Egypt is steadily backing away from its peace treaty with Israel, with possible dire consequences for the region's stability and Israeli-Arab relations in general. Yesterday's demolition of the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline near El Arish, in Sinai, was only the latest in a series of ominous signs.
Many in the West waxed enthusiastic as thousands of Cairenes took to the streets two months ago to topple their aged dictator, President Hosni Mubarak: The revolution was hailed—along with the other outbursts of popular anger across the Arab world—as the birth of freedom in a long-dormant, long-unfree world.
And while none could remain unmoved at the sight of multitudes claiming their political voice for the first time, the ultimate outcome of this human turbulence is as yet unclear.
But, for Israelis, the Arab spring, as some call it—though it might yet turn out to have been an Arab autumn—had a clear, dark subtext, which many in the West preferred to ignore or deny. “What is happening is about the Arab world, internally; it has nothing to do with Israel,” they claimed.
But I'm afraid it has, and in spades, and the chickens are beginning to come home to roost. From the start, at least as regards Egypt, Israel was there as an issue, if not absolutely in the foreground then certainly not in a faraway background. Pictures occasionally appeared of Mubarak surrounded by a Star of David; occasionally, the crowds chanted that he was a lackey of America and Israel.
Now the issue is definitely moving to the foreground. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press this week published a poll about what Egyptians think and want. The New York Times preferred to head its report in the matter by pointing to the overwhelming optimism of post-revolutionary Egyptians about their collective future. But the poll's more striking feature was the finding that 54% of Egyptians want to annul the country's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a key symbol of the gradual dissipation (at the time) of the pan-Arab-Israel conflict and the precedential cornerstone of any possible Israeli-Palestinian accommodation in the future. The percentage of nay-sayers rose among less educated Egyptians, though a full 45% of educated Egyptians also sought the annulment of the treaty.
(The poll also showed that 36% of Egyptians favored Islamic fundamentalism—a smaller number opposed such fundamentalism—and more than half believed that the Koran or Islamic sharia law should be the basis or guideline for the country's constitution.)
On the energy front, two of Mubarak's former energy ministers, Mahmoud Latif and Sameh Fahmy, are to stand trial for selling the gas to Israel at a discount (and, presumably, personally profiting in the process). Mubarak himself is today regularly portrayed as a dupe—or Zionist agent—and may be held to account in this connection. The bilateral $2.5 billion agreement, signed in 2005 though never popular with the Egyptian public, was for fifteen years, with an option for five additional years. The Egyptians began supplying the gas through the overland pipeline in 2008.
Yesterday's explosion severing the pipeline—it provided about half of the fuel for Israel's electricity-generating plants—was but the latest instalment in the saga. About two months ago, the gasline was reportedly damaged by saboteurs and Egypt ceased supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan) for about a month. It was unclear then whether the line was really damaged or by whom. Now the supply has completely stopped. For yesterday's sabotage the Egyptian military, which runs the country, have blamed "unknown, armed" assailants—though conspiracy theorists, who abound in the region, might suggest that one of their own squads perpetrated the explosion, to put an end to the unpopular energy link while being able to deny responsibility. Simply stopping the gas supply would be a breach of contract and might well go down poorly in Washington.
All of this may augur a definitive Egyptian-Israeli rift following the establishment of a new government in Egypt after the scheduled September general elections. Whether that government would go so far as formally to cancel the peace treaty and renew the state of belligerence between the two countries is unclear. But without doubt Israel will no longer enjoy the certainty and strategic benefit of a quiescent and dependable neighbor on its southern front as it faces its enemies to the east and north (Hezbollah and Iran/Syria). How such a new Egyptian regime will handle Hamas (and the Israeli-Hamas conflict) along the Gaza Strip border is anyone's guess—though much will depend on the size of the Muslim Brotherhood contingent in the future Egyptian government. (Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of the brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist party.)
And one last word about the Pew poll, which many of the participants appear to have missed. There may well be a clear contradiction, for Egyptians, between viewing their future optimistically and scrapping the peace with Israel. Put another way, the annulment of the treaty might lead to Egypt rejoining the Arab confrontation front against Israel and even to participation in new wars. And I doubt if this would result in a roseate future for Egyptians.