On November 17, 2004, army conscript Amer Abu Bakr Amer was on guard duty in the Egyptian town of Rafah with two colleagues, Ali Sobhi el-Naggar and Mohamed Abdel Fattah. At 3 a.m., they noticed an Israeli Merkava tank approaching them to a distance of 20 meters. It then fired a tank shell toward them and opened fire with its machine gun. The attack killed Naggar and Abdel Fattah immediately, while Amer was seriously wounded and died later in hospital. This was one of many incidents in which Israel has attacked Egyptian officers and men on the border, killing and wounding them. On every occasion, the crime has gone unpunished. There have been promises of investigations and expressions of regret from the Israeli government, and there the case is closed. After one of those attacks, Hosni Mubarak met his dear friend Benjamin Netanyahu, and when the meeting was over a foreign journalist asked Mubarak if he had spoken to Netanyahu about the Egyptians Israel had killed. Mubarak answered flippantly, “What do you want Netanyahu to do? He’s apologized and that’s the end of the matter.”
Hosni Mubarak did everything in his power to keep Israel happy, so much so that one Israeli leader described him as a strategic asset of the Jewish state. Mubarak released the Israeli spy Azam Azam and did not demand from Israel any compensation for the Egyptian prisoners of war Israel killed in its wars with Egypt. He sent the Egyptian ambassador back to Tel Aviv, signed gas export agreements at prices below world prices, and put intense pressure on Hamas to satisfy Israel. Hosni Mubarak’s purpose in pleasing Israel was to win the support of the Zionist lobby in the US administration for the plan to install his son Gamal as president of Egypt. For that he was willing to overlook the death of Egyptians. But in a rare exception, the families of the three conscripts killed in 2004 sued for compensation and the Egyptian judiciary ordered compensation of $10 million for each of the victims. The court’s logic was that international courts had fixed the same amount as compensation for each victim of the Lockerbie incident, when a plane blew up over Scotland. The court asserted that compensation of murder should be the uniform because human life has the same value regardless of whether the victims are Arabs or not. This historic verdict (which has not yet been enforced) was issued by the fourth circuit of the Cairo court of appeal, which was presided by Judge Ahmed el-Bardisi, with fellow judges Hamdi Ghanem and Ahmed Suleiman, and with Said Zoheir as clerk of the court.
Outrage at Israeli aggression is commendable and legitimate. Egyptians feel that it’s now time for the insulting treatment they suffered from Israel in Mubarak’s time to end. Israel must understand that Egypt has changed, that its ally Mubarak is on trial for felonies, and that the Egyptian people will not allow the murderers to escape punishment when its citizens are killed. The question is: why did Israel cross the Egyptian border and attack our soldiers at this particular time? The answer leads us to Israel’s attitude toward the Egyptian revolution. On February 4th of this year, American intellectual Noam Chomsky wrote an important article in the British newspaper the Guardian rebutting the conventional wisdom that the United States and its allies would not allow democracy in Egypt for fear of the Islamists. Chomsky said the United States did not consider the Islamists a real danger, and the evidence for that is the fact that several times it has made alliances with the most extreme Islamists in order to achieve its objectives. For decades the United States has had an alliance with Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of extreme Wahabi ideas, just as it had an alliance with Pakistani President General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a criminal despot who enforced a strict sharia regime in Pakistan using Saudi money. In Chomsky’s opinion, the danger to the United States does not come from the Islamists but from Egypt becoming a truly independent state. In brief he argued that the United States would accept the removal of Mubarak under pressure from the revolution, but it would do everything it could to make sure that the next president of Egypt never diverges from the path set for him (look at the desperate attempts to propel Omar Suleiman and Ahmed Shafik into the presidency).
Chomsky leaves us with the impression that Israel, and the United States behind it, are in a state of panic at the changes that are happening in Egypt. Israel well understands that Egypt has major resources unmatched by any other state in the region and that a democratic Egypt would be a powerful modern megastate that would lead the Arab world and set the agenda for the whole region. It would be logical for Israel to do its best to thwart democratic transition in Egypt. In the six months since Mubarak stepped down Israel has not needed to intervene because the situation in Egypt was unstable and the future was completely uncertain. There were the amendments to the constitution, then the abolition of the constitution by decree, the breakdown in law and order, the economic crisis from the decline in tourism and investment, and most importantly the serious dispute between the revolutionary forces, which almost become an open struggle between the Islamist groups and advocates of a civil state. Everyone was busy with the long argument over whether Egypt should write a constitution first or hold elections first. On top of that, the measures taken by the military council were unable to protect the revolution and gave the remnants of the old regime a golden opportunity to wage war against the revolution. Then began the unfortunate confrontations between the young revolutionaries and the military council, which developed into mutual accusations, campaigns of arrests, and military trials. No doubt Israel was watching the situation in Egypt, confident that the Egyptian revolution would undermine itself.
Then suddenly, on the initiative of the military council, the Azhar resumed its historical role and prepared a superb document for national consensus, defining the outlines of the future Egyptian state. All the political forces endorsed the Azhar document, and even the most extreme Salafists had only some simple, non-essential reservations about it. This brought an end to the argument over the constitution; the revolutionary forces came together again and Egypt took a big step towards democratic transition. All we had to do then was persuade the military council to hold free and fair elections that would bring an elected government to power. At this stage, I believe, Israel had to intervene forcefully to sabotage the revolution. It began with the sudden appearance of suspect and heavily armed groups that began to attack police stations and undermine state control in Sinai. The aim was to provide evidence of a security breakdown in Sinai, which would justify the Israeli aggression that soon followed. Israeli forces entered Egyptian territory and killed or wounded several Egyptian officers and men. The objectives of the Israeli attack are several: to test the new rulers of Egypt, to throw them off balance, to give the impression that they cannot protect the country and to thwart democratic transition. The aim could also be to draw Egypt into a reckless military confrontation that would undo the revolution completely (as Gamal Abdel Nasser was drawn into conflict in 1967). What is to be done? How can we respond in a way that makes Israel understand that the age of Hosni Mubarak, who sold out on the rights and dignity of Egyptians, is gone forever? There are some urgent and effective steps that must be taken:
(1) Expel the Israeli ambassador from Cairo and recall the Egyptian ambassador from Israel and immediately start legal proceedings that enable Egypt to launch international prosecutions demanding Israel pay large amounts of compensation for all the Egyptians it has killed wrongfully over the years. The historic verdict that Judge Ahmed el-Bardisi and his colleagues issued would form a good basis for compensation internationally. Israel would have to pay millions of dollars as punishment for its horrendous crimes.
(2) Review or repeal all the agreements between us and Israel, from the QIZ agreement to the agreements on the sale of gas and on cement exports. Israel’s economic losses would be much more painful than the moral condemnation to which Israel is so inured that it no longer pays much attention.
(3) The response to Israel’s complaint of insecurity in Sinai must be that the peace treaty must be amended in a way that allows Egyptian forces to deploy throughout Sinai. The treaty provides for amendments with the consent of both parties, and if Israel rejects the amendment we propose, we have the right under the treaty to resort to international arbitration and we have experts in international law who can wrest our rights from international courts, as they did in the case of Taba.
(4) It is now our duty to support the armed forces in their confrontation with Israel, but we also have a duty to press the military council to speed up the procedures that pave the way for the first democratic elections in Egypt in 60 years. Our demands are well-known and specific: accelerate the plan for judicial independence; disqualify the judges who supervised rigged elections in the Mubarak era; purge the police force of officers who were corrupt and rigged elections; change the public prosecutor who had to make many political accommodations under Mubarak; appoint a new prosecutor in tune with the revolution, such as Judge Zakaria Abdel Aziz, Judge Ashraf el-Baroudi, Judge Hesham el-Bastawisi, or other leading members of the judicial independence movement; end military trials immediately; release the thousands of people detained in military jails and have them retried in civilian courts; ban the use of mosques and churches for electioneering; give Egyptians abroad the right to vote; and, finally, allow international monitoring of elections to show the world they are free and fair.
(5) After taking measures to ensure free and fair elections, elections must be held as soon as possible. I expect Egyptian politicians to shoulder their responsibility and put the national interest before their own narrow interests. Holding elections in a just and reputable fashion is much more important than the results. If we are true democrats we have to respect the people’s choice even if we disagree with it. The mass demonstrations, the resounding chants, the sit-ins, and the removal and burning of the Israeli flag that was on the balcony of the Israeli Embassy—all these are spontaneous and authentic actions that reflect righteous popular anger, but in my opinion they fall far short of the right response to Israeli aggression. The right response to Israeli aggression will come about by making it fail, and that will happen only through a transfer of power to an elected government, so that the armed forces can devote themselves to their combat mission and Egypt can set out towards the future it deserves.