Unpacking the Political Crisis in Egypt: its Implications for Israel and the West

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The current Egyptian crisis at best creates a heightened level of uncertainty for Israel and at its worse a fundamental reordering of the power structure of the region. Clearly there is little that the Jewish state can or ought to do at this moment. But for Israel to now possibly face a destabilized Egypt on its flank will not be a comforting notion. But far more problematic would be reordering of the power base in Cairo with the emergence of an array of forces that may well reject the current state of relations with the Jewish State in favor of aligning the Arab World’s largest country with those forces who are committed to the destruction of Israel.

The focus of mob anger and the character of the demonstrations reflect a series of internal messages to the respective governments about economic and social policies and with regard to political access and representation. These grassroots expressions are not about the Arab-Israel conflict. For those who tie the politics of the Middle East exclusively to the policies of the State of Israel, these national expressions in support of democratic ideals refute such a scenario.

But the strategic concerns as a result of these events are clearly not limited to Jerusalem. Across the region Arab leaders are watching with grave concern. The “traditionalist” camp within the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan and Morocco, ought to be extremely worried about the chain of events unfolding in Cairo. The real possibilities for revolutionary change may well not be limited to Tunisia or to Egypt. To maintain the status quo will seem much more problematic for these regimes, and the fall-out for Western interests could be far reaching and potentially challenging as there is the possibility for a significant shift in the region’s balance of power. Should radical regime change occur, these current friends of the United States could abruptly disconnect or alter their relationships with Washington.

The “rejectionist” front led by Iran and supported by Syria and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, see the potential here to redefine the power balance in the region. Radical Islamic forces are quick to understand that the “Arab Street” can serve as the organizing grounds for promoting a restructuring of those forces aligned against Israel and the West. The unfolding discontent may well have its consequences in the West Bank as well. Inspired by the scenes in Cairo, Amman, and Tunis, and encouraged by Hamas supporters, Palestinians may elect to opt for a different course by rejecting the Palestinian Authority. At the same moment, this revolutionary enthusiasm may result in a more rapid movement to achieve statehood for the Palestinians.

In the power vacuum that may emerge in Egypt and elsewhere, parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, may be able to mobilize public support in the absence of a unified coalition of opposition parties. Such a development would represent a major challenge both to Washington and to Jerusalem, where a new Islamic coalition could forge its presence as the major power broker. Other forces including Al Qaeda will seek to take advantage of a weakened central government in Cairo as a way of forging their agenda and influence.

Foreign Offices in European capitals along with the State Department seem to be taken by surprise surrounding these events and even at this hour are struggling to find ways to embrace the regimes in power while encouraging efforts to promote greater democracy; on the one hand Western governments are expressing their desire to ensure stability while on the other recognizing the need for governmental reform throughout the region.

For the United States and for Israel, the implications of the change of political balance could be significant, possibly undermining any effort to secure agreements between Israel and Palestinians and unraveling the security arrangements brokered by Washington that have created a framework for stability within the region covering the past forty years. It is now conceivable that Israel will find itself surrounded as it did in 1948 by a ring of nation-states committed to its destruction.

Whatever may lie ahead, the Middle East tomorrow will be most certainly a different political playing field than it has been over the past half century. These potential developments will fundamentally recast American global interests and in turn, redefine Jewish philanthropic and political priorities.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller has written extensively on foreign affairs and Jewish communal issues. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania.