The Monitor's View

Israel's stake in an Egyptian democracy -- now

Obama's hesitancy in demanding Mubarak leave office now may be partly influenced by Israel's fear of losing the 1979 security treaty with Egypt. But peace pacts with dictators are not the steady rock that Israel needs.

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Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt once seemed as solid as the stones of the pyramids. It provided a “cold peace” for more than three decades between the former enemies.

But the pact was based on a weak reed – the assumption that a friendly autocrat like Hosni Mubarak would always rule in Cairo.

Now with young Egyptians like Google executive Wael Ghonim waging a pro-democracy revolt in Tahrir Square, the security pact’s future could be sinking like an army tank in the Sinai sands.

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By not siding with the protesters’ demands that Mr. Mubarak leave office now, Israel – as well as the United States – runs the risk of alienating Egyptians who will likely be leading a democratic government.

Israel has even instructed its envoys to Western capitals like Washington to ask that they go easy on Mubarak, warning of a “second Iran” if the Muslim Brotherhood should dominate any free elections in Egypt.

President Obama seems to be complying with Israel’s request, asking only for an “orderly transition” to begin now in Egypt while also backing Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as lead negotiator with a few opposition leaders. Most top leaders in Congress have backed the president’s soft approach.

But such a hesitant stance by the US and Israel plays to fear, not hope. The long-term interests of Israel lie in democracy coming to Arab lands, no matter how messy or long in the making. A free people with a freely elected government is more of a solid basis for a peace agreement than the signature of a dictator.

Mr. Suleiman, who has long portrayed the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent threat, held talks with its leaders this week. The Islamist group, which renounced the use of violence decades ago, has been seen as more pro-democracy in the last two weeks than the Egyptian Army, which has strong ties with the Pentagon. In a free election, the Brotherhood may in fact turn out to be more like Turkey’s Muslim party, AKP, than Hamas.

Even if a future Egyptian government rejects the 1979 peace treaty, Israel’s military will be far superior to Egypt’s if the nations risk war again.

Very few protesters in Cairo are using anti-Israel slogans. Despite their wish of a homeland for Palestinians, Egyptians have enjoyed peace with Israel, and their Army has had the benefit from billions in US aid. Egypt is unlikely to give up those benefits in a democratic government. And it also could end up serving the specific interests of Israel and the US even better than Mubarak did – and his successes were few.

Until Israel and Obama give up their fear of losing this treaty, it may remain doubtful that the negotiations between Suleiman and the opposition can bring about democracy in Egypt soon. The Mubarak regime can always play the treaty card.

Suleiman also claims Egyptians lack a “culture of democracy” and that the protesters’ demands really “come from abroad.” Such comments do not reflect a serious transition to free and fair elections.

Leaders in Israel and the US need to take the long view on democracy’s pacifying role in the Middle East. If they do, then they won’t tolerate the deflecting moves of the Mubarak regime.

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