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Egypt and Israel Two Years After Mubarak: Plus Ça Change

18th March, 2013
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By Khaled Elgindy

Much has changed in Egypt since the uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak two years ago, for both good and ill. Since then, a new president, a new constitution and the possibility of new parliamentary elections, however, have done little to quell the country’s chronic instability and growing economic and physical insecurity. But while the domestic political scene remains highly volatile and unpredictable, Egyptian foreign policy has remained remarkably constant throughout the tumultuous transition, particularly with regard to Israel.

For Israelis, the loss of Mubarak, whom they considered a “strategic treasure”, seemed a devastating blow. As Mubarak’s grip on power began to crumble in February 2011, Israeli officials publicly fretted over the possibility of an Islamist takeover and the emergence of a “second Iran” along Israel’s southern border. Israelis feared an Islamist-dominated Egypt might cancel the peace treaty with Israel, provide aid and succor to Hamas next door in Gaza and perhaps even someday pose a military threat. The election of an Islamist-dominated parliament in late 2011 as well as a member of the once banned Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, to the Egyptian presidency in 2012 only heightened Israeli fears.

Two years after Mubarak’s ouster, and with a Brotherhood-led government now in power, those fears appear to have been unfounded. Despite a rise in militant attacks against Israel, mainly due to the growing security vacuum in the Sinai, and a decidedly harsher tone coming from populist Egyptian politicians, very little has changed in Egyptian policy toward Israel since Mubarak’s departure, or more precisely, since the Brotherhood’s ascent to the presidency.

President Morsi, like the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) before him, has pledged to uphold Egypt’s international obligations, including the treaty with Israel. Likewise, Egypt continues to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as internal Palestinian reconciliation—though not necessarily in that order. Most crucially, the security coordination that has been the cornerstone of Egyptian-Israeli relations for more than three decades has continued, and even grown, throughout Egypt’s tumultuous transition.

Despite a general sense that things might still change for the worse, especially given Egypt’s instability and its strongly anti-Israel political culture, Israeli military officials have nothing but praise for Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation, which they say is better today than it was under Mubarak. According to Israeli analyst, Avi Issacharoff, “Whatever uncertainty Israelis may have had at the start of the transition, they now know they have a partner on the Egyptian side.” That claim was backed up by Morsi’s pivotal role in securing a Gaza ceasefire last November.

Even the highly unpopular Gaza blockade, which the Brotherhood had always vowed to overturn, has been loosened but not yet lifted. Thus, despite the Brotherhood’s ideological and historical affinity with Hamas, itself a Brotherhood offshoot, Gaza’s Islamist rulers remain in a box—albeit a bigger one than before.

There are several explanations for the continuity in Egypt-Israel relations, including the fact that Morsi’s civilian government is not a sole actor when it comes to Egyptian policy toward Israel/Palestine. Even after Morsi’s house-cleaning of the military’s top brass and their formal sidelining from politics last summer, the military establishment, specifically the intelligence, continues to play a central if not decisive role in matters of foreign and national security policy.

Lack of bandwidth is another factor. Egyptians are simply too consumed with their own domestic problems—including recurring political crises, increasingly violent street protests and an economy teetering dangerously close to collapse—to pursue an ambitious foreign policy agenda, particularly one that runs afoul of Washington and other Western capitals whose backing remains crucial to Egypt’s economic recovery.

At the same time, unlike Egypt’s highly polarized and incendiary domestic politics, there is fairly broad agreement on most aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue. Despite a notable spike in anti-Israel bluster by candidates and political parties from across the political spectrum, when pressed, most major Egyptian political forces—including Islamists, nationalists, leftists, and revolutionaries—say they would uphold the peace treaty, albeit with some changes. Given the Brotherhood’s historical rejection of both Camp David and the “Zionist entity”, however, the Brotherhood’s reversal seems especially striking.

In fact, Egyptian foreign policy has done more to change the Muslim Brotherhood than the other way around. Signs of the Brotherhood’s transformation were apparent well before the group was ever elected, including the apparent overhaul of its electoral program between 2010 and 2011, eliminating the most incendiary references to Israel (eg, “rapists of the Al-Aqsa Mosque”) and removing the section on the “Palestinian cause” altogether.

The Brotherhood’s reversal on the blockade of Gaza, which the 2011 program failed even to mentioned by name, is even more dramatic. Aside from the fact that the vast majority of Egyptians oppose what they see as an unjust siege on Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians, the Brotherhood was also among the policy’s loudest and harshest critics. In early 2012, shortly after being elected to parliament, Brotherhood MPs reiterated their pledge to work toward reopening Egypt’s border with Gaza, while harshly criticizing the SCAF for upholding the Mubarak-era policy.

Less than a year later, not only is the border still closed, Morsi and the Brotherhood have all but acquiesced in the previous regime’s closure policy. In January, Egyptian security forces began pumping raw sewage into dozens of the hundreds of tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, striking at the lifeblood of the Gazan economy as well as Hamas rule.

Whether such actions were carried out on the orders of President Morsi or merely with his consent is of little consequence, since Brotherhood members, including those in government, have openly embraced them. By the same token, whether the decisions were the result of American and Israeli pressure or genuine calculations of Egyptian national interest does not change the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood are now stakeholders in them. Thus, after years of decrying both Camp David and the Gaza blockade, Morsi and the Brotherhood now “own” both of them.

Khaled Elgindy is a fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC. He is a board member of Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association (EARLA). Follow him on Twitter at: @elgindy_.

*AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa: Egyptian protesters hold a banner with Arabic that reads, "save Gaza," during a protest in solidarity with Gaza.

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