The Phenomenon of Frenemies

Many of Israel’s friends are giving Israel the cold shoulder lately. At the same time, in what might be termed cooled-war politics, a new phenomenon is taking shape in the ever-shifting sands of the Middle East — sands increasingly drenched with blood from fratricidal terror.

As the scorpion pincers of Iran and ISIS come ever closer together, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are beginning to feel the sting.

So where does one go in the Middle East to seek protection from terrorists? As unlikely a friend as Israel might seem, some pragmatic Arab leaders are beginning to learn something Israel learned long ago: you can’t always pick your friends.

Commenting on an earlier, colder war, Walter Winchell wrote in the Nevada State Journal in 1953: “Howz about calling the Russians our Frienemies?”

Frenemies, the current spelling, is akin to “strange bedfellows” — defined in Safire’s Political Dictionary as “Enemies forced by circumstances to work together; members of an unlikely alliance…”

During the Gaza War, Egypt played a key role as a mediator in negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Before Begin met with Sadat in 1978, such alliances would have been unthinkable. Even now, it was shocking when, Friday, Egypt voted for Israel at the United Nations.

You might say there was something literally heavenly about the vote. The unprecedented support for Israel came in elections for membership in the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), where Israel was accepted by a vote of 117 for and only Namibia against, with 221 countries abstaining, including 10 Arab members.

Predictably, Egypt faced a wave of criticism in the Arab world after casting its first-ever vote in favor of Israel. News of the vote triggered an angry reaction on Arab social media.

Attempting to quell the criticism, Egyptian officials hastened to explain that the vote was cast not for Israel but for the several Arab countries who were also candidates for membership.

“Egypt’s commitment to support the candidate of the Arab countries is the main motive behind the vote in favor of the resolution,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid told The Cairo Post over the weekend.

But the denial does not undo the deed. Backpedaling is a popular political exercise, not limited to Middle Eastern countries under attack.

According to the Post, Egypt and other Arab General Assembly members requested to vote for each of the six states on the list individually, but were refused; voting was for or against the entire list in one go.

The Israeli mission to the U.N., for its part, hailed the acceptance as a “victory” for Israel following “intensive diplomatic efforts.”

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was established in 1959 and has 84 members. It is concerned with the use of space for peace, security and development. Hopefully, the U.N. will fare better in space than it has on earth.

For all the backpedaling on the vote, Egypt’s role since the ascent of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has been a game changer for cooperation, however dysfunctional the relationship may sometimes seem.

Perhaps even more momentous than the U.N. vote was a speech and directive reported in January in The Cairo Post: President el-Sisi “asked Al-Azhar scholars for a ‘religious revolution’ to re-examine centuries-old Islamic thoughts that ‘make an enemy of the whole world.’”

In response, the Ministry of Religious Endowment announced the establishment of the Forum on Tolerance and Moderation and the Islamic Council for Languages and Translation. The name is long and its task arduous: “To spread moderate religious ideas in Egypt and the world.”

The ministry, under the control of Al-Azhar, went on to announce the 25th conference of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs on Feb. 28-March 1. The theme of the conference is “The greatness of Islam and flaws attributed to it.”

The Cairo Post went on to say that “Al-Azhar, the most prestigious Sunni institution in the Islamic world, has intensified its efforts to counter radical ideas that appeal to a segment of Muslims, as well as ‘correct’ the image of the Islam that has been marred by terrorist organizations.”

What is most fascinating — and most important — is that el-Sisi is more than a politically correct Western politician waving the Islamophobia flag.