One can take heart from this week’s Wikileaks revelations about how intensely Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s new vice-president and former intelligence chief, dislikes both homegrown Egyptian and Iranian Islamists.
Regarding the domestic Muslim Brotherhood, Suleiman in 2006 told FBI director Robert Mueller that they had spawned “11 different Islamist extremist organizations” and that “the principal danger…was [their] exploitation of religion to influence and mobilize the public.”
As for Iran, in 2007 and 2008 Suleiman called its regime “devils” and “a significant threat to Egypt” and said “Iran is supporting Jihad and spoiling peace, and has supported extremists in Egypt previously. If they were to support the Muslim Brotherhood this would make them ‘our enemy.'”
Less heartening, though, is the fact that Suleiman already met with the banned Brotherhood, along with other groups, over the weekend and offered them a package of concessions — which they appear to have turned down contemptuously.
A swift, alarming capitulation by Suleiman and his boss Hosni Mubarak, or a deft handling of the situation aimed at keeping the Islamists at bay? Though it is hard to know, given Suleiman’s background as an unsentimental Middle Eastern intelligence chief, the latter seems more likely.
Also on the — relatively — heartening side of the ledger is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning on Monday against forcing Mubarak out while stressing the need for an “orderly transition.” It seems a slight improvement over her boss, President Barack Obama, taking an “instant-democracy” line on Egypt on Sunday and downplaying the threat that the Brotherhood poses.
One place where no one is taking chances is Israel, where Suleiman has been a frequent visitor to meet with top officials, and where the Mubarak regime’s three-decade adherence to nonbelligerence with Israel — enhanced more recently by tacit strategic cooperation — is understood across the political spectrum as the priceless asset for stability that it is.
According to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Israel is supposed to import a considerable share of its natural gas from Egypt. On Saturday an Egyptian gas terminal in the Sinai blew up, sparking a massive blaze that could only be stopped by shutting off the gas flow to both Israel and Jordan.
Although Egypt’s natural gas company blamed the fire on a gas leak, the Jerusalem Post cites “local officials” in Israel as saying saboteurs — almost certainly Islamist terrorists exploiting the chaos in Egypt — were responsible.
The incident concentrated minds wonderfully, prompting calls to speed up development of gas fields recently discovered off Israel’s coast. One parliamentarian warned that “Israel’s energy economy must take into account a scenario of no gas deliveries from Egypt.”
No doubt, Israel’s concerns about what is happening in Egypt go well beyond a cutoff of gas supplies. It is one thing to look from afar and see “democracy protesters” in the streets of Cairo, a noble cause to be supported.
It is another thing, though, to live in this region and be exposed to its harshness all the time. Israelis also remember the democracy protesters — in that case, unquestionably unified and authentic — in Lebanon in 2006, and the Bush administration’s insistence that same year on holding elections in the Palestinian territories. Israelis know that Lebanon is now run by Hezbollah and Gaza by Hamas, and that in both cases a regional dynamic favoring Islamism prevailed over good — whether local or foreign — intentions.
The repression used by a regime like Mubarak’s is not pretty, but no worse than that used by the Shah’s regime in Iran before — to the cheers of Western leftists including President Jimmy Carter — it was replaced by the much worse reign of the ayatollahs. Those whose moral sensibilities are offended by Omar Suleiman need to have a look at Muhammad Badi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who, as noted by Israeli Middle East scholar Barry Rubin, “has endorsed anti-American Jihad and pretty much every element in the al-Qaida ideology book.”
Obama’s talk of a pluralist democracy sprouting in Egypt — by September at the latest — ignores the reality of a largely illiterate populace lacking democratic institutions, where the Muslim Brotherhood forms the only strong, organized opposition to the regime in part because of its great appeal to that intensely religious populace. Impulsively backing the “protesters,” nudging Mubarak-Suleiman out whether roughly or more gently, means reigniting Israeli-Egyptian conflict and handing a huge victory to the radical forces in the region.