Beware new dangers lurking in Egypt

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, probably the single most important diplomatic achievement in the Middle East of the last century.

Egypt has remained committed to the treaty despite its president’s distaste for Israel and the incessant criticism of Israeli policy, but Shimon Peres’ vision of Egyptian-Israeli relations never materialized.

In fact, the state of relations is still so cold that President Hosni Mubarak refused to participate in the celebration of the anniversary and has been unwilling to visit his peace partner’s capital except to attend Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.

Now eyes are again being turned to Cairo for help in making peace. This time the hope is that Egypt will play a constructive role in securing the Gaza Strip once Israel disengages from the territory. To that end, Egypt has played a mostly unhelpful role in Israeli-Palestinian relations by refusing to use its influence to prod the Palestinians toward compromise and by allowing them to smuggle arms freely across its border.

Mubarak has been no more cooperative when it comes to working with the United States. To give one measure of Egypt’s hostility to American interests, it voted against the United States 80 percent of the time at the United Nations.

Even more alarming is the prospect of a change in Egypt’s policies toward Israel. While most analysts have focused on threats from Iraq, Syria and Iran, I have long believed the gravest potential danger is posed by Egypt.

After all, Egypt has the largest and best-trained army in the region, and it is now armed with state-of-the-art U.S. weapons, including many of the same systems that Israel obtained. Last year, Egypt requested F15 jets armed with JDAM (joint direct attack munition) “smart” bombs. These sophisticated weapons were used by U.S. forces in the 2003 war with Iraq.

Besides American arms, Egypt has purchased Scud missiles from North Korea and has stockpiled chemical weapons. Such sales are a matter of concern for Israel because the principal threats faced by Egypt today are internal ones.

No nation poses any danger to Egypt. So why has Egypt been spending billions of dollars to amass an arsenal that includes 3,000 tanks and more than 500 aircraft, especially when it has serious economic problems caused in large measure by an exponentially growing population that does not have enough food, shelter or employment?

Egypt is dangerous because its future is more unpredictable than most states in the region. A succession crisis looms in Egypt. Mubarak is 75 and has been the nation’s ruler since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. No one knows who will follow Mubarak. He is trying to groom his son to replace him, but there is great resistance within Egypt to the idea of creating a new pharaonic dynasty.

Given the strong fundamentalist Muslim movement in the country and the antipathy of the military toward Israel, it is by no means certain that Mubarak’s successor, even if it is his son, will maintain the “cold peace” that has prevailed now for nearly 30 years.

Besides the political leadership’s refusal to truly normalize relations with Israel, perhaps the more dangerous problem is the failure to promote tolerance of Jews and coexistence with Israel among the masses. Anti-Semitism in the press and general public has not abated since the peace treaty was signed, and there’s little reason to believe the public would object to a reversal in policy toward Israel.

While Arabists are constantly calling for U.S. pressure on Israel, the party that really needs to be leaned on is Egypt. After Iraq, this is the nation that should be the focus of democratization efforts.

Egypt is an authoritarian state with one of the world’s worst human rights records. Future assistance to Egypt should no longer be simply based on a formula that gives it a proportion of what Israel receives because of the treaty signed a quarter century ago; aid should be conditioned on political reform and a willingness to help in Gaza.

Timing is an issue. Now that Egypt is being asked to play a responsible role in the peace process, it will be difficult make cuts in the short-run. Nevertheless, Egypt has gotten a free ride for the duration of the treaty.

It’s about time the United States make clear that the democratization effort in the Middle East should begin in Cairo and that we will no longer provide billions of dollars worth of military aid to prop up the kind of authoritarian regime we just went to war to overthrow.

Mitchell G. Bard is the author of 17 books including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflict” and “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”