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Repairing the Egypt-Israel Breach

Interviewee: Frank G. Wisner, External Affairs, AIG Inc.
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 13, 2011

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Egyptian anger against Israel boiled over in a September 9 mob assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing most Israeli diplomats to evacuate the country. The episode highlighted the "fragility in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship and how easily things can get off track," says Frank G. Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Wisner notes it's important for Israel to recognize "this is a psychological moment that is very tender" for Egypt and believes Israel should refrain from actions that could add to the tension. Wisner also points out that Egypt's military will seek to restore the Egypt-Israel peace and that Egypt has always sought stability. "Egypt will make her choices and will become stable again," he says.

The Egyptian military has announced steps to prevent a recurrence of the kind of violence seen at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. What do you make of all this?

These are emotional times, and it doesn't take much, given the history of the Israel-Arab dispute to stir up a crowd and get people to a fever pitch very quickly.

Do I see a fundamental change in Egypt's direction that could lead it into a renewed confrontation with Israel? I don't, but it takes very hard work on both sides to manage this relationship. It's going to be a delicate period in readjusting the relationship, because right now there is a very different political profile in Egypt. Lots of people have a voice, can be stirred quickly, and take positions that appear at first blush to be trouble.

On the negative side, it signals the huge fragility of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship and how easily things can get off track. One incident, the border attack, lets loose a chain of events in which street mobs are able to affect a hugely sensitive political outcome. At the same time, it should signal to Israel that the transitional government in Egypt is weak, and if the Egyptian military doesn't take direct action in a moment like this, nothing will happen.

The upside of the story is modest. The military is very miffed by this event. They see the effect on Egypt's international reputation and they see the importance of protecting the Egyptian-Israeli arrangement, particularly the security arrangement. They moved belatedly to deal with the crisis at the embassy, but they've also moved to warn the population: You won't be allowed to do this sort of thing again. The Egyptian military recognizes that peace with Israel is a strategic issue for Egypt and they will do their best to maintain it.

But this is a very uncertain time. You have a weak transitional government; and the police are by no means feeling empowered to take on mobs of crowds. It's not even clear whether the attack on the embassy might have been a bunch of "football fans."

That's what several of the press reports suggest.

Yes, I know. But the downside of that argument is well, if a bunch of crazy kids can do something like this, what is the structure of authority in Egypt? It is enormously important for Israelis to not draw the wrong lessons from this, and instead try to build on the positive. Build, maintain that relationship with the military, recognize that this is a psychological moment that is very tender, and manage the way through it carefully, without creating further reasons for people to get their tempers up.

Do I see a fundamental change in Egypt's direction that could lead it into a renewed confrontation with Israel? I don't, but it takes very hard work on both sides to manage this relationship.

You were probably the last American (NYT) to have met with Hosni Mubarak in February before he stepped down as Egypt's president. You were there on a special mission from President Obama. What can you tell us about that mission? What was Mubarak's mood like?

The demonstrations had broken out in Tahrir Square; there had been clashes with the police and loss of life. It was an ugly, intense situation. Military forces had been beefed up around the Cairo area. The situation was reaching a crisis point when we as a government--through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--made it clear (Politico) on the Sunday of my departure from Cairo that the United States expected there to be a transition in Egypt on the road to democracy. At the time, Mubarak was firmly president, so as I took off for Cairo it was our hope that we would be able to add our voice to encourage Mubarak to move down the road toward a transition and do so peacefully. We wanted him to put in place the arrangements necessary for an orderly transition and indeed [to urge him] not to stand for reelection. That was the message in general terms, though of course the details of what I said to the Egyptian president, and what he said back to me, remain a privileged government communication.

Can you say something about how he looked? He's been on trial now lying on a bed in the courtroom so he's obviously not in great health.

President Mubarak is eight-six; he's had some severe health issues. But I had no doubt in the time that I was with him that he was articulate; he knew what I was saying. His answers were very crisp and clear.

He did announce after he met with you that he would not run for reelection. At that point there was an expectation in Tahrir Square that he would resign, but he did not do that for another week.

The people didn't believe the president, and they didn't trust him. And the tone that he adopted in his speech reinforced the crowd's skepticism that the president would vacate power and not stand for reelection. There was a clear mood on the street, "You've got to go now because we don't trust what you're telling us."

How many years have you known Mubarak?

I was ambassador from 1986-91, and I met frequently with the president. I believed that he was a strong and important friend of the United States; he saw the strategic significance of the Egyptian-American relationship and he swung fully behind the peace process. He was fully behind our effort to dislodge Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. He began to put Egypt on a path of economic modernization. He acted as the kind of friend the United States would want to have. We had our differences throughout, but when you look at the Middle East, this relationship with Egypt, together with the relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been key elements in the U.S. presence in the area.

After the trip, you spoke by television hookup (LAT) to the annual security conference in Munich.

The point I was trying to make in the Munich conference was that we really saw that Mubarak had a job to do to prepare a transition: preserving peace, bringing an end to his own incumbency, and setting the stage for a democratic succession.

It wasn't that you were saying he should stay in office

[That was the] furthest thing from my mind, and in fact, the facts on the ground would have hardly made that possible.

Are you concerned about Mubarak's trial or the growing anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt?

The issue is where is Egypt headed? What you're looking at is a very rapidly changing situation in which Egypt has moved beyond the euphoria that surrounded Mubarak's fall.

Now that his trial is underway, outside commentary would not be helpful, or wise, or appropriate. But having said that, the greater issue is where is Egypt headed? What you're looking at is a very rapidly changing situation in which Egypt has moved beyond the euphoria that surrounded Mubarak's fall. Will it be democratic? Less democratic? Will it be tolerant? Less tolerant? Will it be economically liberal? Will it be more state-dominated?

These issues have to be defined, and it is much too early to say exactly how Egypt is going to come out. My own view of Egypt is that whatever the debate, whatever the electoral process, whatever the leadership in this period of transition over a reasonably short period of time--two to three years--Egypt will make her choices and will become stable again. What kind of stability remains to be decided, but Egypt is inherently a stable nation; that is its history over thousands of years.

The Egyptian military is charged with running the government right now, but it's under criticism from many protesters for not being sufficiently democratic. Do you think that's accurate?

The military has no desire to replicate the role it played in the early 1950s when it threw out King Farouk and you had, in effect, a military-dominated government. The military wants to get out of the firing line of Egyptian politics, turn the country over to an elected government based on a new parliament, and see a new constitution. I'm persuaded that the military does not seek to continue to have to make the executive decisions in the country. It will want to have its voice count importantly in major questions of national security.

The Egyptian military will attach great importance to retaining peace with Israel. The tone of that relationship however, has already changed. It's a lot tougher than it was in the Mubarak years. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians, while they wish to be clear that they don't sympathize with the way Israel has managed the issue of Palestine, would like peace to continue.

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