The Middle East Channel

Egypt and Israel after the Shalit Deal

"People underestimate the fact that this relationship [with Israel] is anchored in mutual interest,'' an Egyptian diplomat told me last week when I asked about the deal that finally released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. "Nobody has an interest in seeing it break down."

Those mutual interests have not been in great evidence since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Months of crisis, from a cross-border Israeli raid which killed six Egyptian soldiers to the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, have dominated the bilateral agenda. But Egypt's role in brokering the exchange of Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners demonstrated that fears of a major break between Egypt and Israel have been wildly overstated.

While the Israeli government, Hamas, and other regional actors did their part, there is no question that Egypt played the pivotal role in finally resolving the Shalit affair. Cairo mediated the deal, arranged for Shalit's safe return to Israel, and organized the flights for the 40 Palestinian prisoners who were sent into exile in Turkey, Qatar, and Syria. Egyptian diplomats are understandably proud of their accomplishment. Egypt, which considers itself the most important Arab state, demonstrated for the first time in many years that it could achieve a difficult diplomatic objective. Despite the anti-Israel rhetoric of Egyptian politicians playing to the Cairo crowds as they prepare for parliamentary elections slated to take place next month, Shalit's release showed that Israeli-Egyptian ties are surviving, even thriving, in the post-Mubarak era.

Cairo's role in Shalit's release came at a time of deep uncertainty and doubts about the future of Egypt's relationship with Israel. After Palestinians infiltrated from Egypt and killed eight Israelis this past August and Israeli forces killed six Egyptian border guards in a counter-raid, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship appeared to be in crisis. Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa threatened, "Israel should know that the era in which our sons are killed without a harsh response on our part is over for good." The looting of the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few weeks later only deepened Israel's concerns. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the Egyptian Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby both said the Camp David peace treaty wasn't "sacred'' and may have to be altered. Many Israelis worry about the loss of long-time friends in Cairo, and fear that greater democracy in Egypt will empower hostile voices and potentially place the 32-year old peace accord in peril.

It wasn't out of love for Israel that Egypt mediated Shalit's release. Egypt's military sees a vital self interest in keeping the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty robust. Egypt has its own security interests. Its primary concerns are preserving stability in Gaza, with which it shares a border, and maintaining order in the Sinai, where it has sought to stop smuggling. Another objective of Egypt's interim military leadership is to ease pressure at home, where demonstrators have sharply criticized the current government for undercutting democracy. "The agreement and the deal are a medal on Egypt's chest to be added to the several medals that it deservedly earned for its ongoing defense and support of the Palestinian cause," one commentator wrote in Al-Akhbar, Egypt's mass-circulation, pro-government daily.

Even more important is Egypt's desire to reassure the United States that it remains a reliable regional partner. Just three weeks before Shalit's release, Egypt's foreign minister, Mohamed Amr, told the Associated Press, that Egypt was seeking ways to strengthen its "strategic relationship" with the United States, and pledged that Egypt remained committed to the peace treaty with Israel, despite the comments by the Prime Minister and the Arab League Secretary General to the contrary. The U.S. Congress has been making highly public noises about conditioning or reducing military aid to Egypt, a threat that the Egyptian military and its lobbyists take very seriously. President Barack Obama called Egypt's de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, on Monday to push the military to end emergency law and military trials, and to advance the date for presidential elections. The Egyptian military believes that demonstrating its solid ties with Israel is key to blunting such U.S. pressure.

In Israel, Egypt's positive role in bringing to close what was nothing short of a national trauma, was sadly marred by an opportunistic television interview with Shalit moments after his transfer from Hamas's hands to Egyptian custody. The interview by an overeager Egyptian broadcast journalist, which appeared to catch the frail, overwhelmed, Shalit, off-guard, prompted complaints from Israel's leadership. But Israelis should not let that incident detract from the more important lesson here -- their fears of a hostile new Egypt have not come to pass.

The Shalit deal demonstrates that a post-Mubarak Egypt can be more effective in dealing with issues that concern Israelis. On Shalit himself, dialogue with the new Egyptian leadership achieved what five years discussions with Mubarak and his former, long-time envoy on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Omar Suleiman, could not.

The stalemated reconciliation talks between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and its rival Fatah are Egypt's likely next target. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was just in Cairo. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was there this past weekend. Previous talks between the two parties went nowhere under Mubarak, who Hamas perceived as siding too heavily with Fatah. But given Hamas's willingness to trust Egypt's mediation of the Shalit deal, it might also trust Egypt's new leaders to draft a fair power-sharing deal with Fatah. This might reunite the two factions, helping to bring stability to the Palestinian territories while also reestablishing Egypt's credentials as the main regional powerbroker on Palestinian and Israeli issues.

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were to recognize the value of Cairo's new leverage, opportunities abound. One prospect is back-channel talks that could firm up any ceasefire with Hamas. Even more ambitious, would be looking to Egypt to mediate any new peace talks. Such dialogue with Egypt on issues of mutual interest would not only stabilize the Israel-Gaza front. It would help solidify Israel's relationship with its most important Arab ally.

Janine Zacharia is former Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post and currently the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.

IDF via Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The day after Tunisia's elections

At 6:30 a.m. yesterday, the elections workers on Hope Street were scurrying and the army had taken their positions. My neighborhood elementary school was being taken over to hold the first elections since the overthrow of Ben Ali in January. A small group of voters gathered around the gates on Rue Amel (Hope Street) to cast the first ballots.  

The orderly conduct of voters, observers, elections officials, and security personnel was a constant refrain throughout the day. Tunisians I spoke with almost seemed surprised that their bureaucracy could function so well. Hedia, a family friend excitedly told me, "The observers didn't try and do anything -- they just let us vote on our own." Living in a country that has never held free elections, Tunisian voters seemed to surprise themselves by the efficacy of the process. Now, all attention will turn to the outcome -- not just who won seats, but how the new assembly will be formed and where it will take the new Tunisia.

There were four great tests for the Tunisian election: non-violence, turnout, pluralism, and fairness. Their success was anything but assured.

Many Tunisians worried about the potential for violence during the elections. The war in Libya has created a major security threat for Tunisia. Throughout the summer, the Tunisian press reported on small caches of arms that were found, or criminals in possession of weaponry traced to Libya. The government arrested thousands in pre-election sweeps and deployed 42,000 additional police and National Guard troops to ensure the elections went smoothly. In the end, there were no incidences of Election Day violence reported to the authorities, clearing the way for peaceful elections.

There were also serious concerns that Tunisians would not turn out to vote. After a lackluster voter registration drive over the summer and a widespread sense of disgruntlement with the slow transition process, officials worried that voters would avoid the polls. Despite a massive communications campaign, it was unclear that Tunisians would show engagement in the political process. Although official results are yet to be tallied, unofficial reports indicate that upwards of 70 percent of the population voted, not only legitimizing the elections themselves, but the entire process of writing a new constitution for the country.

Third, many worried that the Electoral Commission would prove biased, leading to illegitimate elections. But the Tunisian elections appear to have been remarkably free and fair. Despite some reported infractions, international and domestic elections observers have largely agreed that the elections were conducted according to international standards of transparency. More importantly, with very few exceptions in certain regions, the Tunisian people, for the first time, saw their officials conduct elections competently and without prejudice. Although there will undoubtedly be some angst over voting infractions and abnormalities, these elections will be viewed as a reasonable expression of the Tunisian people's will. Likewise, despite fears that the elections would be manipulated by outsiders, these elections do not show any signs of outside influence of any kind.

Finally, there were great fears about the prospects of a victory by the Islamist party Ennahdha. Although full results are not yet in, preliminary results show Ennahdha with a commanding lead, perhaps winning as much as 50 percent of the total seats in the assembly. The civil war in Algeria, which started after the military overturned elections won by Islamists, is fresh in the minds of many Tunisians. In the week prior to Tunisia's election, Ennahdha's leader Rached al Ghannouchi raised alarms by calling for his supporters to revolt if the elections were deemed fraudulent. Secularists issued furious warnings about the dangers of Islamist rule. The widely expected Ennahdha victory raised the uncomfortable question of whether Ennahdha would truly be given a fair shot, whether their secular opponents would accept it, and whether the Islamists would live up to their pre-election promises to form a broad coalition government.

In the days following the election, Ennahdha has already reached out to two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettaktol, to form a government of national unity. Both parties have agreed to discuss this possibility with Ennahdha. Meanwhile, the Progressive Democratic Party, which had always refused to ally with Ennahdha (and lost badly on Sunday), announced that it would respect the results of the election and be a part of the opposition. While it is too early to judge, these initial signs of collaboration also point to a major success for the elections and for the coalition building that will be necessary in the Constituent Assembly.

The road ahead will be a difficult one for Tunisia. The plurality of views will make consensus building difficult. Ennahdha supporters, after their substantial victory, may be resentful of challenges to the government and unwilling to compromise on their core values. There are already calls for protests by liberal groups, who Ennahdha supporters are calling sore losers. Tunisian civil society has expanded in the last few months and it will look to influence the Constituent Assembly on human rights, freedom of expression, and censorship. However, if civil society workers display constant challenges to the Islamist majority, they may come to be seen as partisan players rather than defenders of these shared values. Lastly, the economy remains a grim challenge to whichever government emerges. While the Tunisian economy will likely stabilize after the elections, the insecure global economy, particularly that of Europe -- Tunisia's largest trading partner -- will likely be unable to provide the growth needed to cure the endemic unemployment.

U.S. officials thus far have signaled that they are not worried about Ennahdha's victory. But nobody really knows how the international community will react to the seating of an Islamist government, or what policies such a government will pursue abroad. Already, resentment is building at the hysterical reaction of the French press to Ennahdha's victory. Additionally, there will be great temptation for the new government to offer symbolic support for Islamic causes abroad, including the Palestinian issue. It will take great restraint on both sides to manage this politically sensitive relationship.

Post-election Tunisia faces serious challenges. But the debates, for once, will not take place behind closed doors. They will be in the open, in the press, and on the internet. The process will not be easy, but Sunday's elections were a pretty good first step on the road toward democracy in Tunisia.

Erik Churchill