The staff at the Israeli embassy in Cairo must be feeling a little uncomfortable these days. In the heated atmosphere of post-revolutionary Egypt, few people in the city are willing to talk to them and diplomats sometimes have trouble even reaching the embassy building due to the frequent clashes outside between riot police and pro-Palestinian protesters.
On top of their short-term logistical difficulties, the Israelis are facing the increasingly apparent medium-term reality of the Egyptian government abandoning the cozy arrangements that have prevailed on the border between Egypt and Gaza for the last several years — in many ways the operational centerpiece of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship. Former President Hosni Mubarak, who remains in hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, worked closely with Israel and the United States to isolate Gaza and put pressure on the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas to accept Israeli conditions for peace talks. That meant giving the Israelis a de facto veto over the goods and people going in and out of the impoverished coastal strip, which was under Egyptian control from 1948 until 1967.
Mubarak’s policy, which flew in the face of Egyptian public opinion, was hard to sustain even when he was in control of the country. Several leading members of the ruling military council have been skeptical about the wisdom of his approach, and the post-revolutionary government had promised to reopen the border as of the end of last month and bring an end to the blockade that began in earnest when Hamas defeated the rival Fatah movement in Gaza in 2007. If Egypt did indeed fulfill that promise, a new era in the foreign policy of the Arab world’s most populous country will have truly begun.
This shift is a natural outcome of the uprising that drove Mubarak from office on February 11 after 18 days of protests throughout the country. Free at last to assemble and express their opinions, large numbers of Egyptians from the main political groups — leftists, Islamists and liberals — have set their minds to ensuring that the new government does fulfill that pledge. Thousands were out on the streets of Cairo in commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba (or “catastrophe”) on May 15, and a major battle broke out that night when protesters tried to break through the cordon of police around the Israeli embassy. Unlike the demonstrations in Lebanon and Syria, no one could claim that the protesters were acting on anyone else’s behalf. The police repelled them with tear gas and rubber bullets, but the protesters made their point — to the Egyptian government, to Israel and to those who naively enthused in January and February that the Egyptian revolutionaries paid little attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Egyptian government, which has already succeeded in one respect where Mubarak failed — to mediate reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah —knows it will not be easy. Reopening the Gaza border could drag Egypt into conflict with Israel and with the United States government, which gives Egypt $1.4 billion each year, mainly as a reward for protecting Israel’s southern flank.
Cairo is anxious to ensure diplomatic cover for its change in policy by bringing Fatah and the European Union into the new arrangements for the Gaza border, in the hope that this might offset US and Israeli displeasure. In the wider, tumultuous Middle East, Egypt’s new rulers are feeling their way tentatively, mulling the possibility of better relations with Iran, which Mubarak always kept at a distance. But they are wary of any regional commitments at a time when no one knows who will still be in power at the end of the year.
The government’s last-minute nomination of Foreign Minister Nabilel-Arabi as secretary-general of the Arab League, rather than old-regime politician Mustafa el-Fiki, has saved the position for Egypt and given a morale boost to the post-revolutionary foreign ministry. But a struggle now looms over who will replace Arabi. The military council, which has the final say, could choose someone with the same Arab nationalist tendencies, reinforcing a shift in Egyptian policy toward the Arab center. But the pool of candidates, probably all of them current or former Egyptian diplomats, is heavily weighted towards the more conservative segment of the Egyptian establishment.
After parliamentary elections, scheduled for September, foreign policy changes are inevitable. None of the most vocal political forces will defend Mubarak’s geopolitical alignment without reservation. They say instead that they will have to listen to the will of the people.
Jonathan Wright is managing editor of Arab Media and Society