Was All This About Egypt?

It’s not that I think this is really over. Cairo’s streets are filled with angry people, and Egypt may lurch again toward democracy. But back on the Gaza border a lull in the missile exchanges began Wednesday, and the last 48 hours have been mostly quiet. The citizens of Southern Israel will not be satisfied with this, since however degraded Hamas might be, it was still firing rockets a-plenty when the cease-fire started. One beefy middle-aged guy said that if Netanyahu doesn’t actually stop the attacks from Gaza he will “pay the price” at the polls in January.

But Hillary Clinton dropped by on her way back from Southeast Asia—she and her boss do have other things to think about—and spent some political capital in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo. She wants this to be her closing scene as Secretary of State, and something to brag about if she runs for the Oval Office. That meant some serious arm-twisting for both Israel’s Prime Minister and Egypt’s President Morsy. You could almost hear them say “Ouch.”

And now Morsy has overreached, making a power grab that could cost him his palace. Still, despite demonstrations in Cairo, it looks possible that one of Israel’s main goals in this operation has been reached, and it has nothing directly to do with rockets raining down on Ashdod: the new Egypt’s pivot toward the West. Two years ago Israel knew where it stood in the region; things were unpleasant but stable. Then the Arab Spring swept North Africa and the Middle East. “Friendly”—read “look-the-other-way”—dictators fell like dominoes and several others teetered. Even kings felt the ground move. And Israel necessarily did too.

Some say the Israeli Foreign Ministry used to start every day with a prayer for the health of Hosni Mubarak. The former Egyptian dictator, 84, slipped and fell in the bathroom in one of his own prisons on November 6, and was nursing his wounds while the present Gaza conflict heated up. So Israeli prayers were not exactly answered.

Meanwhile, Egypt had elections, and it elected the Muslim Brotherhood, either Islamic or Islamist depending on whom you believe. In any case they were tight with the designated terrorists ruling Gaza. So they were in the right place at the right time to get a huge boost in international prestige by brokering a cease fire between Israel and Hamas, courtesy of Hillary Clinton’s whistle-stop diplomacy. Clinton said Thursday morning, “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made the country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” This announcement meant three things.

First, Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim-Brotherhood Egyptian president, could now count on American and European money as long as he keeps Hamas in check. This was something Mubarak did with a stick, but Morsy or his successors can do with a carrot, and the result could be more stability.

Second, Morsy had a chance. or thought he did, to consolidate his rule over Egypt. He clenched his governmental fist  just a few hours after Hillary left. Thursday night he announced enlarged, sweeping powers until a constitution is in place, which may be a while. And Frday Morsy spoke at a mosque and a rally confirming his new role and sweetening the message with proposed new prosecutions of Mubarak and his henchmen for crimes committed during the Arab Spring. Now Tahrir Square is filled with protestors against Morsy, and some are calling him a “new Pharoah,” so he may step back, but it may be too late.

Third, where Israel is concerned, Morsy is now slipping into Mubarak’s old robes. He wants to be the strongman of Egypt; backed by the army, which wants no war with Israel. If he rides out the instability he caused with his power-grab, he can guarantee a much more important peace than any between Israel and Hamas: The peace between Israel and Egypt.

Starting last year, Israel had to consider—for the first time in decades—defending its southern border from the most populous, most important Arab nation. There is no way  Israel can proceed as it has without knowing that it doesn’t  have to worry about that border. And in an extreme irony, the same Morsy who wants to re-prosecute Mubarak  wants to play the same role as that dictator vis-à-vis Israel and Gaza, albeit with different rhetoric and means.

People in Ashdod are angry at Netanyahu for not finishing the job; they expect more rockets from Gaza. But Israel may have gained something much more important: the assurance of a once-more neutral Egypt, whose vast army will sit tight or maybe even help keep a lid on Sinai and Gaza terrorism.

If Israel didn’t pacify Gaza, maybe it pacified Egypt, perhaps a main goal all along. Should Morsy fall, and unless Egypt disintegrates, pro-democracy forces will be even less likely to go to war with Israel. Either way, pivoting Egypt back toward the West may make it once again the Arab World’s stable center, and thus a vital counterweight to an ever-more-ominous Iran,  left standing alone and bewildered in this latest round of Middle Eastern musical chairs.

Meanwhile, Iran’s ally Syria is in flames. If, as is likely, the wind blows against Assad, we may see an Arab World—a Sunni world—united behind Egypt, and prepared for whatever is necessary to counter Iran’s bid for ultimate regional power. Look at the map, it’s worth a thousand words.

Added on 11/26: As of today, Ehud Barak has resigned as Defense Minister, to spend time with his family. Or is it “resigned” in hope of some sort of political draft in January? Anyway, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Gaza action, except that he was planning this announcement and waiting until Gaza was (temporarily) over.