Egypt’s Islamists and Israel

In November 2011, the first parliamentary election was held in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak’s abdication.  Egyptians began voting for the National Assembly (lower house) in three phases.  The first phase allocated a majority of votes to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and al-Nour, the more fundamentalist Salafist party.  At the end of December, the second round of parliamentary elections concluded with another plurality for Islamist parties.  The final round of voting is scheduled for tomorrow, with Islamists anticipating similar gains.

Elections for the Shura Council (upper house) will occur in two phases and conclude on February 22, 2012.  Therefore, if the results of the lower house provide any indication as to what Egypt’s new parliament will look like, it is safe to speculate that Islamist parties will most likely enjoy a majority of seats.

With the ascendancy of Islamist parties in Egypt, conflicting reports have surfaced regarding the fate of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.  Signed in 1979, the treaty terminated Egypt’s state of war with Israel, recognized its right to exist and provided Egypt with approximately 1.3 billion in American aid annually.

On December 9, Mahmoud Hussein, secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Asharq al-Awsat that on the one hand Egypt’s treaty with Israel is of “great importance,” while simultaneously suggesting it needed to be reviewed.  In an interview with an Israeli radio station on December 22, Yusri Hammad, a spokesperson for al-Nour asserted that the image of Islamist parties had been “distorted” and that al-Nour would “respect all treaties” under Mubarak – including the peace treaty with Israel.

Yesterday, in an effort to perhaps upstage this unprecedented act of pragmatism by al-Nourthe Muslim Brotherhood unequivocally articulated its refusal to recognize Israel.  Rashad Bayoumi, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, told al-Hayat that the MB would not recognize Israel “under any circumstances” and denigrated Israel to an “enemy entity, an occupying and criminal entity.”

This obfuscation challenges the sincerity of these statements and casts a looming shadow over the fate of Egyptian-Israeli relations.  However, it is unlikely that any future government, even with Islamists in power, would altogether terminate the treaty.  It is more plausible that Islamist parties would insist only that certain clauses be subject for review in a referendum, although the precise clauses in need of examination remain unclear.

What is clear is that bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel have reached an all time low over the past thirty years.  While anti-Israel attitudes were prevalent in the media, Mubarak did not tolerate acts of violence against Israel or Israelis.  Since February 2011, the following incidents have occurred:

  • Saboteurs have bombed Egyptian pipelines to Israel (and Jordan) ten times in 2011.
  • An Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on September 9 forcing diplomats to evacuate.
  • Egypt’s transitional prime minister Essam Sharaf declared on September 15 that the peace treaty with Israel was “not sacred” and could be amended.
  • A decline in bilateral trade after Egypt banned the sale of palm fronds to Israel which in 2010 had exported 600,000 palm leaves for Jews to use in a religious holiday called the Feast of the Tabernacles.

Nonetheless, an Islamist government which focused primarily on external matters and anti-Zionist rhetoric rather than domestic concerns such as democracy, the rule of law, women’s rights, and the economy would not be welcomed by many Egyptians who protested at Tahrir Square.  Egyptians who risked their lives protesting Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would possibly react in the same manner against an Islamist government which failed to deliver real change and realistic reform.

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