Sunday, December 18, 2011

The “Arab Spring” and Its Impact on Israel

This article was written for the European site, Crethi Plethi, and is reproduced here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

The “Arab Spring” is the name given to the tumultuous political events of 2011. In three countries—Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—the regimes that had been in power for between 40 and 60 years were overthrown. In Syria and Yemen the governments were seriously challenged and internal conflicts continue with the outcome not yet clear. And in Bahrain, a major challenge to the monarchy was put down by force.

What is the meaning of these events for the future of these countries and also to their relationship to Israel and that country’s security? This article addresses the shorter- and longer-term strategic and geopolitical implications of the “Arab Spring.”

In the three countries where power has changed hands—Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—Islamists have emerged as powerful political forces. In Egypt, where elections are not yet completed, the Muslim Brotherhood received just under 40 percent of the vote and even more radical Salafists obtained about 20 percent. This means that Islamists will be the leading political parties in forming the parliament and in writing the country’s constitution.

What other forces exist? Only two: the army and the future president. The armed forces do not want political power but they do want to ensure their economic enterprises and wealth. The military junta, which still governs the country, is also concerned about preventing anarchy and maintaining U.S. aid. While asserting itself periodically to try to avoid extremism, the generals have backed down when challenged by the Brotherhood.  Presumably, the junta will disband when a new president is elected, perhaps in the summer of 2013.

Who is a likely president? Only two potential candidates will have a chance. One of them is Amr Moussa, an Arab nationalist who has both a realistic and a demagogic side. The other is an Islamist backed by the Brotherhood, but that organization has not yet decided to push on that front and might make a deal with Moussa in order to have a strong ally against the military and also to avoid pushing itself too obviously forward.

Finally, a critical element is the failing Egyptian economy. The situation is so bad that the current prime minister cried at a press conference in discussing it. If a huge—and unsolvable--crisis emerges, the only way for a government to deal with it politically is to divert attention into an anti-Israel, anti-Western scapegoating.    

This brings us to the effect of these events on Israel. At present, Egypt is by far the most important country in this regard. An Islamist Libya can provide money and weapons; an Islamist-led Tunisia can provide some moral support; Syria still hangs in the balance, but Egypt is the state that affects regional issues.

How does Egypt affect Israel? On a number of levels, all negative:

--The Israel-Egypt peace treaty might well not be abrogated but it will be largely emptied of content. Can Egypt-Israel peace be assumed in future? No. It might be hoped that the military will restrain conflict because it doesn’t want to get involved in a losing war and fears losing U.S. military aid. But that is a hope that might well be undermined, far more fragile than the last thirty years of the peace treaty being rock-solid even if the bilateral peace remained cool.

The other specific elements in the treaty are the presence of an Israeli embassy in Cairo, which is endangered by potential mob attacks as Egyptian security personnel stand by and don’t interfere, and Israeli tourism in Egypt, which is now too dangerous given the overall collapse in security and the freedom of operation for terrorist groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood says it wants to renegotiate the treaty. Israel has allowed Egypt to send more military units into Sinai in hope they will combat terrorists there. But if Egypt becomes more radical will the authorities there pull back these forces if Israel asks it to do so?

--The security of the Egypt-Israel border. There has already been one cross-border attack. In response, Israeli government agencies have lost 2 percent of their budgets (and employees their salaries) so a border fence can be quickly constructed. There is a new military unit to guard the border and a new intelligence unit to watch for threats there. In order to try to maintain good relations with the Egyptian military, the Israeli government hushed up the cold-blooded murder of an Israeli soldier by the Egyptian army. More attacks are possible by international terror groups or by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip operating through Sinai.

--The Egypt-Gaza Strip border is now open to weapons, money, supplies, and international terrorists going to help strengthen Hamas and the even more extremist groups there. Whatever controls Egypt’s army has there are weak indeed and further undermined by bribery and the officers’ political sympathy with Hamas. Thus, Hamas can get just about any kind of weapon it wants and is freed from economic pressure.

--The Sinai as a secure area for terrorists. Hamas is reportedly establishing arms-making and logistical bases in Sinai, where Israel cannot attack them. The equipment can then easily be sent into the Gaza Strip.   

--The natural gas pipeline. This is one of Israel’s most important sources of energy. It is now unreliable due to constant attacks. Egyptian politicians say they want to renegotiate prices. Israel is hurrying to replace this natural gas with supplies that can be obtained from off-shore wells but constructing the necessary facilities will take a couple of years.

--Hamas in the Gaza Strip now enjoys full support from a powerful Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups. As the Islamists become part of a future government, this support will become official.

--What would happen in time of war provoked by Hamas? At a minimum, weapons, money, supplies, and volunteers will flow from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. As Egyptians are killed and fighting goes on, the level of hysteria and support for Hamas will rise in Egypt. At a maximum, there could be attacks—whether or not Egypt’s military wants them—across the Egypt-Israel border and even possibly direct supplies of weapons from Egypt to Hamas or even Egyptian military intervention.

Compared to these huge implications, Israel is far less affected on other fronts. The “Arab Spring” has actually limited Iranian influence almost totally to Shia areas. It has also limited Turkish influence to a small area.

Since the situation in Syria remains unsettled it is hard to predict the outcome and thus the effect on Israel. What is clear is that the Syrian regime can no longer use attacks on Israel to make problems at home go away. In Lebanon, Hizballah is too busy digging in, dealing with the loss of Syria as a secure patron, and consolidating control over the country to attack Israel in the present, though the situation might change in future.

Overall, the rising confidence of revolutionary Islamists and especially Sunni Islamists creates a more dangerous regional situation for Israel. U.S. credibility is at an all-time low. Indeed, arguably the Obama Administration looks to the Turkish regime, itself Islamist, rather than Israel as its favorite Middle East ally.

While Israel can cope with the situation, then, the situation is terrible and dangerous, not only for Israel but for Western interests generally.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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