Is the Egyptian-Israeli Relationship Over?

Unleashed Populism Spells Trouble

Two weeks ago, a mob of angry Egyptians invaded the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing Israeli diplomats to flee and causing one of the few Israeli diplomatic establishments in an Arab country at peace with Israel to close down. (The other, the Israeli embassy in Jordan, also closed after the threat of similar violence prompted Israel to preemptively evacuate its embassy in Amman.) This escalation of anti-Israel rhetoric and action in Egypt threatens not only Egyptian-Israeli relations but also places in jeopardy the credibility and ultimate success of Egypt's transition to democracy. The mobs clamoring for Egypt to abrogate the country's peace treaty with Israel and the vacillation of Egypt's military and civilian rulers could give rise to extremist populist politics. This momentum could, in turn, engulf the institutions through which people in Egypt want to see their country ruled democratically.

In some important ways, the recent mob violence in Cairo does not represent a new phenomenon but brings into even sharper relief a problem that has existed for a long time: namely, the gap between the views and policies of the region's leaders and the attitudes of the Arab street. For years, the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East feared their own citizens more than putative enemy neighbors; now, the Arab uprisings of the past year have unleashed these populist mobs from the constraints of government restrictions. And the picture is not pretty.

In Egypt, the public is motivated by a mix of real grievances and irrational hatreds. More than 30 years of emergency rule, enacted by former President Hosni Mubarak in the aftermath of Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination -- including arbitrary arrests, human rights violations, and corruption -- transformed the Egyptian masses into a seething cauldron of discontent. Egypt's rulers, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Sadat and then Mubarak, deflected this anger away from themselves by allowing anti-Israel (indeed, anti-Semitic) forces almost free rein to infect the public with hateful ideas about Israel and Jews. The ebb and flow of the Arab-Israeli conflict contributed to this mix, as the Egyptian press explained away or simply ignored every Palestinian misdeed and highlighted and exaggerated every Israeli one. Palestinian terrorism against Israeli citizens was described as the work of freedom fighters, while Israeli actions in self-defense were the nasty work of an occupier.

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