CAIRO — Whatever new government emerges from the uprising in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s relations with Israel and the United States are likely to become more difficult in the months ahead with an infusion of Arab nationalism and skepticism about Egypt’s landmark peace treaty with Israel.
Many of those who helped oust President Hosni Mubarak, including secular democracy activists and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, say the 32-year-old treaty should be respected for now because Egypt is in political limbo and overwhelmed by internal upheavals. But they add that when stability is restored, the pact should be submitted to the Egyptian people for approval, through a new parliament scheduled to be elected in September and then perhaps in a public referendum.
The desire to reconsider the treaty marks a clear difference with the policy of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which soon after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 departure declared that Egypt would respect all its international commitments, including the treaty with Israel. The open-ended declaration, reportedly made at U.S. urging, was designed to reassure Israel, where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had warned that his nation faced uncharted dangers in the months ahead because of the revolts across the Arab world.
Much about Egypt’s policy toward Israel will be determined by the relationships that emerge between the military and the civilian government due to be elected later this year, which is expected to include representatives of many of the groups that brought down Mubarak.
“There was no real end to the war with Israel, just a truce,” said Shadi Mohammed, a 26-year-old leader of the April 6 Movement that helped promote the Tahrir Square demonstrations. “That’s just my personal opinion, but there are a lot of people who think like I do.”
Mohammed Maher, a Muslim Brotherhood activist helping organize for the parliamentary vote, said that if his group gains influence through the elections, Egypt is likely to pursue closer ties with Gaza, opening border crossings and promoting trade as a way to undermine the Israeli blockade. The Brotherhood traditionally has focused on Gaza because the territory’s ruling Palestinian group, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Shady Ghazali Harb, a 32-year-old surgeon in the Democratic Front Party who supports Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear agency chief, also advocated stronger action to relieve besieged Palestinians in Gaza. “The environment there is inhuman,” he said.
These goals for Gaza would mark a sharp change from the way Israel and Egypt have done business in recent years.
Mubarak, eager to maintain economic and military aid from the United States, cooperated closely with Israel in Gaza security matters, including attempts to halt arms and other smuggling along the border. The Egyptian intelligence chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, was a trusted intermediary between the Israeli government and Palestinian militant groups. Suleiman is long gone, having dropped out of sight along with Mubarak.
“Mubarak believed the door to the United States was through Israel,” said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a founding member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and a former member of parliament who lectures at the American University in Cairo. “But that is no more.”
The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said in a Fox News interview last week that the Muslim Brotherhood’s expanded role represents a threat to Israel and to Egypt itself.
But he expressed confidence that whatever government comes to power in Cairo will see its relationships with Israel, the United States and Europe as keys to maintaining economic health in this nation of 80 million mostly poor people.
The United States has poured $2 billion a year into Egypt in military and economic aid since the treaty with Israel was signed in 1979.
Harb, the ElBaradei supporter, said his group thinks the treaty obligates Israel to make more concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians. “We are for sticking by the treaty,” he said, “but we are also seeking a peace based on justice between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Makram-Ebeid, who sits on the protesters’ Council of Trustees of the Revolution, suggested treaty provisions limiting the number of Egyptian soldiers stationed along the Gaza border should be reviewed. But the main difference in Egyptian foreign policy is likely to be a demand for respect, she said, adding that many Egyptians felt humiliated by what she described as servile willingness by Mubarak to do what he was told by Washington.
“No more of the headmaster telling us what to do,” she said.
Makram-Ebeid said she told the same thing, in more diplomatic language, to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a meeting in Cairo two weeks ago.
Clinton had sought to meet with a range of pro-democracy leaders in addition to the military government, but a number of protest leaders refused her invitation. Clinton generated outrage during the protests by suggesting Mubarak should stay in power to oversee a transition to new elections in the fall. Harb, whose group declined to talk with Clinton, said she had turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s repression because keeping him around would have been more comfortable for U.S. policy.
But Mohammed, the April 6 activist, said most of the protest leaders boycotted Clinton not because of her personal stand, and not even because she represented the United States, but because they decided not to be seen with any foreign leaders. “Things are very sensitive right now,” he added.
Correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem and special correspondent Muhammad Mansour in Cairo contributed to this report.