Written by Itzhak Levanon
Before leaving Egypt at the end of November 2011, I went to see old friends. Before the revolution they had a lot of hope, but since the revolution they feel lost, and nobody seems to know where they are going. Allow me to share with you from my personal experience before the revolution during the “Mubarak regime,” during the revolution, and after the revolution.
In the midst of the eighteen crucial days between the start of Egypt’s revolution on January 25, 2011, and the day when he stepped down as president on February 11, Mubarak came up with a deal. I think he sent this deal to the Americans and to the young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. The deal was that he would immediately start a process of reforms according to their demands. It also stated that neither he nor his son, Gamal, would run for president. A new constitution would be written and, in return, he would like to remain in power until completion of his term in September 2011. According to him, this would permit a smooth transfer of power, without violence and bloodshed. It meant basically that he would have another seven to eight months in power. Mubarak thought that by presenting this deal, everybody would understand that for the sake of Egypt, this was more important than anything else. He was wrong, and the answer came quickly from Tahrir Square and resonated across the planet. For eighteen days the people in Tahrir Square screamed “Erhal” (Just go away).
On February 11, Mubarak took a helicopter to Sharm el-Sheikh, a day after the United States and those in Tahrir Square expected him to announce his resignation but he did not. He did not strike a deal with his minister of defense, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, about his leaving office, but just announced that he was going to Sharm el-Sheikh and handed over power to Tantawi, who did not want it. Perhaps Mubarak thought that one day soon he would be back. Mubarak saw himself as a real Egyptian patriot.
Imagine for a moment that the deal had been accepted, and the Americans would have supported it. Most probably Egypt would have spared itself the tragic developments that were witnessed in the last year. By now, the people would have elected a new president and the reforms would have been underway. So why did the young revolutionaries refuse the deal? They refused it, as did the rest of the population, because they had had enough of a regime which had lasted too long. Thirty years, compared to the periods of Nasser (16 years) and Sadat (12 years), was a long time for a regime which persecuted a lot of people. At the same time, the younger generation and the young people in Tahrir Square, as well as the majority of the people, knew that this regime was seeking to perpetuate the Mubarak dynasty by implementing the idea of the succession of his son Gamal. Mubarak’s wife wanted to see her son as the next president of Egypt. She thought if this happened in Morocco, Syria, and Jordan, why not in Egypt?
On the eve of the revolution, the Mubarak regime did not invest any time or effort to improve the citizens’ welfare or to alleviate the iron fist of the state security, but rather was seeking to find ways to make the succession work. When I was there, all the discussions about what will happen when Mubarak dies were about which article of the constitution would permit his son to succeed him. The reality on the ground was that very few officials supported the idea of succession, including the army. Field Marshal Tantawi was vehemently against the succession and he made it very clear to Mubarak, but Mubarak insisted.
A huge proportion of the population was also vehemently opposed to the idea of the succession of Mubarak’s family. During this period, Mubarak underwent serious surgery in Germany, and upon his return he was labeled “the sick old man.” Rumors spoke about pancreatic cancer, a life-threatening disease, and so the issue of his survival was on the table. He was still respected by the majority of the population because he was the leader. He was the one who fought Israel during the Yom Kippur War. People said they had no problem with him, but under no circumstances would they permit his son to succeed him.
At the end of 2010, elections were held for the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament. There was flagrant and extensive fraud during these elections, which accelerated the deterioration of the image of the president and his regime, which was considered openly corrupt. At the time, some courageous newspaper columnists suggested to Mubarak that he cancel the elections because of the fraud, but he insisted on supporting the results. Despite this, the regime was perceived by the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and Israel as strong and stable.
The young people who triggered the revolution and filled the square for eighteen days are real Egyptian patriots. They love their country, and they are not manipulated by foreign interests. Their slogans were a genuine outcry for change inside Egypt. Their demands at the beginning of the revolution were very modest – more human rights, more jobs, more respect, and more reforms. In sum, they wanted to improve their lives. What happened was that the slow response from the government, from Mubarak, the use of excessive force, and the sudden collapse of the police with the first clash completely changed the course of events.
The revolutionaries first took to the streets on Police Day, a holiday in Egypt. They clearly stated that the demonstration was a peaceful one. Had the police behaved differently, and not used excessive force, I presume the protest would have ended the same day and the course of events would have been totally different.
During the first year of the revolution the army took over from the president, but it had always been kept away from politics by Mubarak, so when power was transferred to them, they had no experience in domestic politics and they started to make mistakes. In all my meetings with President Mubarak, together with Israeli, American, and Palestinian personalities, we discussed security and military matters, but Field Marshal Tantawi, the minister of defense, was never present.
The young revolutionaries had no recognized leadership throughout the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and they still lack leadership and thus have no political experience. They cannot take over the regime and be responsible for the country. The Islamists, on the other hand, are more organized, with a strong social network, permitted by both Mubarak and Sadat, and they have practically hijacked the revolution. Since they have political experience, they invested their efforts not in Tahrir Square and in demonstrations, but rather in the elections, at the same time avoiding antagonizing the SCAF – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The results of the elections speak for themselves. Traditional secular parties, such as the Nasserites or the Kefaya (Enough) movement with George Ishak, vanished. Even the liberals did not succeed in getting decent representation. What we see today is a redistribution of the political cards and the focuses of power in Egypt.
The young people who started the revolution are deeply frustrated. They are naive, politically speaking. Compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is well-organized, they have been perceived by the public as weak. After the elections, they are even more frustrated, as they got nothing.
Today, after the elections, there are three prominent pillars which dominate the scene in Egypt. The first is the street – the public. This is a novelty in an Arab country and in the history of the Arab countries. The street became vocal, and today they can translate this voice into political gains. So any leader today or in the future will have to take this into account. The street is not quiet anymore – it has a voice. I would say that the more the voice of the public increases, the more the influence of the leader decreases.
The second pillar is the SCAF, to which power was transferred after Mubarak’s fall. In their first year, they put themselves on a collision course with the young revolutionaries. Their first mistake, and one of the biggest, is that they let the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and the Islamists out of prison and allowed them to officially enter public life. They should have waited until new institutions were established and then invited them to join.
Few in Egypt believe that the army is sincere about the transfer of power to the civilians. Many believe that the real objective of the army is to maintain its special status, which the army has had in Egypt since the revolution of 1952. That revolution was instigated by the young officers, and to this day the army is behind the power in Egypt.
The special status of the military is seen throughout Egypt. They have their own hospitals and hotels. They are deeply involved in the economy, and they have their own budget. This is an institution that is quasi-independent, and very strong. When the military said that they would like to keep the status quo, this was in response to the Muslim Brotherhood inside the People’s Assembly which is asking that parliament oversee or control the army and its budget.
The third pillar is the Muslim Brotherhood. After years of imposed political exile, the Muslim Brotherhood has entered domestic political life in Egypt by the front door, and is part and parcel of this political life. At an early stage after the revolution, we detected at least a tacit understanding between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, to the detriment of the revolutionaries. Today, the animosity between these three pillars is at its highest. The young generation does not believe the army, and they have asked for the immediate transfer of power to the civilians, and not to wait until the end of the roadmap established by the army, meaning the election of the president on May 23-24 (with a run-off on June 16-17, if necessary). There is also huge animosity between these young people and the Muslim Brotherhood, and also a great suspicion about a hidden agenda between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.
One fear today in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to have not only legislative power, but also executive power. To have both of them together would be seen as very dangerous by the army.
According to the current Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, the general trend is toward a more conciliatory approach to democracy. He says that Islam can live with the state, and the state has to be civilian and pluralist because there are different kinds of people inside it. My assessment is that the Muslim Brotherhood will compromise with others and will seek a consensus. They understand that if there is failure, the failure will be theirs. This is why they would like to share it with others, and this basically means pluralism.
Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the mentor of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said that there is no contradiction between acceptance of civilian democracy and Islam because Islam is a way of life which accepts others. They are trying to explain theologically how they can live in a pluralist society. The tendency will be to compromise in order to live together. This does not mean that they will not work very hard in order to reach their objective, which is to capture the public, not to change the regime. If they can spread their ideology to enough people, the change will come from them.
After the elections for the upper and lower houses of parliament – the Shura Council and the People’s Assembly – the next significant phase is writing a new constitution that will synchronize relations between the three pillars. However, nobody knows what the outcome of this new constitution will be. Who is going to nominate the 100 sages to write the constitution? Will the state be religious or secular? Perhaps they will leave the definition given by Sadat within the existing constitution of 1971, which states that Egypt is a civilian state. They do not like the term “secular” – el-maniya. It is a civilian state where the sharia (Islamic law) is the source for legislation. Are they going to keep Article 2 wherein women and Christians are not allowed to be elected as president? What will be the status of women? What will be the status of minorities? What will be the extent of the power or authority of the new elected president? Today, the Muslim Brotherhood in the new parliament is asking to reduce the power of the next president, which would work in their favor.
What about future relations between Israel and Egypt? The trends I am witnessing are not reassuring. Recently, amid the clashes in the streets between the revolutionaries, the military, and the police, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the newly elected parliament adopted a resolution to boycott any parliamentary activity in the world where Israelis will be present.
When I came to Egypt, I came into a situation which had existed for at least 30 years. Mubarak’s regime intentionally reduced the volume of bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt, keeping a high-level contact channel only with the presidency and his close entourage.
I believe that there should have been reciprocity during the Mubarak regime. Israeli ambassadors did not have free access to ministries, to parties, were banned by the media, were banned by all the unions, while in Israel the Egyptian ambassador is invited to meet with the top level, including the prime minister, and the media quotes him. I think we should be discussing this issue at the highest level with the Egyptians after things settle down.
In some respects, the situation prevailing before the revolution and today has basically not changed much. There are still security contacts at the upper levels between Israel and Egypt, and this is because there is an interest on both sides, but there are no bilateral relations. I do not understand why, after more than seven months since the September 9, 2011, attack on its embassy, Israel is not allowed to have an embassy in Cairo. From time to time, we hear some reassuring statements by officials that Egypt is committed to its international agreements. But with the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood in power today, such statements are not enough.
The declarations coming from Egypt should be coupled with deeds, because only deeds will send the appropriate signal to the public about Egypt’s intentions. The public in Egypt is not aware enough that the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is an Egyptian interest, no less than an Israeli one.
At this point, I believe that the peace treaty is safe. The military is in power and they support peace between Israel and Egypt. The army supports the treaty because they understand that canceling it is not in the interest of Egypt. Secondly, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has three legs; the third leg is the United States. This is why I think the peace treaty is safe, more or less, at this particular time. However, uncertainty about the future raises real concerns. With the new situation where there are extremist ideologies which have entered the political game, it would be wise at this early stage to explain to the Egyptian public that the alternative to peace is a nightmare that we should all avoid.
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Ambassador Itzhak Levanon served as Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt from 2009 to 2011. He first entered the field of public service in 1969 as an assistant for Arab Affairs to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, after which he joined the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972 and served in a variety of positions. He was a member of the Israeli delegation to the peace talks in Washington, D.C., following the Madrid Conference, Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, and spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Arab world. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute of Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on February 9, 2012.