In the old days, when the Israeli military bombed and shelled Palestinians and sought to destroy their society, Hosni Mubarak used a well-worn formula, fully abetting Israeli actions while uttering pro-Palestine platitudes. Occasionally, when huge protests rocked the streets, he green-lighted theatrical gestures such as his wife heading a relief convoy to Gaza in 2002, and his son fronting a delegation to Beirut when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006.
Today, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not only steered clear of a single expression of token solidarity with Palestinians. He and his media creatures have actually ventriloquized Israeli talking points: Hamas is responsible for the staggering civilian death toll; Hamas is a terrorist organization; Hamas ought to be tried for war crimes. One of Sisi’s shills even instigated a diplomatic crisis with Morocco when she attacked King Mohammed VI for allowing Islamists to form the government, prompting an official apology by the Egyptian ambassador to Morocco.
What accounts for this baffling state of affairs? Mubarak’s and Sisi’s are both dictatorial regimes, and Sisi is seen as the logical heir to Mubarak (albeit rudely interrupted by the evanescent Egyptian revolution). But why is Sisi going out of his way to advertise his identity of interest with Israel? Surely it’s better for him to be circumspect and keep up appearances?
But Sisi is not Mubarak. For the old dictator, parliamentary Islamism in both its Egyptian and Palestinian versions was a troublesome popular movement to be contained. For the new dictator, it’s an existential threat to be crushed. Mubarak and his intelligence chief mediated unfairly but serviceably between Israel and Hamas. Sisi and his intelligence chief have given up any pretense of mediation, ferrying Israeli ultimatums to Hamas and openly expressing intense dislike not just for the Islamists but for any pro-resistance Palestinian.
Sisi’s foreign policy is of a piece with his belligerent domestic modus operandi, built on the same three pillars: an exterminationist stance toward any bottom-up political mobilization, Islamist or otherwise; an alliance with anti-change social forces; and a crude, over-the-top propaganda machine specifically designed to overturn Egyptians’ sound beliefs, be it their aversion to state violence to eliminate political opponents or their enduring affinity with Palestinians. Sisi’s Palestine-Israel policy is but a grotesque manifestation of the ascendant counter-revolutionary regional order.
Gaza in the Time of Counter-Revolution
On one level, Israel’s war on Gaza this year is only the latest round in Israel’s ongoing punishment of Palestinians for electing Hamas in 2006. But this time, Israeli aggression enables and is enabled by a regionwide anti-democratic surge, an effort born to counter the uprisings in 2011 that has now grown from an implicit constellation into an open alliance.
The millions who led and championed the Arab uprisings wanted to create representative governments answerable to their citizens, not least on foreign affairs, especially the just treatment of Palestinians. But what they ultimately got was a brazen, super-motivated, anti-change regional coalition that now counts Israel as its proud newest member.
The fact that a rightwing Israeli ruling establishment and a gaggle of new and old Arab dictators have jettisoned the old decorum and are openly making common cause is an unintended outcome of the 2011 uprisings, brought about by the intense struggle between pro-change forces in the Arab world and the powerful guardians of the status quo.
Sisi’s military coup last year was the crowning achievement of the regional counter-revolutionary entente. Finally the spark of Egyptian democratization was extinguished once and for all. After maintaining a studied reticence about the Arab uprisings in 2011-2012, Israeli officials began to openly laud Arab monarchs and military dictators as a strong “Sunni axis.” Hawkish Israeli powerbroker Amos Gilad even triumphantly proclaimed that Arab democracy is “four or five” decades away.
By openly declaring which side it’s on in the epic battle for Arab democratization, Israel unwittingly accelerates yet another unintended outcome: the merger of the two great popular strivings of the modern Middle East, the struggle for popular sovereignty within each state and the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty within an independent state.
Arab democratization and Palestinian self-determination have always been linked in practice, both in the sentiments and political activism of populations and in the stratagems of rulers. But in journalistic writings, academic tomes, and rulers’ speeches, they’re carefully compartmentalized as two separate stories, one a domestic affair between rulers and populations, the other an international great game involving superpowers, non-state actors, aspiring regional hegemons, and transnational civil society.
Among its many other long-term consequences, Israel’s latest bombing and shelling of Gaza makes it much harder to pretend that Arab democratization is one track and the Arab-Israeli conflict another. They’ve always been nested within and feed off each other. Israel’s brutal control over Palestinians deepens anti-government popular mobilization in Arab countries. And Arab rulers’ methods of repression drive them closer and closer to Israeli interests, Israeli rhetoric, and the abiding Israeli fear of unsubjugated Arab citizens.
Egypt’s Regime Changes
It’s no news that Arab presidents and monarchs are rabid anti-democrats. Neither is it news that Israeli generals and prime ministers (and a hefty portion of the Israeli public) are allergic to Arab democratization. What is new is how openly and enthusiastically they’re seizing the moment to together crush the experience of Arab self-rule in both its Palestinian and wider regional variants.
Egypt’s trajectory since 2011 is crucial to understanding the development of the new Israel-inclusive anti-democratic regional caucus. Days into Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Netanyahu instructed his officials to keep mum about it until events play out. Naturally, the Israeli establishment was terrified at the prospect of “losing Egypt.”
When that prospect was on the cusp of becoming reality, then-defense minister Ehud Barak articulated the longstanding Israeli equation of political change in Egypt with a “takeover” by the Muslim Brothers. “The real winners of any short-term election, let’s say within 90 days, will be the Muslim Brotherhood, because they are already ready to jump,” Barak told Christiane Amanpour, elaborating, “Usually in revolutions, if they’re violent, there is an eruption of idealist sentiment at the first moment and then later on, sooner than later, the only group which is coherent, focused, ready to kill and be killed if necessary, takes power.”
A year and a half later, when the Muslim Brothers won the presidency, not by “jumping” on anything or killing anybody but in fair-and-square elections, Israeli expectations were that Mohamed Morsi would greet Hamas with open arms and establish an Egypt-Turkey-Hamas-Qatar-Tunisia axis that would stand up to Israel. Amos Gilad claimed that Hamas’s “self-confidence was huge when Morsi was in power.”
In fact, as Nicolas Pelham details, Morsi was severely constrained by the military in his dealings with Hamas, especially after the August 2012 killing of Egyptian border guards that the military blamed on Hamas. The military asserted its primacy in scripting foreign policy, and in short order “Egyptian bulldozers began digging up tunnels with a tenacity Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had rarely shown.”
When Israel bombed Gaza in November 2012, Morsi engaged in a pragmatic balancing act. He addressed outraged public opinion by dispatching his prime minister to Gaza, recalling Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, and opening the Rafah crossing to the Gaza injured, while working all channels with Israel to negotiate a ceasefire. Morsi earned plaudits from Obama for his effective mediation (“he sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology”), but to many Egyptians and Palestinians his approach was disappointingly tepid.
It was Morsi and the Muslim Brothers’ repeatedly demonstrated pragmatism that was troubling to the region’s anti-change coalition. Israeli and Saudi officials love to tar the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, Hamas and other parliamentary Islamists as “extremists” and “terrorists,” but they would say the same thing if the Islamists were communists. Israel did say the same thing about the Palestinian national movement when it was dominated by the secular nationalists of the PLO.
What the region’s anti-democrats really fear are representative leaders with broad popular constituencies to whom they’re answerable in periodic elections. When these alternative elites are in power, and not the likes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, life is unbearably hard for Israel and Saudi Arabia, because they have to actually deal with the preferences of populations and modify their policies, and that’s unacceptable.
The Regional Anti-democratic Caucus
For Israel, no less than for Saudi Arabia and the junior members of the anti-democratic caucus (Jordan and the UAE), Sis’s coup was a blessing, promising to reverse the dangerous consequences of Egyptian democratization. Those consequences had literally landed on their doorsteps, as Egyptian crowds encircled the Israeli and Saudi embassies in 2011 and 2012 to protest the two countries’ arrogant, unaccountable policies.
No one can accuse Israeli and Saudi rulers of not understanding the implications of a democratic Egypt. A representative government, even if led by the tame Muslim Brothers and hamstrung by the Egyptian military, would be susceptible to popular clamor for democratic control over foreign policy. Translation: the end of Israeli and Saudi impunity. Israel would have to stop killing Palestinians every few months and start accepting Hamas as an integral part of the Palestinian national movement. And Saudi Arabia would have to end its perennial abuse of non-Saudi nationals and face unprecedented scrutiny of its treatment of citizens.
No surprise then that the Sisi counter-revolution is a cherished Saudi-Israeli investment. Saudi Arabia sends him ample funds and Israel sends him abiding love and support. “I think that the whole world should support Sisi…Sisi and the liberals, ElBaradei and others, they deserve the support of the free world,” gushed former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak in August 2013. Leave it to an Israeli politician to seriously call on the free world to back an Arab military dictator.
Breaking with their usual reticence about their “moderate” Arab friends, Israeli officials have echoed Barak, advertising the emergent alignment. Israeli defense official Amos Gilad heralded the “heavyweight axis” of Arab states which doesn’t view Israel as an enemy. “This has huge importance…and gives us many opportunities,” he enthused.
In the middle of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza and in light of the Sisi regime’s crucial collusion, a former Israeli military intelligence chief was well pleased with Israel’s admission into the Arab dictators’ club. “For perhaps the first time, there is a true convergence of interest among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Israel in limiting the spread of Islamist extremism.”
In his recent press conference, Netanyahu echoed Gilad’s words, hailing “the unique link which has been forged with the states of the region. This as well is a very important asset for the State of Israel. With the cessation of the fighting and the conclusion of the campaign, this will open new possibilities for us.”
Thanks to persistent journalists, the Sisi-Israel link has moved from the closed-door world of military officialdom to a matter of public knowledge. Last year, Sisi was in “heavy communication with Israeli colleagues” throughout the coup and its aftermath, namely security forces’ repeated mass killings of Morsi supporters. In turn, Israeli officials closely coordinated with Sisi first their strangling and then their bombardment of Gaza, checking his “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified.”
When Egyptian generals are in close contact with Israeli counterparts as they unleash state violence on dissenting citizens, and when Israeli officials check in every day with Egypt’s military rulers to gauge their tolerance for the merciless bombing of Gazans, it won’t do to euphemize this as anything other than the lethal partnership it is.
The Regional Quest for Self-Determination
The Arab uprisings did not succeed in setting up durable representative governments or just economic systems. The threat of such momentous democratic changes led regional power-holders to band closer together and reveal their lethal collaboration, quelling for now the massive movements from below for political and economic emancipation.
But the more that Israel and its Arab monarchical and military partners pool their efforts to crush popular strivings in Gaza, the West Bank, Cairo, Manama, and Amman, the more that they unintentionally crystallize the manifold struggles against them. We already know that nothing brings together ideological adversaries and divided classes in the Arab world like the Palestinian cause. Now, instead of merely sympathizing with Palestinians, other Arabs may see themselves and Palestinians as part of a common fellowship of the oppressed, especially those Syrians and Egyptians who have suffered overwhelming state violence.
At this juncture, it would be wishful thinking to say that the counter-revolutionary alliance will give rise to a reconstituted regional revolutionary bloc, with the Palestinians at its core. Arab populations are too battered and dispersed right now, and considerably war-weary. And pro-change leaders and activists have been killed, are in prison, or retreated into private life. Still, it’s too early to proclaim the triumph of the anti-democratic alliance as the new regional status quo. We’re still in the middle of the grand realignments set in motion by the Arab uprisings, not the end.