UPDATE — In the first-ever presidential debate in an Arab country, two leading candidates vied to see who was more anti-Israel. Abdul Moneim Aboul Futouh, an Islamist and candidate of the ultra-religious Salafi Call party, said, "Israel is an enemy" and the peace treaty with the Jewish state" should be revised" to remove "immediately" parts deemed "against Egypt's interest." He said, “Israel is an enemy, built on occupation. It owns 200 nuclear warheads and doesn’t respect international decisions,”
Amr Moussa, the secular frontrunner who last month had declared the 1978 Camp David Accords "dead and buried," pledged to honor the treaty but said he also wants to renegotiate unspecified aspects of it. He called Israel "a country that advocates an aggressive stance." Most Egyptians, he said, consider Israel an enemy.
The Israeli government is opposed to renegotiating any aspects of the treaty. It fears that once opened, the agreement could fall apart.
The Islamists and their allies have won an overwhelming majority of the seats in Egypt's new parliament, have the backing of the leading presidential candidates and they control the committee writing the nation's new constitution, which is expected to favor Sharia law.
Liberal and secular activists, who sparked the revolution that began in Tahrir Square early last year appear left on the outside, as the road to democracy in Egypt appears to lead through the mosque, where Egyptians may find that all the exits are blocked.
The country's first contested election – in the past people either voted for the chosen president or stayed home — will be held on May 23 and 24th, and if there is no clear runner there will be a runoff June 16 and 17.
A congressional Middle East expert told me he is pessimistic and puzzled about how Egyptians will deal with this new experience. "Popular pressures, learning curves, economic realities and politics will all run up against ideological imperatives, ignorance about the process of governing, bureaucratic resistance, capital flight, and other exogenous factors that can’t even be imagined. I don't expect things to go well."
Egypt's military controls a vast economic empire that extends deep into the civilian sector and exercises many other powers it is reluctant to surrender. It also has been a source of stability, strategic cooperation with the United States and protection for the peace treaty with Israel. The extent that would continue under any of the leading presidential contenders is of great concern.
Nonetheless, the United States has been pressing the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to keep its commitment to transfer authority to the civilian government as promised, but the extent, timing and impact of the turnover remains unclear.
Washington sends Egypt more than $1.5 billion in aid annually, and that should buy some influence if handled deftly. You can read more about this in my Jerusalem Post column.