What now for Egypt’s uneasy peace with Israel?


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This piece was originally published in The Telegraph

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With Hosni Mubarak no longer in power, it seems inevitable that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will be scrutinised in the public domain. Mohammed Morsi’s victory in the presidential election has triggered both fear and speculation regarding the future of the Camp David peace treaty. Before making predictions, however, it is essential first to establish the facts.

First, there is an air of hostility in Egypt toward Israel; the public is in no mood to establish warm relationships with what many still describe as the “Zionist entity.” This description is widespread across society, from the leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafists. Recent polls from the Pew Research Center have shown that most Egyptians favour overturning the 1979 peace treaty.

Second, the realities of governing stand in stark contrast to the dreams of what was once an underground opposition group aspiring to liberate Jerusalem and establish Caliphate rule. Morsi’s Egypt will have to address the enormous security challenges facing Sinai before it even contemplates anything else. The integration of Sinai into Egypt has always been problematic; consecutive Egyptian governments have failed in the attempt. Security was a concern even during Mubarak’s era, and his solution to the problem was to seal the border with Gaza, a decision that cost him dearly politically. The problem took a dangerous turn after the January 25th revolution, with endless reports of deterioration in security, the kidnapping of tourists, and the spread of militant groups in the peninsula.

Third, the initial treaty was between Egypt and Israel. However, its future would be potentially determined not in Cairo or Jerusalem and certainly not in Washington, but in the Gaza strip, by third parties − the various militant groups- that directly or indirectly contribute to the deteriorated security in Sinai. If these groups succeed in infiltrating Israel from Sinai and manage to cause wide spread casualties, they could drag the Egyptians and the Israelis into an undesired confrontation.

Since 1948, the relationship between Egypt and Israel has gone through several phases. Phase one: swinging between full and partial hostility when Egypt acted as a patron for the Palestinian cause. Phase two: cold peace when Egypt tried − mostly unsuccessfully − to act as a mediator between Palestinians and Israelis. Now both countries have entered phase three. Morsi’s Egypt will have two options:

Option one: it can establish a policy of positive, fair mediation between various Palestinian factions and Israel, which proved successful in the last eighteen months following Mubarak’s departure. It could also provide logistical and moral support to the Hamas government in Gaza, but with established red lines that prohibit infiltration through Sinai to Israel. It seems that this is the option currently preferred by the military, and Morsi will probably not change it much. However, this option would place the Muslim Brotherhood on a collision course with its “brothers” in Gaza. The Palestinians who cheered Morsi the Big Brother won’t be happy to see him turn a blind eye to the military crackdown on militants in Sinai or the arrest of infiltrators from Gaza. Even if Hamas agreed and understood the Brotherhood’s delicate situation, would the Islamic Jihad and other militant factions understand and appreciate it?

Option two: Morsi’s Egypt might try to regain its old patron status to meet the expectations of many Palestinian groups that won’t accept less from the new Egypt than what Syria onced offered them: financial and logistical support and even weapons supplies, a non-starter if Morsi wants to maintain the treaty. That would definitely lead to a direct confrontation with Israel.

The survival of the treaty would depend on how Morsi’s Egypt controls the security situation in Sinai, and how he will handle the “brothers” in Gaza, a conundrum for a group that built its reputation on the dream of liberating Jerusalem.

For now, Morsi will probably continue the mediation policy and if these efforts fail, he is likely to blame the military and security establishment. He also might use the situation in Gaza to turn the general public further and further against the junta. Another card, Morsi might play, involve subtle, hostile actions: freezing contact with Israeli officials, cutting the remaining economic links, and stopping Israeli tourists from entering Sinai without visa. However, this would be a dangerous game; on one hand, it might boost Morsi’s popularity and conceal his Mubarak-style approach to Gaza, but on the other hand, it would deteriorate the relationship with Israel, which in turn would limit Egypt’s ability as a mediator.

The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel has been in a critical condition for quite some time; it is crucial for President Morsi to think carefully before his next move. Under his rule, Egypt will have to choose between being a mediator or a patron, and it can’t be both. Flirting with subtle hostility is dangerous, even reckless, in a country keen to repair its damaged economy. Many in Egypt still remember the days of wartime rations and they don’t want to see those days again.

Stuck between their “utopian” dreams and the dystopian reality, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood may struggle to maintain the elusive treaty, a treaty it really doesn’t want, but must keep in force. Sooner or later, the Brotherhood may discover that it can’t operate under two contradictory policies at once, and it will be forced to choose between dreams and reality. It is unknown whether the treaty will survive, but what is certain is that even if Egypt under Morsi’s leadership can maintain the treaty, the peace is gone, and it won’t be back for a long time.

About nervana111

Blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues
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3 Responses to What now for Egypt’s uneasy peace with Israel?

  1. salamamoussa says:

    Reblogged this on salamamoussa and commented:
    An excellent summary of the incoherence of MB thinking about Israel

  2. Jon Goodfellow says:

    Read several of Mr. Moussa’s posts on “Reclaiming Eypt” after reading Nervana’s most recent here and his comment. I owe both authors a debt of gratitude for the education. You are both on my must read list. Its hard to find educated native commentary on this region that isn’t besmirched by an agenda, so its valuable. Some questions for Nervana (sorry I broke my word; you’re just way to interesting): You state, “Even if Hamas agreed and understood the Brotherhood’s delicate situation, would the Islamic Jihad and other militant factions understand and appreciate it?” Does “other militant factions” mean the Popular Resistance Commitees? Aren’t they predominantly made up of former al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades which no longer answer to Fatah? The Isrealis claim their backing to be Hezbollah and the Iranian Pasdaran. How can President Morsi possibly mediate and also navigate the Isrealis if the Hamas writ is not stable in Gaza? And I am surprised the Saudis and Gulf States (who are Sunni and anti-Iran) are not trying to support the MB in this endeavour. Those are $$ that can offset the troubles in foriegn aid disruption, particularly since the MB diverted its Gaza funds to support “Arab Spring” efforts elsewhere. And where are the Hamas officials like Ghazi Hamad who were friends with Turkey’s Erdogan?

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