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Practical Concerns, Not Ideology, May Keep Egypt-Israel Peace

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Israelis wave banners calling for peace during a rally for love outside the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 16, 2011.

Israelis wave banners calling for peace during a rally for love outside the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, September 16, 2011.

CAIRO - Egypt's president-elect Mohamed Morsi has pledged to honor the peace treaty with Israel, but that has not dampened concern the Islamist leader will try to shift the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region.

For more than 30 years, the United States has counted on Egypt to shore up the position of its ally, Israel. And for 30 years, Egyptians have complained, to varying degrees, that the peace treaty has been at their expense.

Now, with a new Islamist president, the future of the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has been called into question. A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad el-Haddad, reinforced the promise to keep the treaty intact.

“Regarding the peace treaty with Israel, it was made in the past and we respect all the treaties made in the past through any other regime, through [former presidents] Sadat or Mubarak,” he said.

El-Haddad added that is in keeping with “Islamic references.” But the Islamist reference is less clear, specifically that of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi emerged.

In an interview shortly after the revolution last year, Essam el- Erian, a leading member of the group described the Brotherhood's long held position.

“We have our opinion, yes," he said. "We were against the treaty since it was signed.”

A member of the now-dissolved parliament, el-Erian said the decision should be made by parliament, which the Brotherhood had dominated. Alternatively, the Brotherhood has said the question could be put to a referendum, one that would ask whether the treaty should be kept, amended or annulled?

Popular sentiment in Egypt is mixed. Few beyond the military have seen the financial benefits of the deal. Billions in U.S. aid over the decades have gone mainly to the military. And while Egyptians struggle with natural gas shortages, Israel, through the treaty, has what many see as a preferential deal on the local resource.

The larger rallying cry, however, is political. And the blockade of Gaza and its Palestinian inhabitants has, in the past few years, been at its core, said El-Haddad.

“When we are talking about the people in Gaza, we must have an important slogan, which is they are human and they have to live.”

But with Gaza there is a paradox. The one thing that could relieve the isolation of Gazans right now would be for Egypt to truly open the common border. So far, no one here has shown an interest in going beyond the extremely limited passage of people and goods established by the former government of Hosni Mubarak. Even the Brotherhood has praised the ex-president on that front.

From an economic standpoint, Egypt, with its high unemployment, weak economy and strained social safety net, can ill afford a possible influx of Palestinians from Gaza.

As for security, Egypt's Sinai peninsula already is descending into lawlessness, with weapons making their way to the region from Egypt's neighbor to the west, Libya. A likely injection of militancy from Gaza would only make the situation worse.

If the Egypt-Israel treaty is broken, much of Egypt's justification for a closed border with Gaza is gone.

Moreover, Egypt's military leaders have declared for themselves the right to determine foreign policy and the decision on war, which an abnegation of the treaty would effectively entail, said political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo.

“I don't think the institutions in Egypt, security and the military, are willing to fight anybody. It's not weakness. It's just not their concern," said Sadek.

Sadek believes that even if Morsi were to wrest control of such decisions, there would be no immediate impetus to major changes beyond rhetoric for, at least, the next five to ten years.

“You cannot pick a fight with anybody just because people will be happy," Sadek said. "People will not be happy. The majority of the people want to keep peace with Israel and want to concentrate on fighting poverty, ignorance, religious extremism, corruption. These are the real issues. Not neighbors.”

And Sadek adds that after being on the losing side of past conflicts with Israel, few in Egypt are interested in fighting neighbors again.

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