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A New Egypt and Israel’s Border Distraction

In his farewell address, George Washington, the first President of the United States, warned the leaders of his new country to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” As a new country, the greatest need was to pay attention to internal priorities which included political stability and economic independence. This political detachment from international affairs was termed unilateralism and was advocated by other Founding Fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, saw this as “the best way to preserve and develop the nation as a free people.” Non-interventionist unilateralism also known as its “policy of aloofness” allowed the United States to become a “great power” by the end of the nineteenth century.

Last month, nerves were rattled on either side of the border when seven Israelis died and 25 others were injured in triple terrorist attacks near Eilat. This was followed by an Israeli incursion into the Egyptian border which resulted in Israel’s killing of five Egyptian soldiers in Sinai.

Since then the media and social networks have been abuzz with popular demands for a formal apology, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, a review of the Camp David peace accords with some even calling for an all-out war. The Israeli media also joined the frenzy with calls for a scrapping of the peace treaty, while others demanded a reoccupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Escalation was on the streets as well, where thousands of Egyptian protesters in front of the Israeli Embassy, and many more online, watched as a young Egyptian carpenter climbed up the 21-story Israeli Embassy building in order to replace the Israeli flag with the Egyptian one.

There’s no doubt that things have changed in the Middle East since the return of the Arab ‘street’ as a contending player in the politics of the region. Generally speaking, the more democratic a country is the more complex the foreign policy decisions become both at home and abroad. In such a state popular dissent can affect the outcome at the ballot box or render a government illegitimate. This means neighboring countries, such as Israel, need to factor Egyptian political sentiment into their foreign policy equation. Indeed, many believe that Israeli PM, Binyamin Netanyahu, called a halt to the latest Israeli attack on Gaza out of fear that pushing too hard may sway the upcoming Egyptian vote in favor of the Islamists.

But as a new political actor, falling prey to anti-Israeli rhetoric may not play out well for the protesters and threatens to undermine their very objectives in creating a democratic state that represents their demands. The first danger comes in framing Israel as the common enemy which is at best a distraction and threatens to derail our focus away from the fight to achieve liberty.

Second, it reinforces the Israeli claim to the West that the stakes are too high for democracy in the region and that rather than adapt to the new situation they should fight it. Indeed after the fall of Mubarak, and in the wake of the recent border tensions, Israel and the US are looking for friends within the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Recent reports suggest that a scenario in which the SCAF holds on to power would be more favorable to their regional interests. While the SCAF has indicated it does not intend to hang on to power, their view of what constitutes a democratic state has not always coincided with that of the protesters.

The US would prefer a stable Middle East where it can secure friendly relations in a region that contains vital assets and strategic resources. Until recently, this was best achieved by working with and supporting the regions tyrannical rulers. Egyptians need to understand that the threat of Western pressure is serious. As I write this the US Congress has issued a statement making receipt of annual military and economic aid conditional upon continued peace with Israel. While no amount of US / Israeli support were able to save Mubarak, the SCAF have a wide support base in Egypt, if the Abassya demonstration is anything to go by.

This is all happening against the backdrop of continued demonstrations which haven’t stopped since January this year. The reason, quite simply, is that for Egyptians, street protests remain the only available way by which citizens can change government policies. At the same time military trials of Egyptian citizens are on the rise, with reports of some 10,000 citizens in military prisons since the start of the revolution.

But while protests remain legitimate they are a crude way for the people to run their country and they always come at a cost. Understandably, popular support for the demonstrations appears to be in rapid decline. For most citizens protests are measured against their outcome not their intent. To deny the cost is not the same as to justify the cost. Justifying the social & economic costs of a protest confers a sense of responsibility and demands a need for prudence.

The focus and priority of demonstrations needs to be on building the necessary democratic structures that ensure our voices will permeate every government institution and not simply be heard in the corridors of power. Once the people are able to affect decision-making in more ways than simply protesting, their country will become stronger. Egypt currently, has a weak interim government, no President, and a suspended parliament. This has to change in a way that echoes the will of its people.

That is not to say Egypt should forsake the Palestinian cause. But the cause is better served with the people in power rather than on the streets. Nor should Egypt forget about its dead soldiers or its rightful demand for an Israeli apology and investigation into the border incident. But these issues need to be addressed carefully by a government that does not yield easily to external pressure. The success of the Arab transition to liberty depends on it.


  1. Israel’s challenging game of 4-D chess. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/sep/01/israels-challenging-game-of-4-d-chess/

About T. Fouad, MD

Blogging on Egypt, Middle East Politics. Economics. Oncology. Egyptian Liberal, Doctor. كتابة عن مصر والشرق الأوسط, سياسة واقتصاد, طبيب مصري ليبرالي. تابعوني على تويتر @FouadMD


11 thoughts on “A New Egypt and Israel’s Border Distraction

  1. Great post. I love it and I completely agree with you. Egyptians need to get their priorities right. The challenging facing Egypt following January 25th revolution are immense. Any discussion about Camp David can wait until the building of the democratic structure is completed.

    Posted by nervana111 | September 4, 2011, 7:36 pm
  2. Very good post Sir, and very well written.

    Two notes :-

    ” This was followed by an Israeli incursion into the Egyptian border which resulted in Israel’s killing of five Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. ”

    **** The Israeli Southern command chief was in Egypt 2 weeks after the incident, and handed over IDF’s preliminary findings. Even Marshal Tantawi knows the meaning of “Friendly Fire” in a storm of battle!…

    **** The slogan ” CDA is a piece of paper which gave the Nobel … etc.” was used by MB &Co from day one! And sadly used till today ( and not by Egyptians only!… ).


    Are there more of you?… I mean in Egypt!

    Posted by Alexander Münch (@abuamnon) | September 5, 2011, 12:08 am
  3. well said and very balanced article , always great to hear a voice of reason

    Posted by Ahmed_abrass | September 5, 2011, 12:49 am
  4. I enjoyed reading every word of this article, not only because of how well-wrtitten it is, but also because of the facts you mentioned. i totally agree with you, before helping Palestine, the Egyptian people must focus on their country, on their needs as a nation. now that the revolution is basically done,and Mubark is finally out of his dictator capabilities to terrorizing and starving his people, the Egyptians need to make a wise choice, rebuild their country, their lives, their future. only then, will the arab world be capable of facing the Zionist enemy. Sadly, our dictators have accomplished to keep our brains, intelligence and education at the mercy of a loaf of bread, in order to keep us away from what really matters. They blinded us for so long that they turned themselves into gods, until we finally gave up religion altogether. and for our freedom of everything we agree to be believers of nothing. if atheism means freedom, then i declare myself atheist.

    looking forward for more…

    Posted by Jumana Jaber (@JumanaJaber) | September 5, 2011, 3:49 am
  5. “Nor should Egypt forget about its dead soldiers or its rightful demand for an Israeli apology and investigation into the border incident.”
    From all I was taught and know, first comes the investigation, only then conclussions (appologies ?) IF results of investigation should justify that.
    I wouldn’t exclude conclusions that may prove Egypt bears severe responsibility for the events, by not practicing needed responsibility on her side of the border and harboring terorists.
    Did Egypt agree to a common (I.E. with Israel Army) investigation of THE WHOLE event?

    Posted by Optimum Team (@MeirJacob) | September 5, 2011, 10:27 am
  6. Mmmm, don’t really know!
    There are to sides of this argument now:
    First, the use of Israel by SCAF as the perfect common enemy to distract Egyptians and build coalition and consensus around SCAF failing policies (an external threat that brings people together around their army). But I believe that SCAF miscalculated it as usual, the escalating street anger and the more decisive and determent attitude of Turkey against Israel turned things against SCAF and showed it as an extension of the old regime.
    Second, and on the other hand, I think these demonstrations and Israeli reactions to them were a kiss of life to the Egyptian revolution in my personal opinion. People started a while ago to loose faith in the revolution and one is always faced with this typical question: what did we gain from the revolution?
    I think the Israeli reaction, and the rumors about the faded Israeli response to the Palestinian painful operation in Eilat were a good answer to this question. People started to feel the soft power that Egypt is slowly gaining momentum after the revolution, even if SCAF is wasting this power with it’s hesitant actions and shortsighted/blurred strategic vision.
    I tend to disagree a bit with your use of the American model in the beginning since I feel the situation is different. the States is really GEOGRAPHICALLY isolated from the rest of the world (except for Latin America where USA was heavily involved even from the end of the 19th century). So, in other words it was a selective isolation. I believe that one of the most terrible mistakes over the past 40 years was when Egypt consciously chose to abandon its soft power and its main 4 strategic circles: Africa, the Arab World, the Islamic World and the Developing World in General. To me, this was a terrible mistake and now we see how countries like Iran and Turkey are excelling this model.
    I’m not calling for a war, but rather, for a diplomacy well informed by a strategic vision focusing on building Egypt’s soft power and actively moving within the above mentioned circles.
    I think your argument is valid in case you stress more specifically that while we need to build a nation, we also need – hand in hand – to start building our soft power. The seeds are already out there, all we need to do is to grow them with care and attention.

    Posted by Kareem Ibrahim (@kairien) | September 5, 2011, 10:52 am
    • Brilliant take on events Kareem. The US model is not given as an example to follow but as justification for looking inwards initially. As you say the situation was different, although I disagree that this model worked for the US because it was geographically isolated. It is important to remember that most of North America during this early period was colonized by European countries. During this period the US adopted a policy known as the Monroe Doctrine: Wikipedia: “The Monroe Doctrine asserted that the Americas were not to be further colonized by European countries but that the United States would neither interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries.”

      The Monroe Doctrine must be taken in the context of “manifest destiny” or “the belief that it was the destiny of the United States to spread across the continent”. What made the desire for expansion within the continent compatible with the policy of unilateralism was the belief that the US was not engaging in European wars but protecting itself and fulfilling its ‘destiny’. In the end its all about prioritization. If this was about geographical isolation I think I would have preferred the model from Ancient Egypt.

      Posted by tamerski | September 5, 2011, 1:11 pm
      • Geography is not the main issue, it’s the circles of influence in other words. As well, Egypt is destined by its location and cannot escape this destiny, simply for its sake. To me this is fundamental strategy, but the question always remains about the tactic. Nowadays, Egypt cannot go through any confrontations, but you can always rely on diplomacy and building coalitions. That would hurt Israel the most. Turkey is doing the same: spreading its fleet in the Mediterranean, while legally and diplomatically chasing Israel.

        Posted by Kareem Ibrahim (@kairien) | September 5, 2011, 2:10 pm
  7. Interesting analysis. I only contest that relations with israel changed after Jan 25. A simple review of the wikileaks messages and reports will show that SCAF is more concerned with Hamas, hezbollah, Iran, Somalia etc, . SCAF’s only concern about Israel is mentioning what’s called the armed forces “power parity” to the advantage of Israel. It’s at a level lower than even what was agreed upon in the Peace Treaty, and the US congress will never accept changing this situation. Wikileaks reveals also that foreign policy in what is of strategic importance was formulated by the SCAF all along, so what will change now? unless of course some voluntary allowed public “outcry” for local consumption as what happened with the flag “victory” mentioned in the article.
    Additionally Israel will try getting the maximum from the current events. Highlighting unpopularity between egyptians and arab populations, or Turkey’s recent theatrical diplomatic response Israel would ask for additional military, political and economical support from US, at a time congress is talking about cutting expense.
    Egypt’s foreign policy being dictated by despotic and xenophobe ideals has to stop. The main factor should be Egypt’s self interest, which will logically improves the welfare of its population, and not the continuation of the control of a despotic regime!. A lot needs to be done towards our natural sphere of influence like the Red Sea region and North Africa. Strengthening our cooperation with Mediterranean countries and developing stronger economic and political ties is definitively the way to go.
    The army boys desiring to play strategic games in the Levant and Arabia should know that it will never go beyond a game simulation. it’s the playground of, for the time being, much stronger forces like Turkey, Iran and Israel and let pompous ungrateful Damascus, Doha or Riyadh deal with it….!

    Posted by Tarik Salama (@tariksalama) | September 5, 2011, 3:27 pm
  8. Indeed Western pressure is real, so real that we changed the first Minister of Foreign Affairs whose words and actions seemed to mirror the sentiment on the street within a couple of weeks of his appointment and doomed the man to the futility of leading the Arab League. I think with Israel and any other country, there needs to be reciprocity. I would imagine five dead Israeli soldiers would raise more than a request for investigation.
    Here’s my $ 0.02 worth: http://hatemrushdy.blogspot.com/2011/09/israel-must-pay.html

    Posted by Hatem Rushdy | October 28, 2011, 7:49 am


  1. Pingback: How the Embassy Protests may harm the Palestinian Cause « Democrati.net - September 14, 2011

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