Expert: Israel a marginal issue in Egyptian vote

Visiting U of Toronto expert Janice Gross Stein says the choice faced by Egyptians is not the one they wanted.

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi 370  (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
When Egyptians go to the polls on Saturday and Sunday to decide the first democratic election in Egypt’s long history, one question will be foremost in the minds of the public: Who poses the biggest threat?
Is it Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, who many fear will thrust the country on a fast track to Islamic radicalization? Or is it Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister, air force commander and “old guard” member whom many considered a successor to Hosni Mubarak even before last year’s revolution?
“Up until this point, this has been an entirely negative campaign,” said Janice Gross Stein, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Gross Stein, in Israel this week to receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for her work in conflict resolution and Middle East studies, said the choice the Egyptians face is definitely not the one they wanted.
“Less than 25 percent of the voters voted for these two candidates,” she said. “Certainly those responsible for overthrowing Mubarak are hugely disappointed. Many are disenchanted and will probably stay home and not vote.”
Gross Stein said that what has emerged is two candidates who have powerful political machines behind them: Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, with its enormous infrastructure and capacity to mobilize, and Shafiq, who has the “deep Egyptian state and its apparatus” at his back.
The question, she said, will hinge on who is the better mobilizer and who is perceived by the populous as the bigger threat.
This matchup, she added, will provide its share of paradoxes.
For instance, the Salafists, considered religiously to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to vote against the Brotherhood’s candidate because they won’t want to see the Brotherhood have a monopoly on the interpretation of Islam in Egypt.
Likewise, she speculated, many Muslim Brotherhood followers are likely to vote for Shafiq because, having lived under a monopoly of power for decades, they don’t want the Brotherhood to control both the parliament, which it did until Thursday when the Constitutional Court dissolved the lower house and forced a revote, and the presidency.
Gross Stein said that huge demonstrations should be expected if Shafiq wins. She said that such an outcome would be widely interpreted as the reinstatement of the army and the old inner circle. Even if the election was not rigged, she said, it would be viewed as if it was.
If Mursi is elected, she predicted that the street would react more quietly and an arrangement would likely be worked out whereby the military – a dominant force in Egyptian society – would withdraw to the barracks in return for a commitment that the government would not threaten the military’s status and economic interests.
In the short term, the Brotherhood would be interested in this arrangement, she said, because it would not want to antagonize the military and put all its gains at risk.
Gross Stein said that despite all the attention the Egyptian- Israeli relationship is getting in Israel, the issue is only a marginal part of the electoral campaign and is very low on the domestic political agenda, which is focused on the country’s huge economic problems.
Gross Stein said that regardless of who wins the weekend’s polling, she did not see any one backing off from the Camp David accords, at least for the short term, which she defined as a period of five years.
While she did not think the Muslim Brotherhood would talk to Israel if Mursi were to win, she anticipated that the level of ties between the two countries would remain what they are now, with the interlocutor on the Egyptian side being the military, not the government.
A Mursi victory, she added, could in the short term have more of an impact on the Palestinian Authority than on Israel, since it would probably lead to a strengthening of ties between Hamas and Egypt, thereby further isolating President Mahmoud Abbas.