Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 August 2012
Issue No. 1111
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi and Israel

Regardless of events in Sinai, sooner or later Egypt's new president will be obliged to be unequivocal on his stance on Israel, an issue he has so far avoided, writes Khalil El-Anani

The attack on Egyptian soldiers in Rafah two weeks ago has thrown into relief a subject that has largely been unmentioned and unmentionable since the revolution: Egypt's foreign policy towards Israel. Regardless of who carried out that attack, it constituted a challenge to -- and a qualitative violation of -- Egyptian sovereignty, perhaps the first on such a scale since the 1970s. Sadly, the incident demonstrated that the Egyptian foreign policy compass is fixed on a reactive rather than a proactive stance, complete with strategic forecasting and scenario analysis. In addition, since taking office over a month ago, President Mohamed Mursi has been uninvolved in (or perhaps kept uninvolved in) the foreign policy affairs pertaining to the relationship with Tel Aviv to which, like it or not, Egypt is bound by a peace treaty, however we might disagree over its substance and articles.

Admittedly, Mursi is not in an enviable position with respect to this question. First, he cannot initiate a radical change in Egyptian policy towards Israel, at least during the current phase. The parameters governing this relationship have been and remain a key function of Egyptian intelligence, while the president has served to steer foreign policy guidelines, rather than to execute them. In addition, no one -- not the president, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) -- can afford the political costs of instituting a change in Egyptian policy towards Israel. As much as the Egyptian people may hate the Hebrew entity, they would oppose the option of military confrontation, especially if forced upon them in a certain ideological dressing. Egypt is not Iran and the Muslim Brothers are not the mullahs.

Second, Mursi is still caught between two formidable restraints: the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and SCAF on the other. Even if he wanted, he could not take an independent policy towards Israel, whether positive or negative. His strong connection with the Muslim Brotherhood clearly exercises a strong influence on his domestic policy and it is likely to have an equally heavy influence on his foreign policy, if not now then soon. At the same time, Mursi cannot jeopardise his relationship with SCAF, at least at present, by pursuing a policy that deviates from the conventions of the military establishment, which favour strategic caution and tactical "patience" in dealing with Tel Aviv.

Third, it is difficult to imagine that Egyptian public opinion will put up for long with President Mursi's non-commitment to an explicit position on Israel. People will begin to regard him as hiding his head in the sand. Sooner or later, he will have to take an unequivocal stance, not just because of the peace treaty but also because the Israeli army is poised at our eastern gateway, which presents a serious potential threat to Egypt's national security. Israel will not regard the peace treaty as an impediment to using the border issue as a pressure card against Mursi on any number of issues, not least of which are Egypt's relationship with Hamas and its position on Iran. We should bear in mind that Israeli forces have breached Egyptian borders on several occasions during the passed three decades on various pretexts and have killed many Egyptian soldiers in the process.

Yet, it is unlikely that Mursi would shift Egypt onto an overtly antagonistic footing with Israel in keeping with the outlook of the ideological group to which he belongs. In spite of the Muslim Brotherhood's anti-Israeli hostility, which, with some members, reaches the degree of refusing to recognise the existence of that state, the Muslim Brothers cannot go against the general mood of the Egyptian public which would oppose a confrontation with Israel on the basis of a Brotherhood agenda. Probably the most that that group can push for is to furnish as much support as possible to Hamas in Gaza. Indeed, this explains why Mursi ordered the Rafah border crossing to be kept open permanently and allowed Palestinians from Gaza to enter Egypt without visas or entry permits. As humanitarian as these decisions were, in my opinion, they should have been given better thought with regard to how to apply them so as avert the negative consequences that would mar Egyptian-Palestinian relations, as occurred following the criminal attack against the Egyptian army that is said to have been carried out by Palestinian and Egyptian jihadist elements.

In short, Mursi should bring himself to acknowledge the bitter truth. Dealing with Israel is not an option. It is an imperative dictated by Egyptian interests. The longer he puts off recognising this fact and the longer he keeps his government's position in the grey zone, the more complications this will cause for Egypt's foreign policy. Mursi does not have to accept Israeli conditions for the realisation of a peace treaty with the Palestinians. However, he should develop a clear vision for how to manage the relationship with Tel Aviv, at least from the strategic and security perspective, if not from the political one, and he should inform the public of this vision.

Towards the formulation of such a vision, he would be well advised to engage two instruments. The first is to form a non-partisan presidential advisory committee consisting of experts on the Israeli question, which is a complex national security issue with numerous and diverse domestic and foreign ramifications. The committee should include former diplomats, military and intelligence experts, and scholars with demonstrable expertise on the matter. Egypt has no shortage of such experts so the creation of such a committee merely awaits a presidential initiative. The second instrument would be an Egyptian-Palestinian council or joint committee that would focus on all the outstanding issues between the two sides (border controls, security coordination, regulating economic, commercial and cultural relations, etc). Such a body would serve not only to quell commotion over the special relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, it would also avert situations that would cause the Palestinians to lose Egyptian support. I do not believe there would be a serious obstacle to acting on this proposal either, as long as the political will exists.

The writer is researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

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