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Democracy eclipses all in Mideast

Scrambling for intelligence

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TEL AVIV -- The dramatic transfer of power in Egypt from Hosni Mubarak to the military has changed the purpose of Admiral Mike Mullen's visits to Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Originally, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff was due to come to Israel for a one-day visit to bid farewell to Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who on Monday completed four years of service as Israel's 19th chief of general staff.

This was the first time in Israel's history that an American military chief came to bid farewell to his Israeli counterpart. It was a public expression of trust and respect for an Israeli general that treated responsibly the Iranian nuclear issue and co-operated with the U.S. on many other classified issues.

However, after Mubarak succumbed to his country's popular revolution and transferred his powers to the military, U.S. President Barack Obama wanted a first-hand report on the regional repercussions of Mubarak's move.

Mullen first went to Jordan. He found King Abdullah confused by the erratic U.S. handling of the Egyptian youth revolution. While Jordan is tense, the Jordanian army took all the necessary precautions to protect the monarchy.

Mullen's visit to Israel was totally different. In a way, it was the first high-level strategic consultation between the two countries in the post-Mubarak era.

Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington for meetings with his counterpart, Robert Gates, and the national security adviser, Thomas Donillon. But Mubarak was still in power and his appointment of the minister of intelligence, Gen. Omar Suleiman as vice-president, was seen as paving the way for smooth succession.

When Barak returned to Israel on Friday, however, Mubarak was gone.

In discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Barak and the new chief of general staff, Gen. Benny Gantz -- a former military attache in Washington -- Mullen wanted to understand Israel's long-term perspective of the situation in the Middle East in the post-Mubarak era.

The talks, obviously confidential, touch upon all subjects -- including the Israeli-Palestinian peace and the possible developments in other Middle East countries.

Sources who are familiar with Israel's strategic thinking stressed the point that the Israeli-Arab conflict is not the only problem facing the Middle East. Much more serious, and certainly the more urgent challenge, is the struggle for democratization in the various Arab countries.

There are growing and alarming signs of tension in Jordan, between the original East Bankers -- mostly Bedouins -- and the Palestinians, who are a majority in the kingdom but don't enjoy equal political rights.

Democratization in Jordan, therefore, would mean a practical transfer of political power to the Palestinians, which the Bedouins, including King Abdullah and his army oppose.

Then there is Lebanon. Israeli strategists were appalled by the belated Obama realization that the Hezbollah "coup" that brought down Saad Hariri's government was, in fact, a Syrian-Iranian coup. This could affect the stability in Iraq and eventually endanger the stability in the Persian Gulf.

Raghida Dergham, the New-York correspondent of the London-based, Saudi-owned Arabic daily Al Hayat wrote that "Obama has become a liability to all his Arab allies. Israel doesn't share this view but does urge rethinking of Obama's policies in the Middle East."

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the Youth Revolution in Egypt has exposed America's lack of long-term perspective in the Middle East.

As far as Israel is concerned, there is now a general agreement that in the temporary -- or permanent -- absence of Egypt as a regional strategic partner, there is an immediate need to expand NATO's co-operation with Israel. NATO and the U.S. now should make every effort to solve the dispute between Israel and Turkey.

Equipped with Israel's up-to-date strategic thinking, Admiral Mullen and the U.S. national security team now will concentrate their efforts on Egypt. The crisis is not over yet.

The Egyptian military appears to be consolidating its hold in the country. Among the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, two in particular are prominent: the minister of defence, Field Marshal Muhamad Hussein Tantawi and the chief of general staff, Gen. Sami Anan. They are joined by Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, a former air force general. All three are considered pro-American. In fact, Gen. Anan was in Washington when the Youth Revolution in Cairo began.

The new Egyptian regime dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and appointed a committee to propose amendments that, after their approval by the military, will be brought to a referendum, after which new parliamentary elections will be held. The Muslim Brotherhood will be permitted to participate in the elections for the first time since they were banned by Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954.

The military promise that elections will be held within six months. Until then, the Shafiq government will continue to govern. The status of the vice-president, Gen. Omar Suleiman, is still unclear. Theoretically, Suleiman is still vice-president but with no powers.

In these circumstances, is Egypt heading towards relative normalcy?

Unfortunately, it is not. All members of the new regime were appointed by Mubarak and more than half of the ministers in the Shafiq government are also Mubarak's appointees. All these officers were trained in the U.S.

A WikiLeaks document quoted an American diplomat in Cairo as describing the minister of defence, Gen. Tantawi, as a "Mubarak poodle."

Yet, it was Tantawi who forced Mubarak to abdicate the presidency.

Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups are now demanding the abrogation of the emergency rules and the release of all political prisoners. So far, the military is refusing these demands. The way the new military regime handles these problems will tell us if Egypt is indeed moving towards relative normalcy.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2011 A11

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