As Egypt’s presidential election gets under way Wednesday, four candidates remain – two are Islamists and the other two are stalwarts of the deposed regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.
In the first camp are the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and former top Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh. In the second are ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister and air force chief.
In Jerusalem, officials attempted to sort the bad options from the worse. The Mubarak regime was a three-decade partner – if not exactly an ally – of Israel, cooperating on everything from security around the Gaza Strip to the sale of natural gas.
Following Mubarak’s ouster in an 18-day popular uprising last year, Israeli officials began looking to Egypt’s longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to continue the former president’s legacy of strategic cooperation with Jerusalem.
But last month Egypt’s electoral board disqualified the former spy chief from the race on a technicality, and Israeli officials were forced to look elsewhere.
Enter Shafiq. The 70-year-old was a fighter pilot in Egypt’s 1967-1970 War of Attrition and 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel before heading the air force and serving as aviation minister. In the waning days of the Mubarak era and shortly after the leader’s fall, Shafiq served as prime minister.
Shafiq has the reputation of a taciturn, businesslike pragmatist who knows firsthand the cost of war with an adversary of Israel’s caliber. Grilled at a recent campaign rally on Egypt’s ties with the Jewish state, he replied: “A strong state is not just one with artillery and tanks but has a strong economy, strong science, strong culture.”
Moreover, unlike the other frontrunners, Shafiq has said he would even be willing to visit Egypt’s northeastern neighbor.
“I am ready to visit Israel, provided it gives something to show it has good intentions,” he said earlier this month.
Anti-Israel sentiment runs high in today’s Egypt. A BBC poll last week found 85 percent of Egyptians hold negative views of Israel, up 7% from the year before. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 61% of Egyptians want to annul the 1979 bilateral peace treaty, while only a third want to keep it.
Shafiq knows he must play to anti-Israel sentiments if he hopes to earn a broad base of support. When last week an Islamist MP accused him of Mubarak-era corruption, the candidate reminded him that as fighter pilot in the 1960s he had downed two Israeli planes while the lawmaker was still a toddler.
“Common wisdom says Shafiq is the military’s choice,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “At this point, though, I’d say the military would be pleased if they get anyone other than Mursi or Abol Fotouh.”
“I would think that Israel would breathe a sigh of relief with either of those former regime folks,” Schenker said.
Each of the other three leading candidates has made criticism of Israel a key plank in his campaign platform.
“Of course Israel is an enemy. It occupied land, it threatened our security. It is an entity that has 200 nuclear warheads,” Abol Fotouh said in a recent television debate. Often referring to Israel as the “Zionist entity,” he said Egypt should review its treaties to ensure they were in the national interest, but was not looking to start any war.
Moussa was Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s before moving to head the Arab League – and was a vocal critic of Israel in both posts. But when Abol Fotouh pressed Moussa on whether he too classified Israel an enemy, the former Arab League chief chose the more diplomatic term “adversary.”
“I intend to review the shape of relations,” Moussa said, citing “big disagreements” with Israel, but he said the next president would need to lead Egypt “with wisdom and not push it along with slogans towards a confrontation we may not be ready for.”
Safwat el-Hegazi, an independent preacher who backs the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Mursi, has used his campaign rallies to call for the establishment of a single Arab state with Jerusalem as its capital.
Mursi too criticizes Israel, but says he would respect the agreement, which brings in $1.3 billion a year of US military aid. An aide to Mursi said his candidate would not meet Israeli officials as president, though his foreign minister would.
The peace deal has been a cornerstone of Egypt’s foreign policy – and while the prominence Mubarak gave it may have diminished, the generals who have overseen Egypt’s transition are unlikely to let that change.
One senior Israeli official said Jerusalem “obviously hopes that any future government in Egypt, even a government that includes an Islamist movement, will keep the treaty with Israel.” The official said it was necessary to “find a way to maintain the peace and have a stable relationship with Egypt.”
While Israel has said in the past that it would not talk with Hamas until it fundamentally changes, it has not made similar statements regarding Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, widely seen as Hamas’s ideological older brother.
“The problem is not whether we will talk with them,” one official said, “but whether they will talk to us.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a CNN interview last month, said he hoped any government established in Egypt “would understand that peace between Egypt and Israel is as much an Egyptian interest as it is an Israeli interest. I hope to continue the peace. That’s our desire.”
Voting will continue Wednesday and Thursday, with a run-off ballot next month between the two candidates that garner the most votes. Still, the army is expected to remain influential long after the formal handover, by July 1, to a new president.
Herb Keinon and Reuters contributed to this report.