The Palestinian bid for full recognition by the United Nations at the opening of the General Assembly comes at a pivotal moment in the Egyptian revolution and the Egypt-Israel relationship. The building tension between the two countries culminated in the attack by protestors on the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week. In response to the embassy incident, Egypt’s transitional military leaders have now extended emergency powers, which places sharp restrictions on civil and political rights and was a reviled hallmark of former President Hosni Mubarak’s long rule. Repression is no way to create a stable state in Egypt and concerns about the potential fallout from the Palestinian action at the United Nations are not justification for clamping down on the Egyptian people.
The Egypt-Israel relationship has long been the bedrock of stability in the region. For all the valid criticisms of his repressive presidency, Hosni Mubarak consistently delivered peace on Israel’s southern border throughout his more than 30-year reign. The transitional military leaders, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, have pledged to uphold that security arrangement. But the SCAF has also made moves that unsettled the Israelis, such as allowing two Iranian naval vessels through the Suez Canal, beginning the process to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, and brokering a short-lived unity deal between Fatah and Hamas.
The run-up to the Palestinian push at the United Nations has been marked by violence and increasing tension between Egypt and Israel. In mid-August, six Egyptian border guards were killed in the crossfire when Israeli soldiers responded to an attack by Palestinian militants near the Egypt-Israeli border. The SCAF threatened to recall its ambassador to Israel but then backed down. The Israeli Defense Ministry apologized for the killings but the SCAF deemed it insufficient. In Gaza, tit-for-tat reprisals between Israel and Palestinian militants left dead and wounded on both sides.
Deteriorating relations between Egypt and Israel reached a new low on September 9 as protestors attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Israel was not the target of the protests that day, rather Egyptians were demonstrating against the SCAF’s widespread use of military trials and the slow pace of reform when some split off and marched from Tahrir Square and broke into the embassy compound. As serious as the breach was, it could have been much worse as Egyptian commandos evacuated six Israeli embassy staff as the protestors occupied a portion of the embassy.
Those fearful that a post-Mubarak Egypt would break its peace with Israel claim this attack is evidence, such as Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who told supporters that “Egyptian radicals are building pressure for a diplomatic break with Israel.” Once-hopeful Egyptians lamented, “The revolution’s positive energy—the desire for better governance, greater democracy and a more dignified foreign policy—is being dissipated.”
The SCAF responded with a sharp crackdown on September 13, extending and expanding the hated emergency law that was set to expire on September 30. The move to reactivate the emergency law was very reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, which initially declared a state of emergency after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat and remained in such a state for its entirety. Any reasonable analysis of Egypt over the last nine months would have to conclude that relying on repressive mechanisms such as the emergency law is no way to guarantee stability.
With the U.N. vote looming, the Palestinians have once again returned to the familiar position of a pawn in the hands of Arab regimes. Egyptians on September 9 were protesting the lack of judicial and police reform, the SCAF’s continuing use of military trials for civilians, and the failure so far to establish a timeline to transition to civilian rule. But the attack on the Israeli embassy and fear of additional violence in the wake of the U.N. vote has allowed the SCAF to deflect criticism of its own shortcomings and once again hold back the freedoms many Egyptians hoped were just around the corner.
The change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa is a movement that has sought above all else to assert a new independence, whether it’s the Egyptian people shaking off the yoke of the Mubarak dictatorship, or Saudi Arabia and Turkey stepping out of America’s shadow and claiming a larger voice in regional affairs. But at this crucial juncture, Egypt appears stuck in the same old tactics of distraction politics, while ignoring the legitimate grievances of its people. Though it may be tempting to purchase a little temporary stability, repression is not a sustainable solution to the challenges of the region.
Egypt’s transitional military leaders must reverse course and rescind the emergency law as promised and deliver a genuine timetable for the return of civilian rule. It may be bumpy, but it’s the only road for Egypt that leads anywhere.
Ken Gude is the Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program at American Progress.