“Sixty-four long years passed until it became clear to the masses of Eastern Europe that communism couldn’t provide the goods. It couldn’t feed the citizens and provide for their welfare, so they had to find some other system.” This observation was given on June 30 by an experienced Israeli security official. He continued, “It took the masses in Egypt exactly one year to understand the same thing about the Muslim Brotherhood.” Then he added, “On the one hand, it’s rather impressive and encouraging, on the other hand, it could also be startling and terrifying.”
The Middle Eastern roller coaster is whizzing forward at full steam as it zigzags over the abyss. It goes up and down, speeds up and slows down, while the passengers who are stuck on board try not to look down or think ahead. Israel’s security establishment is in the initial stages of adapting to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a scenario which has been considered the ultimate nightmare for as long as the Jewish state existed. Yet now, while the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the security establishment are finally starting to get used to it, they are finding out that the "Ikhwan" — as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic slang — has already been cast onto the garbage heap of history. Today, Mohammed Morsi is president. Tomorrow, he could be pacing a cage right next to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, gaping all around him in terror, without understanding how it could have happened to him.
In the past few days, both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have played host to a number of security and diplomatic discussions about the situation in Egypt. The truth of the matter is that no one in Israel knows whether to celebrate or fret, whether to fear or hope. Only one thing is sure. They are leaving all the options open. Israel’s initial Pavlovian response after the surprising and rapid fall of Mubarak was to air out its emergency warehouses and determine whether it was at all possible to re-establish the “Southern Column” — a group of armored divisions that was dismantled after the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was reached. That was what then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example.
Then, after a few months had passed, it became quite clear that the demon wasn’t quite as bad as they had imagined. The Muslim Brotherhood stepped back from everything to do with Israel. Once Morsi was elected president, he transferred responsibility for Israel to the army. Having recognized their limitations — the “Brotherhood” could never maintain direct contact with Israel because of a religious prohibition — the movement’s leadership decided to act like they didn’t and feel like they did. They gave former Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi — and later Gen. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi — total freedom when it came to managing affairs along the border with Israel, while they went about dealing with their own business.
As strange as it may sound, security relations between Israel and Egypt improved significantly during this period. The IDF could hardly believe it. Security collaboration was tightened, and the Egyptians were seen taking vigorous action in response to intelligence they received from Israel — two phenomena that didn’t exist in the past. Senior defense official and Israeli envoy to Egypt Gen. Amos Gilad continued flying to Cairo — where he received considerable respect from his colleagues — and the new reality proved yet again that it is greater than all the commonly accepted horror stories serving as potential scenarios. There was a logical explanation to this as well. Under Mubarak, the Egyptian government was afraid of being portrayed as doing Israel’s bidding, fearing harsh criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood. Suddenly, there really was nothing to worry about. The Muslim Brotherhood was in power now, so that fear dissipated and was replaced by a relationship driven by issues.
Now, all of that is under threat too. Even before Mubarak was toppled, Israeli intelligence assessed that the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn’t “go the extra mile.” They wouldn’t try to seize control of the presidency immediately after Mubarak's fall. “They know that the first president will take all the blame, and is identified as the person who shattered the Egyptian dream,” said intelligence sources in Israel. “They’ll let someone else get elected to the presidency, let him break his head over it, and then they’ll appear as saviors.”
This assessment was debunked, but not because Israel lacked quality intelligence. Quite the contrary: the intelligence was accurate. The Muslim Brotherhood itself admits that it had no intention of running for the presidency, but then the scent of authority wafted into their nostrils, and the drunken thrill of power spread through their bones. They simply could not resist the temptation. “It was a fatal strategic error of historic significance, from which there was no way back,” Israeli observers now say. The “Brothers” themselves also recognize the scope of their mistake. They stormed the presidency and conquered it, never imagining that their downfall would be so rapid, so intense, so brutal.
Now all that’s left for the Muslim Brotherhood to do is pick up the pieces. At the same time, this is also no small blow to US foreign policy, which proved its shortsightedness yet again by making some awkward decisions. US President Barack Obama and his staff decided to gamble on the Muslim Brotherhood during their first term in office. When it seemed Mubarak was about to fall, they sent messengers, established contacts and made it quite clear that they have no problem with an Islamist government — as radical as it may be — as long as all agreements are kept, as long as none of the tools are broken.
This US policy proved to be a tactical success. The fact is that Morsi maintained Egypt’s foreign policy and avoided shaking it up unnecessarily, even keeping the peace agreement with Israel. But in the wake of this tactical success came a strategic breakdown. Once again, for the second time in a year, the Americans lost their anchor in Cairo. They now watch as the Egyptians topple the very government that they wanted to see respected, which leaves the Americans in a bind and needing to start from scratch.
What will happen? That’s the most disturbing question of all. If Morsi fails, how will the next president in line succeed? Who will have the magical formula to feed almost 90 million hungry people each morning, provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year, revitalize tourism and industry and contend with the spread of corruption, raging violence, shrinking credit and depleted foreign currency reserves? No one has yet come up with a plan to create a new Egypt overnight.
Whoever agrees to be the next president of Egypt will be either brave or crazy or both. Meanwhile, in Israel at least, people are trying to focus on the cup that is half full. The Islamist extremists suffered a huge blow. The spirit of real democracy, openness and liberalism is blowing through the streets of Cairo. This is a harsh blow to Hamas as well, and to all the other extremists in our region, regardless of whom they might be. “No matter how we look at it, nothing really bad for us can come out of this,” says one Israeli intelligence source. On the other hand, the last time this happened, everyone in Israel thought that nothing good could come of it for us, and something good actually did come out of it. So the truth is that there is no way of knowing.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit