Watching a succession of Western leaders, including Chancellor Merkel of German and Prime Minister Cameron of Britain speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference today, I was immediately struck by the huge importance they attached to the fast moving events in Egypt, and the wider Arab World. It was almost as though the enormity of what is unfolding – Egypt is hugely strategic and pivotal – was obliging these leaders to realise for the first time the possible knock on effects in the region.
Better late than never, they each demonstrated the importance of democracy, free speech and a free press, even as the unelected EU Foreign Spokeswoman, Baroness Ashton looked on. These very basic building blocks for society are sometimes taken for granted in the West, while in countries like Egypt where an overwhelmingly young population looks to free media such as Al Jazeera and the internet, many wonder why it has taken so long for the West to support their struggle.
So now is time to take one step further. Now surely is the time for the west to gaze into that crystal ball and ask if it is possible for one of the most stalwart allies, in the shape of President Mubarak to be toppled by people power, what might happen next to another key ally, Israel?
A straw in the wind today showed just how vulnerable the Israelis are to a change of government in Egypt, as one of the major gas lines that runs across Sinai sprung a major leak. Fortunately for the Israelis this leak will halt supplies to nearby Jordan, but the leak itself demonstrated how remarkably dependent Israel is on Egypt. Some 40% of Israel’s gas supplies come across that border from Egypt.
Key domestic issues are fuelling the great Maghreb revolution, such as poverty, hunger and unemployment. Every nine months there are another million Egyptian mouths to feed. Beyond that there is the totemic issue for the Arab World of their Palestinian brothers and sisters. It will not take much to fuel the ire of the Arab Street, as people begin to look beyond regime change in their own countries, to what their old regimes did, or didn’t do when it came to Israel.
It is surely time for President Obama and the elected leaders of Europe to start laying the line down to Israel, before any new Egyptian Government decides for instance to simply halt oil supplies to Israel. That line should be to seek a serious and long lasting settlement both with the Palestinians and with the new government in Egypt, as it emerges. Now really is the time to push for a two state solution, and this time there should be no wriggle room. Israel is as dependent on US aid as is Egypt, and there must surely be a limit to the generosity – and patience – of the US taxpayer.