Image Credit: Dana A.Shams/©Gulf News

Egypt's presidential election, due to be held — if things go according to plan — in three weeks time, could turn out to be another watershed development in the history of the Middle East. Just like its revolution last year, the election in Egypt on May 23-24 is likely to have tremendous impact on Arab domestic politics as well as on the political landscape of the region. Egypt's military chief of staff on Wednesday indicated that the army ma transfer power sooner than promised. Indeed, Tunisia must be credited for being the cradle of change and democracy in the Arab world, but Egypt is the key to the long-awaited transition.

Egypt is not just another country in the Middle East. It is the heart of the Arab world and what happens in Cairo will inevitably have a huge impact on the entire region. To further emphasise this point, one may need to recall that when the Egyptian army toppled the monarchy in 1952, military coups became the norm in most of the Arab world. When a pan-Arab regime ruled in Cairo, Arab nationalism engulfed the region as a policy and ideology. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, notwithstanding the expulsion of Cairo from the Arab League, the Arab world started to talk about a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given this long history of influence on fellow Arab countries, it would not be a far-fetched prediction that if the Islamists — whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or from the Salafist trends — rule in Egypt, most, in not all, of the Arab world would come under Islamist rule.

Just three weeks before the polls, people and governments in the region and beyond are closely watching the increasingly fierce election campaign in the biggest Arab country, with a different emphasis though. Arab people in particular are more interested in the domestic ramifications of Islamist rule in Egypt and its impact on the future of democratic change in their own countries. Western governments and regional powers, on the other hand, care more about the impact of the change in Egypt on the regional balance of power.

The question that is being frequently asked is: would the arrival of the Islamists to power in Egypt lead to a new line up in the region? For Israel, the vital question is: Would the Camp David Accords and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty be affected by the ascendance of new political elite in Cairo? This question has been haunting the ruling class in Israel ever since the January 25, 2011, uprising. Indeed, Egypt has always been the centre of gravity in terms of regional strategic calculations. For Israel, it was the major challenge for almost three decades (1948-1978). Most Israeli analysts agree that the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt has been the bedrock of Israel's national security. The very survival of Israel ceased to be at stake since the end of the state of belligerence with Egypt.

Balance of power

During the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the July 2006 confrontation with Hezbollah and the 2008 war against Hamas in Gaza, Israeli interests were involved, but not survival. In brief, for the past 32 years, Israel's existence was not at stake, nor was it an issue. With the uprising and with the possibility of Islamist rule, however, that state of affairs may cease to exist, at least from a theoretical standpoint.

An Islamic-oriented government in Egypt scares Israel most and reminds it of two strategic setbacks: Iran and Turkey.

It might have been a coincidence, a very weird one though, that when Israel succeeded in taking Egypt out of the regional balance of power, its close ally in the Gulf — the Shah's regime in Iran — was removed from power. To an extent, the revolutionary regime in Iran acted both ideologically and practically as a substitute to Egypt in the Arab-Israeli balance of power. It supported the creation of Hezbollah, the revival of the Shiite community in Lebanon and acted as a patron for Palestinian resistance movements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In Turkey, Israeli-Turkish relations turned sour under the rule of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Though not as bad as Israel's relations with Iran, since the AKP came to power in 2002, Israel's relations with Turkey suffered major blows. Turkey has practically moved from being an ally to a regional foe. Its strong ties with Hamas and other rising Islamist powers in the region are a matter of great concern for Israel. Turkey is even acting as a godfather for Islamist parties in region. If Egypt, another big regional power, comes under Islamist rule, Israel's nightmare would have then come true.

 Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus, Syria.