Jerusalem Report

Nuances of the Nile

How will a new Egyptian president affect a fraught relationship with Israel?

Mursi 521
Photo by: MOHAMMED SALEM / REUTERS
No matter who wins, the first ever democratic presidential election in Egypt marks the beginning of a new chapter in Egypt’s fraught relationship with Israel.

The very fact that the country’s new leaders now have to take popular sentiment into account will color the tenor of the ties. Strong feelings for the Palestinians will induce a tougher anti-Israel line. But, at the same time, grass-roots pressure over dire economic conditions will almost certainly reinforce close ties with the US and curb the degree of militancy against Israel.

With millions unemployed and a national debt of $40 billion, no Egyptian president will be able to turn his back on Washington and its annual aid package of $1.3 billion. In other words, whether the next president is the Islamist Mohammed Mursi, the 51-year-old American-educated leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, or Ahmed Shafiq, the 70-year-old secular former air force chief and prime minister, Egypt, while taking a more militant line on Palestinian issues, is most unlikely to abrogate the 33-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

Within these parameters, there are nuances. Shafiq, running on a law and order ticket, is a throwback to the old regime, close to the army and a pragmatist with a natural pro-American orientation.

Under his leadership, tensions with Israel are more likely to be held in check. With Mursi at the helm, the Muslim Brothers would control both the presidency and parliament, and Egyptian backing for Hamas in Gaza could strain relations with Israel.

Exercising control

 So far, this has tended to work the other way, with the Brothers exercising control over Hamas precisely to avoid being sucked into confrontation with Israel. But future escalation between Israel and Hamas could inflame passions, ratchet up the rhetoric and draw a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt into an unintended collision course.

For now, though, neither the Islamists nor the secularists want a war with Israel. Not only would it jeopardize crucial American support, it could be disastrous for Egypt and its sagging economy. Although the Egyptian army is the largest and most powerful in the Arab world, it does not have anything approaching the modern battlefield capabilities of the IDF.

The huge disparity lies mainly in the fact that the IDF is one of only a handful of armies to have fully integrated the game-changing “revolution in military affairs.” RMA incorporates the use of sophisticated weapons and information technologies including satellites to deliver long-range guided missiles with pinpoint accuracy and to achieve previously unattainable real-time levels of coordination among land, sea and air forces on the battlefield.

Given the imbalance this creates, the Islamists might try to provide Hamas with a rhetorical military umbrella, but even they would be reluctant to go to war for Palestine.

Rather, whoever rules Egypt will seek to make life difficult for Israel in international forums. Both Islamists and secularists are likely to press a pro-Palestinian and anti-nuclear agenda, seeking to embarrass Israel over the occupation and its presumed nuclear arsenal.

Both will also almost certainly seek to revise the peace treaty. Although neither an Islamist nor a secular president is likely to abrogate the treaty outright, the signs are that both would request a review of the military annex, which sets clear restrictions on the forces Egypt can deploy in Sinai. If they do, they would be well within their rights. The treaty stipulates that either party can initiate a review, but that any amendments must be mutually agreed.

The Egyptians see the military annex as impinging on their sovereignty and undermining their control of the sprawling desert area. In recent years – and especially since the Tahrir Square revolution in February last year – Sinai has become a lawless no-man’s land, a smugglers’ paradise and a terrorist haven.

To restore law and order, the new Egyptian leadership will likely seek to increase the size and quality of its forces in the relevant military zones.

Article II of the military annex divides Sinai into three areas, where forces are restricted in direct proportion to their proximity to Israel. In Zone A, western Sinai abutting the Suez Canal and furthest from Israel, the Egyptians are allowed a mechanized infantry division of up to 22,000 men, with up to 230 tanks, 126 artillery pieces and 126 antiaircraft guns; in Zone B, central Sinai, the quota is no more than four battalions of lightly armed border units to supplement civil police in maintaining law and order; and in Zone C, eastern Sinai extending to the borders with Israel and Gaza, only lightly armed police are allowed.

If the Egyptians propose reasonable amendments, Israel would be well advised to acquiesce in numbers and forces over and above the border police reinforcements already agreed. This would enable more effective Egyptian action against the mounting chaos in Sinai, a breeding ground for terrorism against Israel. Even more importantly, amendments initiated by a largely Islamist government and ratified by an overwhelmingly Islamist parliament would imply formal Islamist acceptance of the peace treaty with Israel.

The balance of power between the Islamists and the secularists in the new regime will depend to a large extent on the as yet unwritten constitution. It will define the relative powers of the president, the parliament and the armed forces. The army has been deliberately delaying its completion, waiting on the outcome of the presidential election. It will want to enhance presidential powers if Shafiq wins, and limit them if Mursi does.

Regional divide

Regardless of the outcome, the overall regional divide between Sunni and Shia is not expected to change. The fact that the Egyptian Islamists are Sunnis means that even if they win the presidency, Egypt will remain firmly in the Sunni camp with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Maghreb and the Gulf States ranged against the Shiite fundamentalists in Iran and their non-Sunni allies in Syria and Lebanon.

This opens up a small niche of hope for Israel. It could pick up on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for dialogue with the Sunni world. A necessary condition for this though would be a viable process with the Palestinians.

Indeed, the new Egypt’s policy toward Israel will depend primarily on the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Here, too, Israel could be proactive. It could blunt the sting by setting in train moves designed to end the occupation.

Failure to act could, in the longer term, leave Israel facing two highly explosive time bombs: a countdown to a one-state reality in which Palestinians have a majority and demand the vote, and a countdown to a more firmly entrenched Islamist Egypt retracting its recognition of Israel’s right to exist on land it argues should be part of a greater Sunni caliphate. By ending the occupation and facilitating the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, Israel could preempt a return to wall-to-wall Arab rejection and regain the moral high ground in the court of international opinion.


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