May 6, 2011
Number 05/11 #02
As readers are probably aware, Hamas and Fatah signed a unity deal on Wednesday, following up on their announcement of the deal last week. This Update contains two pieces on the details and implications of that agreement.
First up is Washington Institute scholar David Makovsky who looks at the deal, the background that brought it about, and its implications for security and governance for both the Palestinians and Israel. He also examines the considerable challenges the deal will pose for US Middle East policy, including in terms of the considerable aid Washington provides to the PA at the moment. He is particularly good on the challenges that the pact will face from Israeli opposition, the loss of the internationally highly-regarded Palestinian PM Salam Fayad, and the potential loss of security support from Israel and the US. For this vital background on all the pact’s ramifications, CLICK HERE. More on the pitfalls of the agreement comes from Avi Issacharoff of Haaretz and Edmund Sanders and Paul Richter of the Los Angeles Times.
Next up is former peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who likens the pact PA Abbas has made to dancing with a bear, quoting the late Yizhak Rabin noting that once you start dancing with a bear, you can never let go. Miller notes the ways in which the Hamas-Fatah pact must seem logical to Palestinian leaders, but then details the various ways in which this is a dangerous dance for the Palestinians. He highlights particularly that Abbas is essentially shackling the Palestinian movement to Hamas, its very different goals and vision, and its commitment to continual “armed struggle.” For the rest of his views, CLICK HERE. Another good view on the deal comes from the Washington Post.
Finally, this update offers readers a profile of the man most polls show is very likely to become Egypt’s next President, former Arab League head Amr Mousa. Academic Eric Trager details the way in which Mousa’s career has been centred around a single theme – demogogic and uncompromising verbal attacks on Israel. He offers ample evidence for his conclusion that Egypt under Mousa will be not only much more hostile but also likely distance itself significantly from the US and the West. For this complete profile of this important figure, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Khaled Abu Toameh detailing the ways in which the pact may allow Hamas to take over the Palestinian Authority. More on what Hamas may be seeking to get out of the deal is here.
- A good detailed report on Hamas’ reaction to the killing of bin Laden and their ideological similarities and differences with al-Qaeda. More on this here.
- Palestinian “man in the street” reactions to bin Laden’s death, showing considerable sympathy for him.
By David Makovsky
MAY 3, 2011
On May 4, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas is slated to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas leaders in Cairo, a development first announced last week. The move will mark an end to the period of estrangement between the two factions, which began in summer 2007 when Hamas expelled PA security services and Fatah officials from Gaza. Given their acrimonious past, the extent to which the parties will work together going forward is questionable.
At the core of the agreement is a commitment by an interim government of technocrats, affiliated with neither Fatah nor Hamas, to pave the way for PA elections in May 2012. The government will prepare the PA presidential and legislative elections as well as organize balloting for the Palestinian National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), while dealing with reconciliation issues and the reconstruction of Gaza. The parties have also committed to creating a joint Higher Security Committee, decreed by Abbas and composed of Palestinian security professionals.
Although PA officials have indicated that security cooperation with Israel will continue, it is difficult to imagine how the Palestinian power-sharing arrangement will not hinder that partnership — Hamas has long called for Israel’s destruction, and most of the Israeli-PA security efforts have been based on preventing Hamas terrorists from gaining a foothold in the West Bank. This is perhaps the biggest test of Abbas’s credibility; while he is assuring Washington, the EU, and Israel that little will change given his commitment to coexistence, questions abound.
ROAD TO RECONCILIATION
Both Hamas and the PA seem to have softened their positions in order to make the agreement possible. Hamas changed its stance on two components it refused to accept in the 2009 draft accord put forward by Abbas: holding elections in a relatively short timeframe and subordinating Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades under a PA Higher Security Authority. Many are doubtful whether the latter change will actually occur given Hamas’s past tenacity in preserving its autonomy.
In seeking an accord, Hamas appears driven by both threat and opportunity. The current turmoil in Syria means that the Asad regime’s historic patronage of the group is no longer a given. Even Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a religious patron of Hamas living in Qatar, has publicly blasted Damascus for killing fellow Muslims.
At the same time, Hamas clearly sees opportunity in the shifting regional dynamics. The new leadership in Egypt, which brokered the deal, seems to have created a major incentive: Cairo agreed to open its border with Gaza, making Hamas more confident of an economic boost that would inflate its chances in the next Palestinian election. Currently, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza continues to undermine the group’s popularity in the polls.
For Abbas, the move toward reconciliation was driven by a mix of factors. First, since the Egyptian revolution, the idea of Palestinian unity has gained increasing allure in the Palestinian polls — no small matter for Abbas, who likely views both unity and UN support for Palestinian statehood as key elements of his legacy. Each of these elements has loomed larger recently given the increasing unlikelihood of a peace deal with Israel and the multiple announcements of Abbas’s intention to retire before the next election. His urgency was clear during a March 16 speech before the Fatah Revolutionary Council, where he pledged his readiness “to go to Gaza tomorrow to end the division and form a government of independent nationalist figures.”
While Abbas has emphasized that Hamas made the concessions enabling the negotiations — a move that caught him by surprise during the April 27 dialogue meeting — he made a concession of his own by permitting the group to join the PLO, which had previously been off limits. Abbas also remains the head of the PLO (apart from heading the PA and Fatah), the body that he repeatedly notes is designated to negotiate peace with Israel. Yet, by allowing Hamas — which opposes Israel’s existence — to join the group, he is raising fears that the Palestinian side of the peace process is being radicalized.
That Abbas made this key concession suggests there may be more at work than a desire to capture the public mood –rather, he may have soured toward both the United States and the prospects for peace with the Netanyahu government. In a recent interview with Newsweek, Abbas complained that the State Department did not back Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, his main regional patron, at the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests. He added that the revolution would produce only chaos and Muslim Brotherhood ascendance, revealing a fear that Washington might abandon him as well. To avoid the latter prospect, Abbas apparently believes that he must stay in step with the new mood in Cairo, a notion articulated by Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al-Araby. That Egypt did not even bother notifying the Obama administration (or Israel) about its efforts to reconcile Abbas and Hamas suggests that new Egyptian policy towards Gaza and Hamas will proceed independent of U.S. involvement.
Abbas also seems to believe that reconciliation will not be a major detriment to the prospects for statehood. In the past, he indicated that progress on that front and Palestinian unity were opposing poles. More recently, however, he has explicitly argued that the Netanyahu government would refuse to meet his terms in any peace negotiations. He seems confident that the UN General Assembly will move the statehood project forward by providing international support this September, despite the absence of negotiations with Israel. As such, he may believe that fostering a united Palestinian people — arguably more deserving of statehood than a divided people — is worth the damage that Hamas reconciliation will do to the peace talks, which appeared dead in the water even before the agreement was announced.
This view is only reinforced by Abbas’s belief that reaching out to Hamas would carry no penalty with key segments of the international community, which is already disillusioned with Netanyahu’s intentions and many countries have expressed willingness to support a Palestinian state regardless of the status of direct talks. Yet it remains to be seen whether the new inclusion of Hamas will deter key European governments from supporting statehood at the UN. (It is interesting to note that UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to be at the Abbas-Hamas ceremony in Cairo.)
Despite his apparent calculations, reconciliation still entails a great deal of risk for Abbas. Once he enters a power-sharing agreement with Hamas, he will probably lose U.S. aid and impair his credibility — at least in the United States and Israel — as a proponent of coexistence with Israel, a reputation he has built over the past four years in particular. Many Palestinians do not see outreach to Hamas as immoral because in their view, the group’s hardline stance is comparable to that of Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Yet many call this as an unfair analogy — even at his most extreme, Lieberman does not call for destruction of the Palestinians, nor does he share Hamas’s track record of deliberately killing civilians and glorifying violence.
IMPLICATIONS FOR GOVERNANCE AND SECURITY
Given the temperamental differences between Abbas and Hamas (e.g., Abbas praised the killing of Usama bin Laden while Hamas condemned it), the reconciliation agreement may not result in a full-on unity government with Hamas members in key cabinet positions. Yet the Fatah-Hamas pact could nevertheless have profound implications for governance, security cooperation, funding, and elections:
* In terms of governance, Fatah negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed has stated that PA prime minister Salam Fayad, who is sharply opposed by Hamas, will not remain in that post. This raises several doubts given that Fayad embodies a number of qualities favored by the United States, Israel, and many Palestinians: an anticorruption approach to public finances, a policy of internationally respected institution-building in preparation for statehood, and authority over newly professionalized security services (e.g., he has publicly declared that anyone who attacks Israel is an “outlaw”). If he is in fact forced out, who would fill the void? If Fayyad is deposed, it would be a sad ending to a liberal experiment in the West Bank.
* Regarding Israeli-PA security cooperation, Abbas seems to believe that he will retain his leverage given the degree to which Israel values the excellent cooperation seen in recent months. Yet it is uncertain how durable such efforts will be going forward. How will a power-sharing agreement coexist with the current Israeli-PA approach of arresting and imprisoning Hamas militants? How can Abbas hunt Hamas terrorists while working with the group’s political figures? Moreover, Hamas will likely press Abbas to release many prisoners — will he yield?
* As for budgetary issues, the PA depends on approximately $1 billion in foreign assistance to pay government salaries. Of this amount, $150-200 million comes from the United States (half already disbursed this year), and approximately $300 million comes from tax clearances collected by Israel on behalf of the PA. When news of PA-Hamas reconciliation broke, Israeli finance minister Yuval Steinitz announced a delay in transferring the tax clearances. This has created speculation that the PA will seek funding from Saudi Arabia to compensate for the shortfall.
* Palestinians and Arab states have given short shrift to Israel’s statements against reconciliation, believing it has no option but to acquiesce. Yet Israel’s leverage is twofold: in addition to withholding tax clearances, it can take actions on the ground that could prevent the PA legislature from reconvening and Palestinian elections from being held.
U.S. AND QUARTET POLICY
In light of the reconciliation agreement, senior members of Congress who had been pivotal in ensuring U.S. economic support for the PA over the past few years now oppose further assistance, including Rep. Nita Lowy (D-NY) and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Moreover, the new chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), has made clear that she will seek to eliminate PA funding, stating that the participation of a U.S.-designated terrorist group in the Palestinian government would legally require Congress to do so. The issue extends beyond foreign aid — it could also affect the U.S. military’s effort to train and equip nearly 3,000 members of the Palestinian security forces, a program praised by the PA, the United States, and Israel.
Apart from congressional funding and assistance decisions, the platform of the new PA government and the composition of its ministers will determine whether the Obama administration can even legally meet, let alone negotiate, with Abbas. The administration is also reportedly waiting to see whether the new government will continue effective security cooperation — until that issue is resolved, the White House is likely to remain on the sideline. This view suggests that the chasm between Abbas and Hamas is so wide that the clauses of the Cairo accord will not be implemented.
In the aftermath of Abbas’s reconciliation announcement last week, the United States was the only member of the Quartet (which also includes the EU, Russia, and the UN) to reiterate the body’s 2006 eligibility criteria for recognizing Hamas: namely, that the group must declare Israel’s right to exist, disavow violence, and adhere to past agreements. In contrast, both UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign minister Lady Catherine Ashton voiced cautious hope while calling on Hamas to disavow violence, and Moscow openly welcomed the announcement. This suggests that they favor Abbas’s move rather than viewing Hamas as beyond the pale.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington in just a few weeks, where he is expected to speak to a joint session of Congress. The PA-Hamas agreement is likely to ease his sense of pressure during the visit. Previously, observers speculated that President Obama might deliver a speech before Netanyahu’s congressional address, outlining the U.S. perspective on the Arab Spring and, in that context, laying out U.S. principles for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. Yet offering generous peace terms at a time when Abbas is reaching out to Hamas would have profoundly negative implications, vindicating the view that U.S. policy can be moved by sharing power with a group that the Obama administration called a “terrorist organization” just last week. It also raises doubts about the gap between presidential exhortations and lack of implementation.
A convergence of interests has brought Abbas and Hamas to announce a unity agreement. While many in the United States and elsewhere wonder if the agreement will collapse from its own weight, Abbas is counting on the notion that he can reconcile such an agreement with the PA’s current commitments. But progress toward real peace and independence has always come at the expense of Palestinian unity, not to mention Israeli unity. Abbas is challenging this notion at his own peril.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.
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By Aaron David Miller
The late Yitzhak Rabin used to say that the only problem with dancing with a bear is that once you start, you can never let go.
Watching the current Hamas-Fatah unity circus, I can’t help but think of Rabin’s comment. For the former Israeli prime minister, Yasir Arafat was the bear and the Oslo process was their choreographed dance. Rabin was no sentimentalist and he recognized Arafat’s many weaknesses as a partner, but he continued to engage with him because he believed his counterpart had taken tough positions. Oslo was a good faith effort to achieve a goal.
The Hamas-Fatah unity gambit signed on Wednesday in Cairo isn’t about good faith, consequential agreements, nor is it about peacemaking. The forging of Palestinian unity is a product of narrower calculations of two key parties — Fatah and Hamas — who are looking for a way to improve their respective positions during a very turbulent and uncertain period. This is an instance of two bears dancing with one another. Israel is right to be wary.
There’s a certain logic to this diplomacy. But the problem of course is what the CIA calls blowback — unintended consequences that return with unpredictable and usually negative results. The Fatah-Hamas accord is unlikely to produce either unity or improve prospects for peacemaking; indeed, along the way it could actually make serious negotiations and a settlement harder to achieve.
Hamas’s calculations in seeking unity are perhaps the easier to read than those of Fatah. They’re driven by a mix of motives: In Gaza, despite improved order and security, Hamas hasn’t delivered economically. Gaza remains for a million and half Palestinians a variation of what it’s been for some time now — a small and confining prison where economic, political, and movement horizons are constrained by Israeli border closures and poor Palestinian governance.
As for Hamas, a nominally revolutionary organization, its message has grown old and tired. Against the backdrop of a largely young and secular Arab Spring, its Islamist trope isn’t all that compelling any more. Nor was armed struggle ever a terribly resonant tactic if the goal was to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, quite the opposite — it had a Kevorkian death-wish quality to it, as revealed by Hamas’s willingness to risk Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. Hamas’s leaders could have taken advantage of tensions with Israel along the border last month to go back to the battlefield. They wisely chose not to — they know better now. You can’t eat or pay for food with myths and symbols of struggle. Hamas’s leaders are now worried, looking in the rearview mirror, and wondering how long it may take the Arab Spring to come to their portion of Palestine.
And then there’s the Syrian angle. One of Hamas’s two major patrons is now confronted with potentially regime-changing turmoil. Not only are there now reports that Hamas’s external leadership is looking for a new home outside of Damascus, but their association with two regimes (Syria and Iran) that are gunning down their own citizens in the streets isn’t an endearing image for the Palestinian public. Unity with Fatah and making nice with Egypt (which brokered the agreement) is a strategic move for the short term — at least until it is clear where the dust is settling in Syria.
The calculations of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are somewhat harder to read, but still transparent. According to those close to him, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president was surprised by Hamas’s decision to go for unity — and he made sure the deal was done on his terms. (Abbas remains as president of the PA and head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization.) But Abbas also had a stake in keeping the new Egyptian government and perhaps also the Saudis — long fans of unity — happy too.
More to the point, Abbas has concluded that no negotiations with Israel are likely now, and that U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t going to do much to support him. So he’s broken out on his own with a U.N. statehood gambit geared for September. But it’s hard to go the international community and claim virtual statehood over the West Bank and Gaza when a rival Palestinian faction is controlling the latter half and using the territory to shoot rockets at Israelis.
Whether Abbas thinks Hamas would actually support such an initiative is dubious, but for now it buys him some domestic political space and temporary acquiescence from Hamas. The peace process and the U.N. statehood gambit weren’t part of the intra-Palestinian negotiations. Abbas is still in charge of both portfolios and can do what he wants — if only because neither side truly believes they’ll amount to much.
All of this seems so logical — and yet the traps are as compelling as the seeming advantages. First, it’s not clear how any real power sharing can work. These political rivals, with their bloody history, are now somehow supposed to establish a technocratic government, prepare for national elections, and assume joint responsibility for security — even though they don’t share any real trust or ideology. This isn’t just a matter of competition over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas and Fatah have different visions for what and where Palestine should be.
Second, Abbas is also sacrificing his longstanding goal of winning the hearts and minds of the international community. Shackling himself to Hamas and its extremist, anti-Semitic statements undermines his international credibility. Abbas will try to resist this association — Hamas’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised Osama bin Laden this week as a martyr, while Abbas took the opposite tack — but that equivocation won’t be sustainable when the two are actually governing together.
The same problem will occur with regard to armed struggle. Hamas will have to abandon its violent political platform or risk putting Abbas into the position of having to condemn his governing partner. The moment of truth is likely to come soon. It’s almost inconceivable the Israel-Gaza border will be free of violence over the next six months, given the track record.
Third, there’s the pesky problem of the international assistance. Even if, on the American side, the legal hurdles of assisting the PA (with Hamas supporting the government) can be finessed, it’s unlikely the politics will be manageable. The Obama administration will be in a position — like Abbas — of having to explain away every Hamas statement and action. That’s just not tenable.
Finally, there are the Israelis. This unity deal is not just a birthday present to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those to his right, but a gift that will keep on giving. How can anyone say to Israelis that they have to negotiate with — much less make concessions to — a Palestinian government, half of which won’t recognize Israel or lay down its arms? Yes, it’s fair to point out that the current peace process wasn’t going anywhere anyway; but what Abbas is doing now is helping the Israeli delegitimize Palestinians as putative partners. Guilt by association is still a very effective conceit in Middle Eastern politics.
For now, Palestinian unity seems like the right play for the parties involved; but it has a sense about it of being too clever by half. We’ll see as the anomalies and contradictions of this latest marriage of convenience play out. One thing is clear: Anyone who wants to even touch the peace process during this period better be prepared for a dangerous dance. It’s going to require some very fancy footwork to avoid some serious stumbles with the new Palestinian dancing partner.
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Meet the anti-Israel demagogue who will likely be Egypt’s next president.
Published on The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com)
April 30, 2011 | 12:00 am
In 2001, Amr Moussa, the current Egyptian Secretary-General of the Arab League, briefly achieved pop-icon status. Serving at the time as Hosni Mubarak’s foreign minister, Moussa’s frequent anti-Israel pronouncements caught the attention of Egyptian pop singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, who released a song with the line, “I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa.” The song became a tremendous hit. Shortly thereafter, Mubarak, who had come to regard Moussa as a serious political rival, exiled him to the Arab League.
Ten years later, however, Moussa is back in the public eye. Despite having represented the combined interests of the Arab world’s 22 autocracies for the last decade, he is now the frontrunner to succeed Mubarak in what could be Egypt’s first-ever truly democratic presidential election. And Moussa owes his startling political ascendance primarily to one thing: his shameless exploitation of anti-Israel demagoguery for political gain.
Moussa was born in 1936 to a family from al-Bahada, a Nile Delta village in the governorate of Qalyubia. Shortly after graduating from Cairo University’s Faculty of Law in 1957, he entered Egypt’s foreign service. “He told us that he was the future foreign minister of Egypt,” says former Egyptian Ambassador to Portugal Wahid Fawzi, who got to know Moussa as his colleague during the early 1960s. Moussa was prophetic: After working in various diplomatic posts, including ambassador to India, director of the Department of International Organizations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations, he was appointed foreign minister in 1991.
As Egypt’s top diplomat, Moussa immediately projected an adversarial approach toward the United States and Israel. One of the first issues he handled was the Madrid Peace Conference, which the George H.W. Bush administration hoped would help shape a new regional order following the Persian Gulf War. When Israel insisted that the administration push for the repeal of a U.N. General Assembly Resolution that equated Zionism with racism as a precondition for joining the peace conference, Moussa demanded that the issue be tabled until after the conference, and Egypt was ultimately absent from the vote. Later, when Israel pursued improved ties with Arab states following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Moussa argued that full Arab normalization should occur only after the final exchange of territory. Then, prior to his first official trip to Israel in August 1994, Moussa gratuitously sparked outrage by indicating that he would refuse to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He eventually relented under intense diplomatic pressure but, even then, declined to enter the Hall of Remembrance, where he would have had to wear a yarmulke.
Yet Moussa’s image-making moment came in 1995, when he spearheaded a pan-Arab initiative against re-signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—unless Israel signed it first. The standoff riled Washington because Moussa, in pushing back against the treaty and undercutting more pragmatic members of the Mubarak regime, was acting counter to Egypt’s promise to the Clinton administration that it would not actively campaign against the renewal of the NPT. Although the treaty was ultimately renewed without Israel’s participation, Moussa’s stance made him a local hero, with the state-run daily al-Akhbar portraying him as a bare-chested Pharaoh.
After the NPT episode, Moussa continued to be outspoken against Israel and, increasingly, the United States. He declared that U.S. support for Israel “poisoned” the peace process, and, after the U.S. presented evidence of a Libyan chemical weapons program to the Mubarak regime, Moussa publicly denied that such evidence existed. He backed Yasser Arafat’s refusal to compromise on Jerusalem during and after the failed Camp David summit in the summer of 2000; called on the Arab world to support the Palestinian Intifada in October of that same year; and declared the Palestinians’ “right of return” to Israel a “sacred right,” over strong U.S. objections. According to Fawzi, who was Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during this time, Moussa tried to push Egyptian diplomacy even further against Israel, but Mubarak ultimately refused. “He had problems with Hosni Mubarak,” says Fawzi. “Mubarak had a completely different agenda. Mubarak had in mind to please certain powers because of his plan to put his son on the throne, so he was not willing to compromise on this.”
Moussa compensated for these formal limits on his power by intensifying his rhetoric against Israel. “It is almost impossible for members of Mubarak’s cabinet to adopt different positions from the one of Mubarak,” says former Egyptian Ambassador to Switzerland Nagi el-Ghatrifi. “But sometimes Moussa, in order to gain popularity—and he knows very well how to measure the nationalistic feelings of his audience—he’s taken by his enthusiasm and ambitions to attract the respect and admiration of the people, to go beyond the limits.” By 2001, however, Moussa had undercut Mubarak one too many times, and the pop song that paid tribute to him appeared in many ways to symbolize the final straw. In February, Mubarak figured he’d get rid of Moussa by nominating him to head the Arab League, which the other Arab states approved unanimously.
Moussa’s appointment to the Arab League was intended to be a demotion, but the organization’s toothlessness ultimately gave him broader freedom to bolster his nationalist credentials. Though Moussa condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks, he immediately refused to participate in any anti-terror campaign that included Israel, which he accused of “slaughtering” Palestinians, and he later declared, “Launching strikes against any Arab country under any pretense would lead to severe complications.” In staking out these positions—along with his subsequent opposition to the Iraq war, the start of which he called “a sad day for all Arabs”—Moussa employed colorful, nationalist language while echoing the views that other Arab leaders broadly shared.
But as an ascendant Iran started pushing a bloc of pro-Western Arab states toward the U.S. during the second half of the last decade, Moussa’s anti-Westernism became more pronounced. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, when a number of Arab states quietly endorsed Israeli actions against the Iranian-backed terrorist group, Moussa immediately blasted Israel and later declared that Israeli forces were “targeting civilians.” Then, during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Moussa lashed out at those Arab governments that backed Israel’s actions against Hamas, saying that intra-Arab divisions would mean “disregard of the Arabs” in international politics and arguing that “only our cohesion can save us.” He later tried to build this new Arab cohesion by, as usual, positioning Israel as the unqualified enemy, saying that any Arab country that pursued normalization with the Jewish state would face a “tough” reaction.
Moussa’s nationalistic broadsides against Israel strengthened his popularity back home in Egypt, where Mubarak was increasingly viewed as a western pawn, and Moussa’s clear divergence with Mubarak’s pro-Western tilt raised hopes that he would run for president in September 2011. In press statements before the revolution, however, Moussa was coy. “When he was asked if Gamal Mubarak will be a candidate for the presidency, he answered by praising the good qualities of Gamal Mubarak,” says al-Ghatrifi. “Then they asked him, will you vote for him? He said, I never answer questions using the word ‘will.’”
The popular demonstrations that erupted in Egypt on January 25, however, changed Moussa’s stance. Though he initially responded to the demonstrations with a general plea for “reform,” he soon called for a political transition on February 1, and, on February 6, he joined the protesters in Tahrir Square, declaring that he was “available to my country.”
Since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, Moussa has held a sizable lead over other potential candidates. A poll commissioned in March by the New York-based International Peace Institute found that 37 percent of Egyptians preferred Moussa, while Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, who currently leads the Supreme Military Council, was a distant second with 16 percent. Egyptians are even cooler on Moussa’s other potential rivals, mainly because they are seen as more pro-Western. For instance, many Egyptians believe—incorrectly—that former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who will likely run for president, supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, a very effective character assassination campaign has tarred Ghad party leader Ayman Nour as an American agent, while Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail’s American citizenship is likely to dampen his support. Moussa’s popularity has remained strong even in recent weeks, when youth activists have increasingly attacked him for “not turning out strongly during the events in Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria.”
While it is tempting to believe that Moussa’s long diplomatic career would make for a relatively smooth post-Mubarak transition, the source of his popularity should be deeply concerning to the U.S. and its allies. Though war between Israel and Egypt seems highly unlikely, Moussa recently told a group of Egyptian youths that the Camp David Accords had “expired,” apparently backtracking from earlier statements in which he supported the maintenance of Egyptian-Israeli peace. He has also called for a “no-fly zone” over Gaza, thereby equating Israel with the Qaddafi regime. Moreover, Egypt under Moussa is likely to be less friendly towards U.S. interests: WikiLeaks documents suggest that Moussa does not view Iran as a threat and would seek to strengthen Arab-Iranian ties.
The Obama administration got a taste of Moussa’s anti-Western populism as it tried to build international support for intervening in Libya. Although the Arab League initially voted to back the no-fly zone on March 12, Moussa lambasted the attacks on Qaddafi’s forces a week later, telling Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency, “What we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians.” And though Moussa issued yet another reversal two days later—this time restating the Arab League’s support for action against Qaddafi—his inelegant 360 should be a reminder that he has made his bones bucking the West. So while the fall of Mubarak raises hopes that Egypt will enjoy a post-authoritarian future, the prominence of Moussa threatens to revive Egypt’s anti-Western, Nasser-era past. And, most alarmingly, this is apparently what many Egyptians want.
Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He recently returned from research in Egypt, where he was living during the revolution.