Sleepless in Jerusalem

Egypt's presidential elections are keeping Israeli officials awake at night. Will their most important Arab friend soon be an enemy?

JERUSALEM – Egypt's first round of presidential voting wrapped up on Thursday with the crop of viable candidates down to just a handful. Official results won't be ready until Tuesday, but next door in Israel, policymakers are already scrambling to sort the bad options from the worse.

For all his faults, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was a reliable, if remote, Israeli ally for three decades until his ouster in a popular uprising last year. Subsequent parliamentary elections over the winter brought an Islamist rout, with the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood winning half of all seats and even harder-line Salafis taking another quarter. It's too early to tell if the next president will be an Islamist, but even if not, a new constitution could grant Egypt's formerly rubber-stamp parliament real powers (the panel tasked with writing the charter has been suspended amid bickering over its own Islamist-heavy composition).

"The changes in Israeli-Egyptian ties will be wide and deep," says Yoram Meital, chair of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. "Egypt is about to make a number of revisions to its security and foreign policies that many in Israel, particularly our decision makers, view with trepidation."

Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, followed a year later by a formal peace agreement -- the first ever by an Arab leader. The deal has never been popular among Egyptians (Sadat paid for it with his life), and in the presidential campaigns since Mubarak's ouster, Islamist and non-Islamist candidates alike have called for the treaty's revision or outright annulment.

Initial exit polls place the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi first, followed by former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, the former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and the leftist nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi round out the top five. The top two candidates -- likely Morsi and either Shafiq or Moussa -- will go to a run-off vote next month, with the interim military rulers transferring power by July 1.

Israel officials most dread the prospect of an Islamist president. Aboul Fotouh regularly refers to Egypt's neighbor as the "Zionist entity," and the mainstream Brothers can themselves match any other Islamists for pure anti-Zionist and Judeophobic bombast. Morsi sat front row at a recent stadium rally as a preacher pledged the candidate would revive the Islamic caliphate, this time in Jerusalem: "Banish the sleep from the eyes of the Jews," chanted an MC, "Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas!" (In Arabic it rhymes.)

In Egypt, however, opposition to the peace pact extends far beyond Islamists. Polls show 85 percent of Egyptians view Israel negatively, 97 percent see it as one of their country's biggest threats  and 61 percent want to overturn the treaty entirely (32 percent want to keep it; 7 percent are undecided). Anti-Israel sentiment cuts across class lines: Over the last year, opposition to the peace deal rose most sharply among the college-educated (up 18 points to 58 percent) and those under 30 (up 14 points to 64 percent). In Egypt's first-ever presidential debate this month, Aboul Fotouh described the Jewish state as an "enemy," while Moussa settled on the more diplomatic "adversary." (The latter has a decades-long record of anti-Israel bona fides; the anthem "I Hate Israel, I Love Amr Moussa" topped the Egyptian charts in 2001.)

Jerusalem has legitimate cause for concern -- of the five frontrunners, four have called for an overhaul of Camp David. Moussa has eulogized the peace accord as "dead and buried," Morsi urged it be put to referendum, Aboul Fotouh called it a "national security threat," and Sabahi warned that under his leadership, Egypt would no longer be Israel's "godfather" in the region. Shafiq, too, has begun burnishing his anti-Israel credentials: when an Islamist lawmaker recently accused him of Mubarak-era corruption, the former Air Force chief shot back that as a pilot in the 1960s he had downed two Israeli planes while the MP was still in his Nile cotton nappies.

In the 15 months since the start of the anti-Mubarak revolution, Egypt's political landscape has transformed, its economy entered a freefall, and tourism all but evaporated. The most dramatic change of all, however, has been the utter breakdown of government authority in the Sinai Peninsula separating mainland Egypt from Israel. There, local Bedouins run one of the world's briskest smuggling rackets: drugs and Libyan weapons to Gaza, Sudanese and Eritrean migrants to Israel (the prevalence of organ harvesting en route is one of the underreported stories of post-revolution Egypt). This month, the Knesset called up six reserve battalions and authorized an additional 16 amid ongoing instability on Israel's frontiers.

The breakdown in Sinai has already led to the shelving of the 2005 Egypt-Israel natural gas deal, a 15-year agreement whose terms many Egyptians viewed as too generous to Israel. The energy pipeline running through the peninsula has been sabotaged 14 times in as many months, and in April, the gas consortium's Egyptian partners severed the agreement outright, claiming their Israeli counterparts had welched on payment.

Armed extremists -- some linked to al Qaeda -- have also set up shop. Last summer, a dozen gunmen wearing Egyptian army uniforms waged a sophisticated multi-stage terror attack in southern Israel that left six civilians and two security personnel dead. The perpetrators -- most from Sinai, some from Gaza -- retreated to Egyptian territory, and in the ensuing chase Israeli forces killed 10 of the terrorists and, by mistake, five Egyptian troops.

Egypt demanded an apology; Israel refused. Weeks later, thousands of soccer hooligans ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, prompting Jerusalem to recall all but one of its diplomatic staff home (footage later emerged of fans at a Cairo stadium raising the banner "One nation for a new Holocaust").

To many Egyptians, Camp David's most irksome terms are those stipulating the Sinai's demilitarization. The treaty allows Cairo to deploy only a single army division in the peninsula, the battleground for four Egyptian-Israeli wars over less than two decades. Closer to the frontier, only Egyptian police are allowed -- no troops. "It is a treaty that forbids Egypt from exercising full sovereignty," Aboul Fotouh said in the presidential debate. But Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said altering the terms for Sinai troop deployments is not up for debate. "That's basis of the treaty," he said. "Without that, there's no peace."

Top-level Israeli security officials told me ties with their Egyptian equivalents remain largely unchanged since the Mubarak era. Still, further down the ranks, enmity boils: On a recent border tour with Israeli colleagues, more than one Egyptian policeman greeted us across the electrified fence with a one-finger salute.

"Sinai today is a powder keg. There is chaos there," said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer -- an Iraqi-born Labor Party lawmaker, ex-defense minister, and decades-long friend of Mubarak. Losing Egypt, he sighed, "will be a very big blow to us ... [We] must be prepared for the possibility of a confrontation."

I asked Prof. Meital of Ben-Gurion University if he thinks such fatalism is warranted. He said that while the last year's events do justify a certain apprehension, Israelis shouldn't let the doomsayers get the better of them just yet. "Much of Israel's public, and of course its decision makers, believe the Mubarak regime's fall has led to utter chaos. To me that's a simplistic understanding of the revolutionary transition that Egyptian society is undergoing," he said. "History shows such stages do lead at first to instability, but success must be judged with the perspective of years, not months. It's just a year after the regime's fall, after all, and free elections are already being held."

For many in Israel, nonetheless, the view across the border could hardly be bleaker. "It's hard to know whether we should talk about Egypt-Israel relations or the absence thereof," said former ambassador Mazel. "Whomever is elected president, the feeling is whatever comes next won't be good."

Note: this piece has been updated to reflect late-breaking exit polls from the presidential election on Thursday, May 24.



Ask Me No Questions…

How come Egyptian polls are so useless?

CAIRO – The 15 months since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power have brought Egypt any number of previously unthinkable democratic novelties.

We've had fiercely contested and well-attended parliamentary elections with many Egyptians voting for the first time in their lives. Muslim Brotherhood officials now appear regularly on state television channels that spent years referring to the Islamist organization only as "the banned group." Earlier this month, the top two candidates squared off in an actual televised presidential debate that (in true Egyptian fashion) lasted well past 1 am. And as Egyptians head to presidential polls on Wednesday and Thursday (with expected run-off elections extending through mid-June) the nation has been in the grip of a new democratic craze: Post-Mubarak Egypt has discovered electoral polling with the enthusiasm of a shiny new toy.

Every few days for the past several months, a new set of polling numbers has emerged -- with the results heavily reported. The legitimacy or accuracy of the poll numbers aside, everyone's watching and they've affected public perceptions of momentum for each candidate. It's a completely new concept in a race that has 13 candidates, with at least five of them regarded as plausible contenders to qualify for a run-off. So, who's actually in the lead? Like most things in Egypt these days, it's not that simple.

The most credible polls, according to the professionals, have been run by the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in partnership with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute. But parallel (and often contradictory) numbers have been produced by local newspapers such as Al Masry Al Youm and Al Shorouk and by the Information Decision Support Center -- a government research body affiliated with the Egyptian cabinet.

Not surprsingly, this sudden flood of polling data has failed to produce much clarity and may have even muddled the electoral waters even further. The former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era foreign minister, Amr Moussa, and former Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh spent months as the presumed frontrunners. But in recent weeks, fresh numbers have suggested surges in support by Mohammed Moursi, the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister; and even Hamdeen Sabahi, a longtime socialist politician previously regarded as a fringe candidate.

But despite all the time, manpower, and funding being devoted to tracking Egyptian voters, nobody really has any idea who is going to win this election. After all, how do you scientifically predict the behavior of an electorate that's suddenly drowning in choices and seemingly can't make up its mind?

"I still think there's a large chunk of the population that are undecided. We have no idea which way they're going to go," said Hisham Hellyer, a former analyst with the Gallup polling agency.

In January, Gallup released a survey that revealed a massive 55 percent of respondents who said they didn't know who they were going to vote for. As the elections kicked off today, Reem Abuzaid, a project officer with the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute, estimated that the undecided bloc still comprised 33 percent. That's enough to swing the election in anyone's direction.

That's a pretty big grey area. The parliamentary elections conducted last fall were the first indication of the limitations of this new Egyptian polling phenomenon. Despite multiple overlapping surveys, none of the polls accurately predicted the strong showing by ultraconservative Salafist Muslim parties -- who came from seeming obscurity to capture nearly 25 percent of the parliament. This failure to predict the rise of the Salafists has since been attributed to a number of factors. For starters, there's the potentially shaky methodology of the still-nascent Egyptian polling industry. The Ahram Center polls are conducted in person by a nationwide team of researchers, but most of the other polls are conducted via telephone -- widely regarded in the polling industry as a credible option in the West, but not in modern Egypt.  

"Polling here is very, very dodgy," Hellyer said. "Telephone polls are crap, especially in Egypt."

But the main reason for the flawed parliamentary polls might be far more simple: At this stage in the nation's history the Egyptian electorate might just be, well, un-pollable.

"Was it that the Salafist voters were deceptive about who they were going to vote for? Or does it mean that they decided at the last minute?" said Craig Charney, president of the U.S.-based polling firm Charney Research that conducted opinion surveys before the parliamentary vote. "I think it was the latter, judging by the large numbers of voters who said they were unfamiliar with almost all the new parties until the very end of the campaign."

The presidential vote should suffer from less of a problem of voter unfamiliarity. Most of the top contenders are well known public figures and the campaigns have plastered their faces across the country. Last week, a several-mile stretch of the Nile-side cornice south of downtown Cairo was lined by hundreds of male and female Muslim Brotherhood campaigners holding a seemingly endless ribbon of posters bearing Moursi's face. But greater familiarity won't necessarily lead to less voter flip-flopping.

The infant Egyptian electoral polling industry isn't just contending with obstacles of technical sophistication and voter schizophrenia; it's also partially constrained by government interference. One of the under-reported aspects of Egypt's new polling craze is the quiet but crucial role played in the process by a relatively obscure government agency: The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, or CAPMAS -- a wing of the Ministry of Planning, run by an Army general -- vets all potential polling questions and has the right to ban prospective pollsters from asking certain questions.

Alia Abdel Hamid, the general manager for public relationships for CAPMAS, acknowledged the organization's central role in the polling process, but described it as a matter of protecting Egyptian security and public morality. "We have to agree and the security services have to agree," on any questions in a poll, Abdel Hamid said. "Some questions are just inappropriate."

None of the pollsters interviewed for this article would comment formally on CAPMAS's role for fear of jeopardizing a crucial relationship. But the red lines seem to involve sensitive questions regarding perception of religion, the army, or the security services. Examples of questions banned by the CAPMAS censors include asking how many times per day a respondent prayed, whether they had ever had any dealings with the police, and what they thought of U.S. aid to the Egyptian military.

There is rarely a reason given for why a certain question is out of bounds, although one polling professional said the agency was fond of saying that a banned question was "outside the theme" of the overall poll.

"They are a cautious bureaucracy," said one pollster, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The impression that I have is that controversial questions make them nervous. And it's often a surprise just what they consider controversial."

All in all, it's easy to feel a twinge of sympathy for those tasked with gauging the political winds in Egypt. This promises to be one of the most intensely scrutinized and dissected national votes in Egyptian history. And it's still an absolute black box.