U.S. Must Safeguard Regional Stability as It Handles Egypt Crisis

02/02/2011 08:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alan Elsner Author, 'Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons'

The Obama administration is rightly focused on helping Egyptians establish democracy and get rid of a regime that has totally lost the support of the people. However, as it maneuvers to help fashion an orderly transition of power, the United States should also make regional stability and preserving the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty a very high priority.

Stability seems like a fairly prosaic ideal to put aside soaring aspirations for democracy and freedom. But it is fundamental. Without stability, a peaceful transition to true democracy will not happen, and in its absence, extremism will flourish.

Israel has been unfairly portrayed by some in the blogosphere as supporting the Mubarak regime and opposing peaceful democratic change in Egypt. This is untrue. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, "We encourage the promotion of values of freedom and democracy in the Middle East."

However he noted that "if extremist forces are allowed to take advantage of democratic processes in order to take power, like what happened in Iran and other places, the consequences will mean that peace and democracy are hurt."

Israel is the first, the firmest and the truest democracy in the Middle East and its people have great sympathy for ordinary Egyptians. They know that Egypt under Mubarak has stagnated, and they hope that its people, and all people in the Arab world, can soon have the same rights that Israelis take for granted -- freedom of speech and assembly, the right to organize politically and to vote and the right to earn an honest living through productive labor.

It is also essential that any future Egyptian government commits itself to honor all past commitments made by previous administrations -- and the United States must make this crystal clear to all political players in Egypt. This is a bedrock principle of international relations. Just as successive Israeli governments, whether led by the right or the left, have honored all the international obligations undertaken by its predecessors, Israelis expect the same from Egypt.

It's not as if Israel has been the only, or even the main beneficiary, of the peace treaty. The countries fought four wars between 1948 and 1967 which took thousands of lives and wasted billions of dollars on unproductive military spending. Peace with Israel will be crucial for the future rulers of Egypt if they are to meet the expectations of their people for economic progress and an escape from the grinding poverty that afflicts so many.

The Middle East badly needs a stable Egypt, anchored to the West through its peaceful relationship with Israel. Even as the masses demonstrate in Cairo, Iran is steadily expanding its influence in the region, which it seeks first to destabilize and then to dominate.

Iran, through its Hezbollah allies, already has established a powerful position, perhaps even a dominant presence, in Lebanon. Through its Shi'ite, it has a powerful voice in Iraq and through its alliance with President Assad it has a foothold in Syria.

Tehran clearly aims, through its illegal nuclear weapons program, to intimidate the Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter. Egypt is a natural bulwark against Iranian aggression -- but in order to play that role it must be stable.

The Egyptian uprising is primarily about two things -- its people's wish for more control over their lives and their desire for more jobs and more prosperity. To achieve this, Egyptians need peace and stability. Thousands of Egyptian jobs were lost last week when major companies like Nestle, Nissan and British Gas withdrew from Egypt. Israel imports twice as much from Egypt as it exports, although trade between the two countries could vastly expand if Egypt's new rulers allow it to.

Egyptians should understand, and the United States should emphasize to them, that Israel is not part of their problem. It is part of their solution.