FP: Dr. Michael Widlanski, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Widlanski: Thank you.
FP: I would like to talk to you today about Egypt’s role in what we see unfolding in Gaza today -- and what effect the developments will have on Egypt. What relationship does Egypt have with Hamas exactly?
Widlanski: Egypt, the largest Arab country, is playing a dangerous double-game in its ties with its neighbors, Israel and Hamas.
Ever since Hamas's rise to power in Gaza three years ago, Egypt has tried to sell itself as an honest broker in mediating a truce between Israel and the Hamas terrorists, but, in fact, Egypt has been and continues to be part of the problem.
FP: And how is it part of the problem?
Widlanski: Well, if Egypt is really an honest broker, what has it condemned Israeli retaliation against Hamas, calling it aggression, without ever condemning a single Hamas attack? Egyptian police and soldiers have been turning a blind eye to weapons smuggling from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, allowing massive digging of some 50 miles of tunnels—some equipped with rails for carrying heavy equipment—into Gaza. Egyptian officials have actually encouraged attacks on Israel, which Egyptian President Husni Mubarak recently described as "legitimate resistance."
In a major New Year's Eve address on December 30, Mubarak criticized Hamas for goading Israel into the kind of military action which would hurt Hamas and all Palestinians, but he justified Hamas attacks, while excoriating Israeli "aggression" no less than 11 times in a ten-minute speech
"I say honestly and with full conviction that the right of resisting the occupation is a solid and legal right, but the resistance must be responsible before its people," said Mubarak, using the term "the resistance"—al-muqawwima in Arabic—to describe Hamas. [In Arabic Hamas is an abbreviation for Harakat al-Muqawwima al-Islamiyya –The Islamic Resistance Front.]
Like the late Yasser Arafat, who never condemned the suicide bomb attacks of Hamas or his own Fatah organization, Mubarak is basically saying that the attacks themselves are okay and legitimate, but that they bring Israeli reprisals.
For Mubarak, like for Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the current head of the PLO, such attacks are not immoral, but only "counter-productive."
Mubarak did not explain why attacking Israel with rocket fire on cities or bomb-carrying infiltrators was a form of "resistance" even after Israel troops had completely withdrawn from Gaza, evicting all Israeli citizens with them.
This is hardly an accident, because the term "The Occupation"—al-ikhtilal— is often used as a synonym for Israel itself, and Mubarak ended his speech by saying that "the Palestinian case will never ever die." This kind of terminology again suggests the Arabic rhetoric of Arafat-Abbas-Hamas that no Israeli withdrawals will ever satisfy the Arab opponents of Israel but that diplomatic agreements or truces are nothing but a transitory stage in the ultimate erasure of "the occupation."
Still, Mubarak castigated Hamas in his speech, and he was obviously trying to strike a pose of being insulted by Hamas's refusal to heed his advice on tactics.
At the same time, Mubarak and other Arab leaders are facing increasing pressure not to seem to be acquiescing to Israel's air-strikes against Hamas, in which more than 200 Hamas terrorists have been killed, including several regional military commanders and spiritual leader Sheikh Nazir Reian.
Professor Yoram Meital of Ben Gurion University said on January 1 that an Israeli ground attack, which we are witnessing now, would likely spark increased domestic opposition to Mubarak and might undermine his regime and other "moderate" Arab governments.
FP: So Mubarak is worried about the consequences of Israeli actions in terms of what will happen inside Egypt. Please explain.
Widlanski: Hamas, though currently supported and trained by the Shiite regime of Iran, is actually the outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood organization inside Egypt which is the strongest opposition to Mubarak.
Jordan's King Abdullah is also worried about the rising profile of the Islamists inside Jordan, and he just recently fired the head of his domestic intelligence agency for taking too lax a hand against Hamas and its supporters.
Some analysts in Israel feel that Mubarak is worried that a tough Israeli policy against Hamas in Gaza will cause a kind of "blowback" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives flowing back into Sinai where they might link up with incipient elements of Al-Qaeda that have taken root in the rocky peninsula, already staging terror inside Egypt and at the Israeli and Jordanian resorts of Eilat and Aqaba.
Off the record, some Israeli officials say that this would probably serve Mubarak right: he and his officials were just as happy to keep the violent Islamists pointed at Israel, but the current Israeli counteroffensive may be pointing the Islamists back at Egypt's heart.
Mubarak, who succeeded to power after Anwar Sadat was murdered by Islamists in 1981, would like to avoid a similar fate.
FP: What are the chances that jihadis might overthrow Mubarak? What would the consequences be to the region and to Israeli and American interests?
Widlanski: I don't believe there is any immediate threat to Mubarak. He has successfully repressed the extremist Muslim elements—the Islamists, if you will—over the past few years. But he has not eliminated them. They have a long wind, and they have a philosophy of steadfastness, patience and camouflage—sumuud, subr and taqiyya.
The Muslim Brothers and their satellite organizations are always poised to take action and to pounce on a regime's weakness. These organizations include Al-gema'at al-Islamiyya—The Islamic Groups-and al-Lagii'n Min al-Nar—literally "The Refugees from the Fire" or the "Refugees from Hell."
Remember, too, that Hamas itself masqueraded as a purely religious social service organization until December 1987, but when the so-called "Intifada" erupted, they quickly got involved and came out of the closet so that they would not lose footing to groups like Islamic Jihad, which is far, far smaller, and Fatah, which is less religiously oriented.
It is clear that the rise of a Jihadi regime in Egypt would be a catastrophe for America, the West and for the entire world. We are still paying for the transfer of Iran —in the days of Jimmy Carter—to the hands of the Ayatollahs. Losing Iran was bad, and is bad. Losing Egypt would be absolutely horrible. Egypt is centrally located, and it is the most important and most populous Arab country with major communications and literary influence. However, I don't think that moment is near. Mubarak is working hard to smooth the transition to his son, Gamal, and to people close to him, but there is a danger. That danger is the perception that the current regime is corrupt or unethical. That is the same weakness that plagues other regimes, such as the Saudi regime, whose corruption has immense proportions. And it is this corruption and the perception of corruption and insensitive bureaucracy which breeds the strength for all the Islamist movements, whether they are Shiite, as in Iran, or the Sunni-oriented Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, in Gaza and Egypt.
FP: What policies should Israel and the U.S. pursue in this context?
Widlanski: Israel and the US must pursue a political-cultural-military offensive that is a kind of multi-disciplinary version of combined arms theory:
They need to attack the terrorist organizations mercilessly and ceaselessly by physically killing or capturing their members, preferably killing them. And no truces or ceasefires ever—not for Ramadan, not for Christmas and not for Rosh Ha-Shana.
They have to isolate them financially and politically by not allowing them passage between countries and not allowing passage of their funds. Rather, we should be confiscating all of their assets
They need to uncover and publicly reveal all hidden Hamas and Hizballah-oriented organizations which try to pass themselves off as charitable organizations. There are many in the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands etc
FP: Dr. Michael Widlanski, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Widlanski: Thank you Jamie.