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Either embrace change in Egypt or hold your peace

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 03 February 2011
 
 

Israel and Jews worldwide should support an independent South Sudan

 

Still in previews

 

Israel missing historic opportunity to support Arab freedom

 

Rethinking the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 11 February 2011
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Protesters pray in front of a tank in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 30. With the unrest in Egypt, a debate in Washington is emerging over whether to continue U.S. assistance to the country’s military at $1.3 billion a year. Iman Mosaad

WASHINGTON – The consensus on U.S. assistance to Egypt is that it has delivered bang for its buck: The $1.3 billion in annual defense aid has stabilized a key ally and strengthened America’s profile in the Middle East.

But in the wake of massive unrest that could unseat Egypt’s autocratic leader, the question now emerging is whether sustaining the aid to the Mubarak regime would advance a democratic agenda or squelch it — or whether that should be an American concern at all.

The Obama administration, speaking after the outbreak of the protests, initially said it would “review assistance” to Egypt. But now the White House seems to be quietly backtracking as long as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime makes a transition toward greater democratic freedoms.

It is a debate that pro-Israel groups will be watching closely.

Assistance to Egypt is rooted in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace deal and has become a cornerstone of preserving the quiet along Israel’s southern flank. The question that Israel and its allies in Washington will be considering as the Egyptians shape a new government is whether continuing such assistance sustains the peace treaty or bolsters its detractors, chief among them Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

In a paper anticipating such considerations, the Congressional Research Service said last week that the day might finally have come to recalibrate assistance to Egypt, which for more than 30 years has gone mostly to the military.

“The unrest of January 2011 suggests that the terms of recent debate over U.S. assistance to Egypt may change significantly in the coming months,” the paper said. “Although U.S. assistance has helped cement what many deem to be a successful 30-year Israel-Egypt peace treaty, as time has passed, critics of continued U.S. assistance to Egypt have grown more vocal in arguing that U.S. aid props up a repressive dictatorship and that, to the extent that any U.S. funds are provided, policymakers should channel them toward supporting opposition or civil society groups.”

The problem with that formulation, said Graham Bannerman, who for years lobbied for U.S. assistance to Egypt, is that it ignores how deeply woven the military is into Egyptian life.

“They are the ultimate preserver of life and stability,” he said, noting the army’s role in calming protests in recent days and separating antagonists.

Egypt’s access to U.S. hardware and training elevates its profile as an Arab leader — a status that Egyptians of all political and social stripes embrace, Bannerman said.

“The army has a role in the region; a competent military force improves your political standing,” he said. Forcing Egyptians to replace democracy with military assistance is “like the Boy Scout walking the old lady across the street when she doesn’t want to so he can get a merit badge.”

According to the Congressional Research Service report, the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt is split into three categories: acquisitions, upgrades to existing equipment, and follow-on support/maintenance contracts. The U.S. money accounts for as much as 80 percent of Egypt’s procurement power, CRS estimates. Bannerman said that translates into major acquisitions such as aircraft, tanks, and ships, as well as training.

As upgrades and support become more and more expensive, and the $1.3 billion remains stagnant, that effectively means aid to Egypt is shrinking, CRS notes. By contrast, military aid to Israel — scheduled to reach $3 billion this year — rises commensurate with cost increases.

The assistance to Egypt, along with years of training by and alongside U.S. forces, has created a military loyal to U.S. interests, analysts say. For U.S. forces, Egypt waives the restrictions on traveling the Suez Canal that are imposed on other nations. Without Suez access, the United States might otherwise have to double its naval presence around Africa, Bannerman said.

The Congressional Research Service report points out such benefits.

“The U.S. Navy, which sends an average of a dozen ships through the Suez Canal per month, receives expedited processing for nuclear warships to pass through the Canal, a valued service that can normally take weeks otherwise required for other foreign navies,” it said. “Egypt also provides over-flight rights to U.S. aircraft.”

The signature U.S. military assistance to Egypt is the co-production of the Abrams tank in Egypt, in place since 1988. Some parts are manufactured on the outskirts of Cairo, and the product is assembled there. Egypt plans to buy a total of 1,200 tanks, CRS says.

The program, combining defense spending with job creation in Egypt, is typical of how the Egyptian army functions — not just as a defense force but as a major property owner and public employer.

Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., told National Public Radio this week that the Egyptian army has its hand in manufacturing automobiles, building infrastructure, clothing, kitchen appliances, tourism, and a range of other areas.

U.S. money does not fund such ventures but helps facilitate them.

The pervasiveness of the military in Egyptian life has net positives and negatives, according to U.S. diplomats. A 2008 memo from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt notes that “the military still remains a potent political and economic force,” and praises its role in producing bread to meet shortages and “sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail,” which ensures stability.

It also said, however, that the military’s power has diminished in recent years, rendering it vulnerable to corrupt overtures of co-option by Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s son and until last month his designated heir.

That complex interface and am American tendency to kick against militarized societies have led to congressional efforts to move funds from military assistance to democratization.

In 2008, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), then the chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, led the passage of such a law, but the Bush and Obama administrations have waived it.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), another advocate of moving military assistance earmarks to democracy development, is now in a position of influence. As the newly installed chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she scheduled two days of hearings this week on assistance to Egypt and Lebanon.

Ros-Lehtinen once was an advocate of moving funds to democratization.

It is “incumbent upon us to assess United States aid to Egypt, and find effective solutions to resolving the freedom deficit there while providing for our security priorities and ensuring regional stability,” she said at a 2006 hearing.

Now, watching the developments unfold, Ros-Lehtinen has yet to say where she stands on military assistance, but she has suggested its continuance depends on a government dedicated to bottom-line U.S. agenda items, including support for Israel.

Last week, she said, “Opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt’s future, and seriously damage Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and others.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to what was the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

News Analysis

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

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A demonstrator with an anti-Gaddafi sign outside the Libya Embassy in Cairo Feb. 22 shows his solidarity for Libyans protesting their leader. Sierragoddes via Creative Commons

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya, said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise — if it comes — wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel — including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and North Africa — on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal — something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber-rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber-rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes somewhat friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

For more about the J Street conference, go to jstandard.com.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

A golden opportunity to be heard in Washington

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 11 March 2011
 
 
 
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