Editorial: All Eyes on Egypt

Like much of the world, we have been watching Egypt with great interest. More than a million Egyptians have filled the streets in major Egyptian cities to protest the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The president has been in power since 1981, when then-President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals.

What happens in Egypt is critical for U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, signed in 1979, is the lynchpin of U.S. policy in the entire region. There has not been a regional war against Israel since the treaty was signed. The United States has a major interest in preserving this treaty, which helped bring some stability to a part of the world that was constantly at war.

Indeed, Egypt matters. The Suez Canal—a vital international waterway and a frequent path for the U.S. Navy—passes through the country. Egypt is the most populous state in the Middle East. More than 80 million people live there, most of them along the Nile River.

Egypt has long been the political and cultural center of the Arab world. What happens in Cairo will be felt throughout the region. That’s why U.S. policymakers are so heavily focused on the situation in the country.

In light of recent developments in Egypt, the Obama administration has announced that it will review U.S. aid to Egypt. When the administration reviews the aid, it will do so from a number of angles, including Egypt’s commitment to allow citizens a number of basic rights, such as the right to peacefully assemble and publicly criticize the government.

Another critical factor in the aid review must be any Egyptian government’s commitment to maintaining its peace treaty with Israel. It was only after signing the deal in 1979 that Egypt started to get substantial U.S. aid.

Why is the peace treaty so important? It seems like a long time ago now, but for decades, Egypt was Israel’s most powerful and dangerous enemy. Egypt fought four major wars against Israel—the War of Independence in 1948, the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Sadat decided to seek peace with Israel. In 1977, he visited the Knesset in Jerusalem and spoke directly to the Israeli people about his desire for peace. Intense negotiations soon began. In the end, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula—an area three times the size of Israel and endowed with major oil deposits—in exchange for peace.

The peace treaty has held ever since. Because of the treaty, Israel has not had to seriously worry about an Arab army’s tanks reaching Tel Aviv. Given the many threats that Israel faces on its other borders today, the peace treaty is vital for Israel’s security. The treaty enabled Israel to reduce its defense spending burden from 23 percent to eight percent of its GDP; it is also the foundation of the principle of “land for peace.”

Today, Israel and Egypt have peaceful relations, and the two governments cooperate on a number of issues of mutual concern. They have worked to try to prevent Hamas from smuggling dangerous weapons into Gaza, which shares a border with both countries.

Egypt also shares the United States and Israel’s concern about the threat from Iran. (There is a street in Tehran named in honor of Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli.) Egyptian security services have captured an Iranian-backed Hizballah cell that intended to cause mayhem in the country. The United States, Egypt and Israel continue to share intelligence about Iran’s proxies in the region.

As of this writing, nobody knows what will happen in Egypt. We hope that any political transition in the country will lead to a democratic government that continues Egypt’s pro-American and pro-Western orientation and expresses a firm commitment to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

A broader point: The unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East demonstrates what this publication has said for more than 50 years: Israel, a democratic country with peaceful transitions of power, is an island of stability in a volatile and important region. The United States can always count on Israel as its closest regional ally.

The uncertainty about Egypt’s future shows why it is so important to help keep Israel strong through American assistance and close U.S.-Israel ties. One can never know what the future will bring, and just how fast it might bring it. We must help Israel prepare for any scenario.