Israeli ties with Egypt strained by transition?

Though Egypt and Israel insist the decision to end a gas sales contract wasn't political, it's hard to see annulling the largest ever contract between the two countries as anything but.

Israelis are furious that a multi-billion gas sales contract with Egypt was cancelled this week. And for good reason.

Though Egyptian officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insist the decision wasn't political, it's hard to see annulling the largest ever contract between the two countries as anything but.

What comes next?

Egypt Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga suggested yesterday that her cash-strapped government has adopted what amounts to a negotiating position. If Israel and the private Egyptian and Israeli investors who served as the middlemen in the original agreement agree to pay more, the gas might flow again, she said.

But the Israeli Finance Ministry has it about right: Egypt's decision could set “a dangerous precedent that casts clouds over ... the atmosphere of peace between Egypt and Israel," the ministry said in a statement.

Egypt in many ways now seems rudderless. It has a government nominally run by a military junta, a frustrated Muslim Brotherhood that has won parliamentary elections but so far been unable to exercise any real power, and a Mubarak-era bureaucracy that is trundling along and largely left to its own devices. But one clear, consistent trend is evident across the country's many competing power centers: Xenophobia is in, the old ways of doing business with Israel and the US are on the way out.

Gas sales to Israel are just an indicator, albeit a serious one, raising questions regarding how long the peace treaty reached between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin in 1979 can hold. The Egyptian population never took to the treaty, and views Israel as a regional menace. While the country is a long way from being a functional democracy, public attitudes will influence Egyptian affairs far more than they have for decades.

And that's what's fueling the latest kick in the teeth for Jimmy Carter (a key player in the 1978 Camp David peace talks) and a group of foreign NGOs.

The former president's Carter Center was one of eight foreign civil society organizations that the Egyptian government announced yesterday were barred from working in Egypt because they're deemed a threat to Egypt's sovereignty. The Carter Center specializes in election monitoring, and has monitored Egyptian elections in the past.

Among the other targets was Seeds of Peace, a group that sponsors Arab and Israeli youths to attend a summer camp in Maine every year, and a Coptic Christian organization that focuses on helping Egyptian orphans. The Egyptian government said yesterday the group's applications for licenses to operate in Egypt were rejected, though an official at one of the barred groups says that the last time his organization sought approval to run programs in Egypt was nearly a decade ago.

That Egyptian move came on the same day that Interpol refused an Egyptian government request to issue arrest warrants for 15 foreigners – 12 of them Americans – who had worked with NGOs in Egypt. Ms. Naga has been a leading voice in Egypt for shutting down foreign NGOs, and she has been embroiled in ongoing efforts to prosecute a group of democracy NGOs, among them the US government funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

The attempts to prosecute the American groups that focus on democracy promotion, saw a number of their officials, among them the son of Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, hole up in the US embassy to avoid arrest. It almost led to the cancellation of Egypt's $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US (another artifact of Camp David).

While the younger Mr. LaHood and other foreigners were eventually allowed to leave the country, Egypt has insisted in pursuing prosecution of them and former Egyptian co-workers, who now face jail time.

The deal to let them leave was struck in February, saving Egypt's military aid. But now it appears Egypt wants to bring them back for prosecution. Interpol, a coordinating body for international law enforcement, denied the Egyptian request, citing regulations that strictly forbid "the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.’ This prohibition is taken extremely seriously by INTERPOL."

Yes, we're back to politics again. Politics in the case of the prosecutions of the foreign NGOs, politics in the case of the cancelled gas sales contract with Israel, and politics in deeming Jimmy Carter a threat to Israel's sovereignty. When it comes to international relations, it seems the politics of the new Egypt promise stormier seas ahead.

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