the succession of his son, Gamal to the presidency. Had HAMAS been forced to surrender leadership to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, their radical influence in GAZA and Egypt would be diminished and Iran’s expanding regional influence temporarily blunted. But that didn’t happen. Instead, HAMA’s support is growing on the “Arab street.” Worse still, HAMAS and Hezbollah weapons smuggling operations on the Gaza border has spread to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In April, the Egyptian government arrested 49 people, including one Hezbollah agent charged with smuggled arms to Gaza and plotting attacks on tourist sites in the Sinai. Egyptian officials also reported that Hezbollah agents were “scouting” the Suez Canal, possibly in search of targets to hit that would cripple two of Egypt’s largest industries; tourism and maritime commerce.

In response to the arrest, Hezbollah’s mercurial leader Hassan Nasrallah boldly admitted one of his operatives was providing assistance to HAMAS after Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing left thousands of Palestinians without food, medicine and arms. However, Nasrallah excoriated Mubarak for suggesting Hezbollah was attempting to overthrow the Egyptian government, calling it a smear campaign to diminish Hezbollah’s support before Lebanon’s critical June 7 parliamentary elections. The war of words between Beirut and Cairo sent shock waves across the region.  President Mubarak escalated regional tension by pointing to Tehran as the source of the subversion. In a provocative speech given in April, Mubarak said “We will not allow any interference by foreign forces that push the region towards hell out of a desire to spread their influence and agenda on the Arab world.”

Whether Iran is pushing the Middle East “towards hell” may be debatable; the dramatic expansion of Iranian power in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza on Egypt”s border is not. Mubarak”s tough talk was no doubt sincere. Iran has Egypt in its sites. But Mubarak was also sending a message to the Obama administration that his neighborhood has changed and Egypt needs to acquire advanced weapons systems from Washington. In the past America”s practice of maintaining Israel”s “qualitative military edge” has resulted in U.S. denials of TOW missles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions to Egypt. Mubarak has also bristled at U.S. sales of sophisticated weapons to the Gulf States that are still denied to Cairo. The differences between the U.S and Egypt aren”t so much about particular weapons systems but Egypt”s role in the region. America”s insistance that Egypt play a more active regional role monitoring strategic waterways, contributing troops to expeditionary forces and peacekeeping operations has been resisted by Egypt.      

Acutely aware of the challenges threatening to undermine the stability of Mubarak’s government, the Obama administration has engaged in a flurry of political, economic and military activities to fortify Egypt’s position. Egypt’s selection as the site for Obama’s seminal address to the “Muslim world” was an opportunity to begin the renovation of its declining image in the region.. At the same time, U.S. pressure on Mubarak to ease the crackdown on opposition groups led Egyptian courts to throw out Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s trumped-up conviction for treason. Opposition leader Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in Egypt’s 2005 presidential election, was also freed from prison in February 2009 on phony charges of fraud. He has been banned from seeking office and practicing law. The Obama administration also lobbied Muburak to have leading opposition figures and members of the Islamist group Egyptian Brotherhood present at his Cairo address. As an inducement for Egypt to open up its political system, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that America’s annual $1.3 billion military aid package will not be conditioned on Egypt’s adherence to human rights standards–a source of contention between Mubarak and the former Bush administration. While the Obama administration has impressed upon Cairo the need to open up political breathing space for its critics, Mubarak is not convinced. No one doubts that if the Egyptian Brotherhood party was legalized that they would sweep Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the presidency in the upcoming 2011 elections. 

While the debate in Washington continues to rage about the Egyptian Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian politics, they remain the largest and most significant opposition group in Egypt. Mubarak’s crackdown on the organization has resulted in hundreds of its members being jailed and prohibited from engaging in political activities. Although officially banned in Egypt since 1954, its members operate hospitals, schools and other charities and have considerable influence among many of the country’s 76 million people. Its lawmakers, running as “independents” in the 2005 elections hold 88 seats in Egypt’s 454-seat parliament. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party controls 311 seats in Egypt’s virtual single party state. Having long forsaken violence and terrorism and promoting a more moderate democratic brand of Islamism, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s close ties with HAMAS has placed them at the top of Mubarak’s enemies list.

Mubarak’s draconian measures have generated considerable anger and protest throughout Egyptian society, but his saving grace has been the inability of the opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, to effectively organize Egypt’s disparate political constituencies into a united front. Independent journalists, bloggers and lawyers have also been broadly targeted across Egypt for similar treatment. Despite the increasingly bitter Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East, a 2007 Pew Research Poll revealed that in predominantly Sunni Muslim Egypt, 40 percent of all Egyptians had a favorable view of Hezbollah Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah and support for HAMAS was above 60 percent–an astonishing indication of the political ferment roiling in Egypt.     

Egypt’s stagnant economy has also been a source of discord among the broad mass of Egyptian society. While the Egyptian ruling elites differ markedly from the opulent royal families and sheiks of the Gulf oil states, the most powerful members of the National Democratic Party are deeply involved in the nation’s major economic industries. With inflation creeping up to 18 percent and one in four young Egyptians idling in unemployment it is not surprising that Egypt’s chronic economic underperformance is laid at Mubarak and the NDP’s doorstep. Urgent improvements are needed in the Egypt. Roughly 30 percent of all Egyptians live in poverty and 20 percent of Egypt’s 79 million people live on less than $2 a day according to the United Nations. To help bolster Egypt’s sagging economy, Barak Obama and Hosni Mubarak signed a “United States-Egypt Plan for a Strategic Partnership” in May 2009. Leading officials from the U.S.. and Egypt are scheduled to develop a framework over the next three months for trade and investment cooperation.

Given all the challenges President Mubarak faces in Egypt, his weariness regarding Obama’s determination to secure a breakthrough on the two-state solution is colored by his sense of history. Since Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1980, all his presidential successors have been seduced by illusions of grandeur, vanity and presidential legacy to bring peace to the Israeli-Palistinian conflict. Mubarak has seen it all; last minute deals, quick fixes and piecemeal agreements. Oslo, Wye River, Annapolis…the “road to peace” is littered with the names of conferences and agreements that have all failed. 

Early in his administration, Barak Obama has decided that the moment to advance the cause of the two-state solution is now. Despite America”s heavy committments to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; despite Netanyahu”s hardline position on a two state solution, and despite the violent split between HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority, President Obama” is pressing hard for progress.  With Hezbollah on the verge of victory in Lebanon”s elections and HAMAS”s influence in Gaza bleeding into Egypt, perhaps President Obama senses that the U.S. must try to sieze back the initiative.    

Obama”s blunt and painfully truthful address in Cairo made it clear to all parties involved that they must discard the baggage of the past and be prepared to make risky compromises to reach a durable peace between Palestine and Israel. It is precisely those risks that Egypt as a frontline player must take that threatens the stability of President Hosni Mubarak”s regime. *************


Webster Brooks is a Senior at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) and Editor of Brooks Foreign Policy Review, the international affairs arm of CNPP. His articles on foreign policy have appeared in numerous newspapers and websites in the Middle East, Eurasia and in the United States. He may be contacted at [email protected]  The Center for New Politics and Policy is based in Washington, D.C.   


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