With fighting intensifying up in Lebanon, it’s going to be very interesting to watch Egypt try to find its footing in this mess. Traditionally a leader in anti-Israeli action, Egypt has kept a decidedly low profile since the latest round of violence began. When the first Israeli soldier was kidnapped in Gaza a couple weeks ago, Egypt stepped in as moderator between Hamas and the Israelis. Now, in the last couple of days, Egypt has hosted an Arab League meeting and called for a ceasefire on both sides. I’d like to try to explain, for those who may not know Egypt well, why the government is following this path. I’d also like to get into what may lie ahead for Egypt in the tricky world of Arab diplomacy. Finally, I’d like to give you a sense of the pulse of this country (as best I can) as it relates to the conflict.
There are two facts, plain and simple, that go a long way in explaining Egypt’s quiet role in the latest conflict. First, Egypt is one of only two Arab nations (the other being Jordan) to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. If Egypt wants to remain a credible partner in the international community, it knows that it going against the peace accord would severely damage its reputation. The second point is that Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid, below Israel and just above Colombia. With all its problem’s in the Middle East, the United States counts on the fact that such a large package will encourage the Egyptians to strike a neutral tone. In turn, the Egyptian government recognizes how much it has to lose if it goes too far.
The Egyptian government has a tough road ahead, and I see two major potential problems for them. First, if Israel intensifies its military actions, if it either steps up the level of engagement in Lebanon or decides to cast a wider net that may include Syria or Iran, the Egyptian government will want more and more badly to take a stand as a show of Arab solidarity. If the violence worsens, Egypt will begin to look the fool to its allies who will start to think of it as a lap dog to the US. The other problem I see for Egypt, and one I think is actually bigger than the first, is if public opinion diverges too substantially from the official position of the government. The reason this may be an even more serious concern is because violence does not even have to increase for this to happen. The longer this conflict goes on, the more and more agitated the people of Egypt become. If the government starts to seem too out of touch with the political will of the Egyptian citizens, it might feel compelled to take action against Israel or it might fall victim to severe internal unrest.
This brings me to my third and final point of discussion which is the sentiment on the streets of Cairo. There is an intensifying anger here. More and more, people seem less shy about letting their voices heard on this conflict. When it first began, just a couple of days ago, people were more hesitant and less outspoken. Now, their words have the official backing of several Arab states and even leaders in the Western world. Over in Islamic Cairo, there was a five thousand man protest outside of the Al-Azhar Mosque after services were held on Friday. Stay tuned to see if sermons this Friday compel more Egyptians to take to the streets. The role that Hezbollah plays here is interesting too. The poorer and less well educated have a greater tendency to openly voice support for Hezbollah, but the more educated seem torn between their Arab hearts and Western brains. I’ve talked to a number of more well educated Egyptians and not one will give a clear answer on Hezbollah. The answers are meandering and vague, given that way so as to avoid having to tell me that they have sympathies for a group that my government brands as terrorist.
What I’ve been careful to do here is to avoid expressing my opinion on the present conflict because it is so much more interesting to try to get a sense of how a population that I live in deals with these complicated international issues. What I would really like is for some in the US to comment on this post by writing about the pulse of the American people on this issue and the similarities and differences between the sentiment of the American people and the stance of the US government. I will, in turn, keep you updated in the comment section as I have more conversations and get a better sense of the complexities of Egypt’s situation.