New Egypt foreign minister likely to be tougher on Israel

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 7:03 PM

CAIRO - Egypt on Sunday got its second new government in less than six weeks, including a new foreign minister who is expected to take a tougher line with Israel than the government of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak did.

The newly appointed prime minister, Essam Sharaf, announced his new cabinet as tensions soared between pro-democracy protesters and the army in downtown Cairo, with troops firing live ammunition and civilians armed with knives and sticks dispersing demonstrators who wanted to storm a key security building.

Sharaf was named Thursday as part of an effort by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military council now in charge of Egypt, to appease the country's still restive democracy activists and their demands for a clean sweep of Mubarak-era faces. The previous cabinet was named by Mubarak in late January in a desperate attempt to defuse the mass uprising calling for his resignation.

In one of the most significant shifts, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister since 2004, was replaced by Nabil Elaraby, a career diplomat who won plaudits from demonstrators for joining the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square shortly before Mubarak resigned. He was subsequently appointed to the council of "wise men" named by the demonstrators to help steer the country's path to democracy.

As a member of the team that negotiated the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978, he can be expected to abide by all of Egypt's existing commitments to Israel, analysts and former colleagues said. But he is renowned for having voiced reservations about some of the treaty's clauses to then-President Anwar Sadat, and "will not be willing to accept Israeli excesses in the occupied territories," said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

"Public opinion in Egypt is in favor of a less soft approach to Israel and I think he shares this feeling," he added. "It will be very difficult for him to make the kind of concessions Hosni Mubarak made to Israel," such as during the 2009 Gaza war, when Egypt closed its border with Gaza.

Elaraby is also likely to be more open to establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, improving Egypt's frosty relationship with Syria and opening dialogue with Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, Sayyid said, suggesting that the new Egypt may not be as reliable an ally of the United States as Mubarak's Egypt was.

Among the other new faces in the cabinet is Mansour El-Eissawy, who will head the crucial and sensitive interior ministry, the current focus of the wrath of the protest movement.

In comments quoted by the state news agency, he promised to "shrink the role of the state security apparatus, so that it is only focused on fighting terrorism."

But the protest movement is calling for the complete dismantling of the feared State Security Investigations agency, which is responsible for domestic political surveillance as well as counterterrorism and stands accused of most of the torture commonplace during the Mubarak era. Several of the agency's offices around the country have been overrun in the past two days after rumors that agents were destroying documents that could be used in evidence against government officials.

Soldiers had stood by on Saturday when a large crowd surged into the State Security headquarters in Cairo's Nasr City suburb, seizing documents and handing most, but not all of them, over to prosecutors.

Yet when protesters gathered Sunday outside the agency's office in downtown Cairo with the aim of retrieving documents, army troops opened fire over their heads. At the same time, groups of what witnesses called "thugs" appeared and attacked the demonstrators with sticks and knives in one of the worst episodes of violence since Mubarak's ouster.

Mistrust of military

It was also the first time since the early days of the revolt that armed gangs have confronted activists. Some of those present speculated that the "thugs" were civilians from the area, a stronghold of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, indicating building frustrations on the part of some citizens with the disruptions being caused by the ongoing protest movement.

"We need to give the new government a chance," said Mahmoud Salem, a blogger and activist who was present at the disturbance, but left when the armed civilians appeared. "Some people are bitter and angry and it could lead to hostility later. Ordinary people want things to move on."

Late Sunday, the army allowed 22 activists to enter the Cairo building to inspect the contents. But many in the crowd said the move did not assuage their concerns that the military is still seeking to preserve the old order, despite its recent gestures.

As Amr Rifai, 19, explained, "I don't trust the army."

Mansour is a special correspondent.


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