Udall, Senate intelligence panel take hands-off approach toward Egyptian “lynchpin”

Senator says it’s a ‘critical time in post-Mubarak Egypt’
The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall isn’t downplaying the impact that the upcoming Egyptian presidential election will have on the future of the region, but there isn’t much room for American involvement as the country works itself through the aftermath of a massive political uprising.

Colorado’s senior senator talked to reporters during a conference call from Egypt on Wednesday. He spent the week on a bipartisan tour through a region where the tumultuous political landscape has resulted in a sharp reduction of American influence, but members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence still met with Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority officials in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo.

Sen. Mark Udall, pictured in a file photo from earlier this year, spent the week on a bipartisan tour in the Middle East. He talked to reporters on a conference call from Egypt.

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) also participated in the visit to the Middle East.

Udall said that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak remain primarily focused on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the panel also heard concerns from Israeli government officials on the stability of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, concerns that are shared by Udall.

“A deteriorating Israeli-Egyptian relationship could mean an entire re-ordering of the region,” Udall said.

Describing the present moment as a “critical time in post-Mubarak Egypt,” Udall said he commends the Egyptian government for carrying out “what most independent monitors have called a free and fair election.”

Two polarizing frontrunners representing opposing political forces in the country emerged after the first round of elections: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and Hosni Mubarak’s latest prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

The candidates will compete in a run-off election set to take place on June 16 and 17, with the new president taking control of the government by July 1.

Udall called the outcome of the first round “surprising,” saying that there had been expectations that some moderate candidates such as former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa would fare better in the election. The senator added that he did not want to “characterize the choice” that Egyptians will make in the upcoming weeks.

“We heard in a number of settings that American support is important, but they don’t want us putting our thumb on the scale,” Udall said.

The senator pinpointed the Sinai Peninsula, a small strip of land in northern Egypt that borders southern Israel, as a potential trigger for an Israeli-Egyptian conflict.

He spoke about how security has deteriorated in the Sinai, where there have been 14 successful attacks on the pipeline carrying gas from Egypt to Jordan and Israel since Mubarak’s ousting a little over a year ago. The Sinai Peninsula was also the staging area for a terrorist attack carried out on an Israeli bus traveling near the southern city of Eilat that killed eight Israelis in August of last year.

“All it would take is one rocket from the Sinai striking civilians in Israel to unravel the peace,” Udall said.

A rocket that Israeli officials said was fired from the Sinai came close to doing just that last month when it struck the city of Eilat, but the rocket did not cause any casualties.

“We need to work with the new Egyptian government to help shore up what’s happening in the Sinai,” Udall said, adding that it was also one of Egypt’s prime tourist destinations, but has not seen its tourism levels recover to where they were before the Egyptian revolution.

Udall remarked that the Israeli government has been smart in keeping its distance from the Egyptian elections, but they have “sent feelers out there and made the case that the treaty has been beneficial to the region as a whole.”

“If the new Egyptian parliament and president are going to focus on a new economy, one of the cornerstones would be the treaty remaining,” Udall said, also mentioning that the economic stability of the region was dependent upon an open Suez Canal, which would likely turn into a geopolitical pressure point if the Israeli-Egyptian alliance failed.

Also atop the panel’s agenda were the ongoing efforts of international diplomacy with Iran.

Last week, the so-called P5+1 — comprised of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — met at a summit in Baghdad to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but no real progress was made.

Another set of talks is slated to take place in Moscow next week, and Udall said that he’s hoping for more progress in that round.

“The Iranians can’t play for time solely,” Udall said. “There is sand in the hourglass, and it’s running out.”

Udall also touched briefly on the Syrian violence that has continued to plague the country, expressing a reluctance to support arming the rebels fighting government forces there because “nobody seems to know the opposition very well.”

“I didn’t hear an easy way forward,” Udall said, adding that regional governments would have to take the lead in order to remedy the situation.

Describing Egypt as the “lynchpin of the Middle East,” Udall said that the Egyptians are a proud people who have historically led the region and want to remain in that leadership role.

“I’m confident that if we stay engaged in the right way, Egypt — although it may be in fits and starts — will find its way to a new future that’s more democratic than they’ve seen in the last few decades,” Udall said.

Ben@coloradostatesman.com