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Will the Peace Hold Between Egypt and Israel?

For Egypt’s neighbor and peace partner, Israel, the drama unfolding in the center of Cairo during the past several weeks has caused considerable consternation. While the two countries have benefited from a peace treaty for more than 32 years, the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty is unsettling.

Now that the announcement has come, and Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, who will succeed him? What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? Is there a chance a true democracy, currently unknown in the Arab world, can emerge in this most populous of the 22 Arab countries? How much longer can the paralyzed Egyptian society function?

Observers making bold predictions about Egypt’s immediate future are likely to find their conclusions are based on tenuous analyses, or perhaps just wishful thinking. Only yesterday the momentum that was building in anticipation of Mubarak’s resignation was dashed instantly when the president, addressing the nation, and the world, defiantly proclaimed that he would not leave his homeland nor would he step down at this time.

In Israel, one indication of concern in recent days was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that the time has come to speed up completion of a fence along the Egyptian-Israeli border. The vastness of the Sinai Desert has helped to ensure the security underpinning the peace treaty. And, reinforcing that security has been the U.S.-led Multinational Force and Observers, a group of peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai.

Still, terrorists have struck occasionally, targeting Israeli and other tourists at popular beach sites along the Red Sea, as well as hotels in Sharm el Sheikh. Concerned that the current situation might encourage terror organizations, Israel has allowed, for the first time since 1979, and despite the peace treaty restrictions, Egyptian soldiers to move into the Sinai. Some 800 are in Sharm el Sheikh and Rafah, the town straddling the Egyptian-Gaza border.

The attack on a natural gas installation last weekend in northern Sinai that has been providing some 40 percent of Israel’s needs was both a warning that some may seek to disrupt the relationship as well as a reminder that peace has yielded mutual benefits.

As Joshua Mitnick reported in the Christian Science Monitor , Israeli-owned textile factories that employ thousands of Egyptians in Egypt continue to operate under an American initiative known as the Qualified Industrial Zones.

While relations between Egyptians and Israelis have not evolved into the kind of amicable ties that peace was expected to stimulate because of Egyptian reluctance, in the security area there are solid understandings and regular consultations. 

Topping these concerns are Iran’s nuclear program, which poses a threat to the entire region, and radical Islamist groups, including, centrally, Hamas in Gaza, an ideological bedfellow of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Where the Muslim Brotherhood stands today, and what role it aspires to play in a possibly reconstituted Egyptian political system in the months ahead is very open, with profound ramifications for Egypt, Israel, and, of course, Gaza.

As Israelis watch closely their neighbor, it is worthwhile recalling the anxieties felt in October 1981, when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated only two years after he signed the historic peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the White House lawn. The murder sent shockwaves across the region, and raised concerns about the stability of the peace.

But both countries had crossed the threshold of a new era with a commitment to not retreat to the days before Sadat boarded a plane in 1977, flew the short distance to Israel and addressed Israel’s Parliament. That foundation of peace, or at least non-belligerency, is likely to endure, barring dramatic changes in Egypt’s political landscape.

The two-thirds of Egyptians who are under the age of 30 grew up in this period of peace. They do not have the personal recollections of the four wars Egypt fought against Israel, the concomitant pain and suffering, and diversion of precious resources to the conflict, even if most have little objective information about Israel, much less ever visited to see the Jewish state for themselves.

Peace has enabled Egyptians to focus on their very real and strong grievances against the Mubarak regime about their own political freedoms, high unemployment, human rights abuses -- and ultimately their yearning for an end to authoritarianism.

In the end, the Egyptians -- government, army, people -- will decide the fate of their country, as the world watches, hoping a resolution will be found soon, and then adjusting to the new reality.

Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.