A 200km barricade being built along the Egypt-Israel border, originally designed to deter illegal immigrants and smugglers from entering Israel, has this week taken on a new significance. In the latest event to mark a decline in relations between the two countries, gunmen attacked construction workers building the security fence. Two of the gunmen and an Israeli-Arab citizen were killed.
On Sunday, the newspaper Ha’aretz quoted Israeli officials claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood had authorised the attacks, sparking fear amongst some that the violence could escalate into a full-scale war between Egypt and Israel. The incident fanned the flames of existing anxiety amongst some Israeli citizens about their security should the Muslim Brotherhood form Egypt’s new government.1
The reality of the Brotherhood’s victory became stronger this week. In the presidential election run-off, Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) faced Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. The official result has been delayed but evidence suggests that Morsi is ahead in the polls.
Rather than an attack by the strongly-fancied FJP, the hasty and unsubstantiated claims by Israel suggest fear of a political shift in Egypt rather than a genuine security threat. For nearly thirty years Mubarak entertained strong ties with Israel, in the face of popular public opinion. Banned under his regime, the Muslim Brotherhood had a different outlook to the dictator. It refused to attend conferences with Israel or visit the country, leading the fight against normalisation.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s position on Israel
The Muslim Brotherhood has a history of anti-America, anti-Israel policies, not least when the two countries combine to curtail the needs and rights of the Palestinians.
Officially, the Brotherhood pledges to help and uphold the Palestinian people’s struggle both at home and internationally; to reclaim their rights and rightful land; establish their own state; and to cooperate with other countries that are in favour of an independent Palestine.2
In public its political rhetoric proves slightly more provocative. In May, Egyptian cleric Safwat Higazi launched the presidential campaign for Mohamed Morsi in front of thousands of spectators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, pledging Morsi’s support for the restoration of a United States of the Arabs with Jerusalem as the capital. Chants of “Morsi will liberate Gaza tomorrow” followed in a campaign against Israel that promised to be characterised by contempt.3
However, the FJP is not about to tear up the peace treaty with Israel just yet. What is likely to follow is an honouring of the agreement but a considerable change in the cosy relationship the two countries once shared, at least in the eyes of the new Egyptian government. It is likely that we will see a campaign based on the subtle removal of privileges, a steady change rather than an unrestrained war.
A significant move of this nature took place in April when the state owned Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company ended the deal to export gas to Israel, removing 40 per cent of Israel’s gas supply sold to it at one third of the market price. The ousted president is now facing criminal charges for his role in the agreement.
What are the obstacles?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the ambitions of a new government and civilians in Egypt is the army. On one hand the FJP must court the armed forces as they will continue to conduct exercises on behalf of Egypt. On the other, they must oppose them.
A recent constitutional declaration granted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) legislative responsibility, influence over the constitution, powers of arrest, control over the armed forces and the right to veto a war, leaving the three main arms of the government weakened by the military. In a move that threatens to destroy Egypt’s democratic dreams, the president’s power has been reduced, the parliament has been dissolved and the constitutional assembly is in limbo.4
In other words, SCAF will control at least some influence over Egypt’s relationship with Israel. It suggests at the very least that war is out of the question. With three such conflicts behind them in the 20th century, another is not a priority.
What is, though, is the rebuilding of Egypt’s crumbling economy. Domestic matters are certain to take precedence in the years after the election, including repaying foreign debt and addressing unemployment, healthcare and education. The government will rely on loans and investment from America and Europe to rebuild its crumbling economy. None of these would be possible through going to war with Israel.
What will actually change?
Israel must consider its increasingly isolated future in the region. It has already fallen out with Turkey following the 2010 raid on the Freedom Flotilla that was heading to break the siege in Gaza. Eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed. King Abdullah of Jordan, with whom Israel also has a peace deal, will not meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s prospects thus look set to become even bleaker with the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision for Palestine. For years Israel has fostered Palestinian disunity for its own benefit. Now, the FJP is encouraging collaboration between Hamas and Fatah to achieve a shared goal which may not resemble past agreements.
To the dismay of all in Tel Aviv, Morsi has celebrated Hamas for refusing to accept Israeli occupation. At the same time, he is disapproving of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas for creating a relationship with Israel devoid of an established Palestinian state. By taking a neutral stance on the two polarised factions the FJP hopes to create a united Arab political position.5
It goes without saying that Israel will not continue to enjoy Egyptian support for the siege on Gaza. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s former Foreign Minister, Ahmad Abul Gheith, threatened that Palestinians crossing into Egypt would have their legs broken. In 2010 1,361 people arrived in Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March. The Foreign Ministry ensured that the 20 buses destined for Gaza would never leave the capital. Later, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak authorised 100 of the demonstrators to leave, only for them to be recalled two days later by Egyptian officers.6
Since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 the relationship between Egypt and Israel has deteriorated. The collaboration fostered under the Mubarak regime, which at times courted Israel at the expense of Palestinians and Egyptians, is a thing of the past. This weekend will see the results of the first democratic election ever to take place in Egypt. With the victorious sentiment of the Arab Spring still inside them, the power of the Egyptian people does not show any sign of abating, whether they are facing the government or the army. Hostility towards Israel and its oppressive policies amongst the Egyptian population has not changed with the transition to a new government. Moreover, just as Mubarak ignored the will of his people concerning Palestine, the FJP is much more likely to stand with it.
4Egypt in ‘life or death’ struggle over its future, The Guardian, Thursday 19th June 2012
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.