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Conversation with… Ora Szekely

Ora Szekely

Ora Szekely

Clark Professor Discusses Egyptian Turmoil and What it Means for Israeli Peace

By Abigail Adams

In 2011, popular protests in Egypt ousted Hosni Mubarak from his 20-year post as president and sparked uprisings throughout the Arab world.  Two years later, popular protests in Egypt have again overthrown the country’s political leadership, this time ousting Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate elected president in June 2012, and canceling the Islamist based Constitution that was adopted in December.

In response to the mass demonstrations led by the grassroots protests movement Tamarud, the Egyptian military officially deposed Morsi July 3rd after announcing their plan to disband the Constitution, appoint an interim administration and hold new elections within a year.  As Egypt erupts with deadly protests, both for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, during its transition to new political leadership, Israel has remained silent.

Israel and Egypt ended over 30 years of hostilities in 1979 and have since developed solid economic and security relationships.  Despite Morsi’s public refusal to meet with Israeli leaders during his presidency, security cooperation between Egypt and Israel continued. The turmoil following Morsi’s ouster and the Egyptian military’s crackdown on leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have again opened speculation about the future of Israel and Egypt’s relationship – is it a turn for the better, with the Islamists out of political power, or for the worse, with Islamic militancy on the rise in the Sinai?

While backdoor reports have emerged about the Israeli government pressuring the Obama administration to maintain its aid package to Egypt, Netanyahu has instructed his government’s ministers to not publicly comment on the unfolding events in Egypt. The Jewish Ledger asked Ora Szekely from Clark University in for her perspective on the political upheaval in Egypt and what it means for Israel’s security.

Szekely joined Clark University’s Political Science Department as Assistant Professor after receiving her Ph.D. from McGill University in 2011. Her dissertation, “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money:  Resources, Relationships and Militia Survival in the Middle East”, compared the impact of foreign sponsorship and civilian support for Hamas, Hizbullah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization on their campaigns against Israel. Her research concentrates on non-state actors, Middle Eastern politics, new media, propaganda and political mobilization.

 

Q: What implication does Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood have for Islamic militants in Gaza?

A: The Morsi government was in a difficult position with regard to Hamas.  On the one hand, Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza in the 1970s, although it’s become quite independent politically over the years.  I think they hoped that Morsi’s government would help ease the situation in Gaza a bit, but I think Hamas was somewhat disappointed by its relationship with the Morsi government.  From their perspective, though, it was certainly an improvement over the Mubarak regime.

Q: What does the unrest in the Sinai mean for Israel’s security? What are the possible scenarios Israel should be preparing for?

A: No one – not Hamas, not the Egyptian military, not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Israeli government, and especially not those who live in the Sinai – wants chaos in the Sinai.  There are, however, plenty of people who are doing quite well off from the smuggling trade. The most pernicious component of this is human trafficking, particularly of desperate Sudanese and Eritreans, trying to reach Israel for a combination of political and economic reasons.  Many experience abuse at the hands of those traffickers.

This is something that Israel will face more of if the Sinai border becomes less secure.  And, of course, there is always the risk of increased arms trafficking as well.  At present, Hamas appears to be trying to avoid a direct conflict with Israel, but there are always smaller factions looking to compete with Hamas and Islamic Jihad who would like to get their hands on small arms.

Q: Israel continues to maintain a strong relationship with Egypt’s military, which is currently aligned with popular protests. However, the military has recently come under criticism from protestors that supported the ouster of Morsi for their heavy hand.  If protests turn against Egypt’s military, what will it mean for Israeli-Egyptian relations?

A: I don’t think it’s likely that the Egyptian Army is going to lose power any time soon — they are more or less as powerful now as they were before the revolution.  Although Morsi did push some of the old leadership out, they maintain their historic privileges, particularly in terms of their commercial interests.  Popular protests are unlikely to have any effect on this.

Q: Is Egypt capable of holding democratic elections? If so, what political factions in Egypt would be the most and least beneficial to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship?

A: Egypt has already had democratic elections.  They were by and large quite successful, although the run-off process and the poor campaign strategies used by the badly prepared liberal parties meant that the Muslim Brotherhood ended up in power with only about 30% popular support.  But that’s a matter of reworking the electoral system — Egyptians themselves have demonstrated that they are quite committed to democracy.

The recent protests against the Muslim Brotherhood were largely because the MB was perceived as a) grossly incompetent, b) increasingly authoritarian, and c) having subverted the revolution as a result of a and b.  In terms of which party Israel should be cheering for — the answer is “democracy.” Because of Egypt’s need for U.S. aid (in particular for U.S. military aid), I think there’s very little danger that any of the parties will be abandoning the peace treaty any time soon. What will benefit Israel (and the rest of Egypt’s neighbors) more than anything is stability.

Dictatorships are, ultimately, unpredictable – if nothing else, since they aren’t bound by the collective common sense of the public, you sometimes end up with a Qaddhafi or a Kim Jong Il.   While the process of democratization is slow, uncertain, often violent, and rarely goes in a straight line, democracy itself is much more stable and reliable than authoritarian rule, and it’s certainly what the Egyptian people deserve.

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