James Arbuthnot MP is Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel and of the Defence Select Committee.
The world has been watching the massive protests throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Following the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, protests spread into Egypt with dramatic consequences, leading to President Mubarak’s assertion that he would not stand again. In Jordan, protests prompted Jordanian King Abdullah to sack his government whilst in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key US ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda, called on the opposition to help form a national unity government. With the imminent departure of Mubarak a political vacuum is opening up. Who will fill this vacuum and entrench themselves in a position of power? What effect will this have on peace in the region? And what are the wider security threats emanating from this for Israel and the West?
Although the current unrest did not stem from fundamentalist Islamic elements, the past has taught us that in the absence of the foundations of modern democracy, electorally successful regimes lacking in the central tenants of democracy, often emerge from the pandemonium. In Egypt, there are strong indicators that support for the Islamist movement is growing. The Muslim Brotherhood is a popular force and the only truly organised opposition group. A Pew Poll in December 2010 revealed that when asked if they identified with ‘modernisers’ or ‘Islamists’ only 27% of Egyptians surveyed said modernisers, whilst 59% said Islamists. In light of these results, it is apparent that there is sizeable grassroots support for radical Islamism that could be exploited and built upon within Egypt.
Alongside the possibility of an emerging Islamist state, the emergence of a political vacuum in the country has dealt a blow to prospects for Middle East Peace. Egypt is a vital bulwark for peace in the region and has emerged as one of Israel’s closest regional allies, having honoured the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries for over thirty years. For Israel, the end of the conflict with the Arab world depends on the durability of the peace with Egypt; for all its limitations it is the only successful model of Israel’s central ‘land for peace’ philosophy. The US and the UK must play a central role in ensuring that the peace agreement remains the foundation stone of Egyptian –Israeli bilateral relations, irrespective of who fills the vacuum.
Practically, Egypt has played an important mediating role in efforts to end the fractious split between Fatah and Hamas. They have also taken an active role in preventing terror activity in the Gaza Strip, as well as keeping the border secure. There will be specific concerns about the negative effect a possible new regime could have on the considerable security coordination that currently exists between the two countries. For example, Israeli movement through the Suez Canal could be affected and this would seriously hamper Israel’s ability to interdict Hamas arms smuggling from Sudan and elsewhere.
At a time when neither Israel nor the PA is proposing a clear path to peace and there are no direct negotiations, ambiguity in Egypt may lead to further polarisation of the parties. Both the PA and Israel may find it hard to negotiate without Egypt’s willing cooperation.
Whilst the possibility of Islamist takeover and uncertainty of Egypt’s role in the peace process are disquieting, it is the wider security threats emanating out of the latest crisis that are the most serious cause for concern.
Commentators often contextualise the Middle East as two ‘arcs’ standing opposite one another in the region. The 'northern arc', consists of Iran, Syria and now Lebanon, whilst the 'southern arc' comprises pro-Western states – including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the PA and the Persian Gulf states. Within this school of thought, the current unrest in Egypt, and to a lesser extent Jordan and Yemen, stands to weaken the 'southern arc'.
The 'northern arc' states are undemocratic and possess a willingness to use ruthless force to quell discontent, which the pro-Western states lack. Furthermore, they build alliances with other Islamist groups regardless of existing Sunni, Shia ideologies. Shia Iran’s close alliance with Sunni Hamas in Gaza demonstrates this flexibility and it plays a key part in explaining their expanding influence in the region.
Contextualising these issues, Israel’s northern border emerges as a potential flashpoint. Israel has grown increasingly alarmed by developments in Lebanon. The political crisis has seen the militant Iran-backed Hezbollah cement their power within the political system, acquiring de-facto control of the Lebanese government in recent weeks. The possibility of renewed conflict with Hezbollah or the strategic threat of a sectarian civil war within Lebanon is worrying when one considers the thousands of advanced rockets that the organisation has deployed since the 2006 Lebanon War. The combination of the Iranian determination to develop nuclear weapons capability, the strengthening of Hezbollah, Hamas’s tight control of Gaza, the unravelling of the Turkish-Israeli alliance and an Islamist Egypt could produce the prospect of Israel living in a country completely surrounded by Iran’s allies or proxies.
We are living in strange and difficult times. 2011 will certainly be a critical juncture in the Middle East and committed support from the UK is imperative. Let’s hope that the outcome of the protests will lead to a strengthening of genuine democracy and the Egyptian people’s continued commitment to maintain and enhance peaceful relations with Israel and the West. For thirty years Land for Peace with Egypt has provided stability and security for both sides, however, current turmoil means Israel needs to be ready for all eventualities.