Despite public declarations this week condemning Israel over the death of Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat, Egypt is attempting to maintain its role as the mediator the US turns to in the region.
Under ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt also spoke out in support of the Palestinians, but maintained working relations with Israel behind the scenes.
The media and most of the population continue to express negative views of Israel, and President Mohamed Morsi is dealing with this using a method similar to that of Mubarak – venting against Israel in public, but not risking the country’s larger interests.
Ideologically, Morsi is committed to Israel’s destruction, the support of Hamas, the Islamization of society and its foreign policy, in a way that is at least as ambitious as Turkey’s Islamist leadership.
The friction between the Muslim Brotherhood’s faith and the reality of running Egypt in its current turbulent situation has brought out Morsi’s pragmatic side, which is how the movement has been described, especially when compared to jihadist groups such as al-Qaida.
Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, in their book titled Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, explain Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna’s view that “the multiple crises facing the Muslim umma [nation] require a commitment to action over words, deeds over slogans, practical over theoretical knowledge, unity over dissent.” Egypt’s Brotherhood regime is loyally following its revered founder’s advice – doing what is achievable under the current circumstances, but without letting go of their long-term ideological goal of controlling the world.
As Banna wrote in his article, “Toward The Light,” the West inherited world leadership.
“But lo and behold! It was tyrannical and unjust, insolent, misguided, and stumbling blindly, and it only remained for a strong Eastern power to exert itself under the shadow of God’s banner, with the standard of the Koran fluttering at its head, and backed up by the powerful, unyielding soldiery of the faith.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Bosmat Yefet- Avshalom, a researcher at the Middle East Research Center (MERC) at Ariel University, says that thus far “the foreign policy under Morsi is the same as it was under Mubarak, with small differences. Not only in regards to Israel, but to the entire region.”
Yefet-Avshalom says that under Mubarak, Egypt played the role of regional mediator that the US and Europe would consult and support. And today, Morsi is trying to make Egypt a mediator between the US and Iran and maintain this role between Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey, she says, has gained power under US President Barack Obama, because Obama uses Turkey’s leadership as an interlocutor in the region.
Ronen A. Cohen, a MERC researcher, discusses what appears to be warming relations between Iran and Egypt. He believes that Cairo gains from this, without giving Tehran anything. Thus, on the surface, it may look like Egypt is growing closer to Iran, but in reality it is not giving up anything significant that would harm its relationship with the West or Israel.
“Egypt is waiting to receive aid from either the West or Iran and it is only going to take advantage of the relationship with Iran. Iran may offer aid in place of Western aid, but Egypt will get the money in any case – the question is from whom,” he says, adding that Egypt played a similar game when former president Gamal Abdel Nasser weighed aid offers from the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
The current Egyptian government’s relations with Hamas are also curious. While Hamas is a fellow Muslim Brotherhood movement, the relationship is not as close as one would expect. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in an editorial last week titled, “Hamas Silent on Egypt’s Gaza Tunnel Closures,” noted that Egypt has been pumping sewage into the tunnels to block them, because of its security worries in Sinai. The tunnels are big business for Hamas, as it collects taxes on goods and provides jobs for the many unemployed youth.
“President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government should not give in to Israeli pressure to close down the tunnels. After all, Israel has time and again praised Egyptian security efforts to confiscate weapons and explosives en route to the Gaza Strip,” wrote Atwan.
He concludes by noting the discrepancy between Morsi’s beliefs and his actions: “The ousted regime of president Hosni Mubarak never took Morsi’s route, to completely close tunnels despite the hostilities of Hamas.”
And surprisingly, he adds, “Hamas has raised no protest.”
Yefet-Avshalom says that Morsi showed restraint during the latest Gaza war launched in November 2012. Any help given to Hamas was not exposed. The key point in understanding Morsi’s foreign policy, she says, is that “the Muslim Brotherhood is trapped because it cannot make any real changes under the current circumstances.”
One of the main reasons for this are the economic difficulties, which have led to the demand for international aid.
Moreover, the conditions for this aid require budget cuts and there is no way the government can do this and survive, she says.
In addition, Morsi’s dependence on the security services means that he cannot cut subsidies, because the resulting unrest would upset the military as well.
The bottom line for Israel, says Yefet-Avshalom, is that it needs to throw out its old paradigm.
While there is no risk of war now, Cairo could still upset Jerusalem in other ways.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s red carpet reception in Cairo, the vocal support for Hamas and the Palestinians, the permissiveness in allowing the Israeli embassy in Egypt to be overrun in 2011, and the refusal to speak with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – all are added irritants for Israel.
However, as long as Morsi is preoccupied with internal issues, Jerusalem has that much longer to prepare for possible future conflicts with its neighbor.