Thursday, May 30, 2024

Egypt's New President Questions Peace Treaty With Israel

In January, 2011, when the pro-democracy demonstrations of the so-called Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the Obama White House was faced with a dilemma. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had served the US as a loyal ally in the region and Israel as a reliable peace partner since his rise to power 30 years earlier. Yet, there was a great deal of sympathy for the largely secular and pro-democratic leaders of the protests, who had legitimate grievances against the increasingly repressive regime.

America’s other allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, warned the Obama administration that if it threw its support behind the demonstrators, it risked unleashing dangerous forces of Islamic extremism in Egypt. That could lead to the oldest and most powerful Islamic terrorist group in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood, assuming power.


The Obama administration ignored that warning, and assisted demonstrators in overthrowing Mubarak, and entrusting the future of Egypt to a group of Egyptian army generals who formed a caretaker government and promised to oversee Egypt’s transition into a democratic state.


Sixteen months later, those ignored warnings have come to pass. The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged from the shadows to become the dominant political force in the country. Donning a thin veneer of moderation to fool Egyptian voters and the outside world, the Brotherhood has co-opted the pro-democracy and secular reform groups and outmaneuvered the generals running the interim government, to position itself for a full-fledged takeover of Egypt.


The takeover process took one more step toward fulfillment Sunday when Egypt’s state election commission, with the blessing of the ruling military council, declared Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, to be the winner of the runoff presidential electionr. Mosri then formally assumed the title of president which Mubarak had been forced to give up 16 months ago.


Morsi, who had campaigned as a moderate, promised after being declared president that he would “preserve international agreements,” that Egypt had signed. He did not mention the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty by name.


Within the Brotherhood, Morsi had gained a reputation for being a strict conservative, enforcing internal compliance with the Brotherhoods radical Islamic ideology which led to the creation of Hamas in 1987, dedicated to the destruction of Israel.


Fears that had been expressed by opponents during the election campaign that Morsi’s claims to be a moderate could not be trusted were confirmed by an interview reporte last week by Iran’s official Fars press agency. Morsi reportedly said that he planned to “reconsider” the Camp David peace treaty, and called for closer relations between Egypt and Iran in order to establish a new “balance of pressure in the region.”


After those statements were quoted in the Western media, Morsi issued a formal denial Monday that the interview with the Iranian news service had ever taken place. To many, the quotes carried the ring of truth, and are consistent with the goals expressed by other Brotherhood leaders regarding Egypt’s future.


After the voting in the runoff election was completed two weeks ago, a delay was announced in the release of the official vote tallies, raising doubt as to whether the ruling military council would allow Morsi’s victory to be recognized.


His opponent in the runoff was former air force general Ahmed Shafik, who had served as Mubarak’s last prime minister, and who was widely assumed to be the military council’s favorite. Both Morsi and Shafik initially claimed to have won the election by a narrow margin. In the following days, as pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters once again filled Tahrir Square, it appeared that Egypt might once again be on the brink of civil war.




Just prior to the runoff, the military council, under the leadership of its chairman, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, effectively seized power in a bloodless coup. Using a ruling by the Supreme Court as a pretext, it dissolved the recently elected, brotherhood-dominated parliament. The council issued its own guidelines for the writing of Egypt’s new constitution assuring the Egyptian military’s future independence from government oversight. The generals also seized control of the state budget and governing authority, including the right to impose martial law.


Following these moves, the military has much more real power, leaving Morsi as president with little real governing authority.




Nevertheless, the official announcement of Morsi’s electoral victory was regarded as a landmark achievement for the radical Muslim Brotherhood and its many Islamist affiliates throughout the region, beginning with Hamas.


In Gaza, the announcement prompted wild public celebrations. In a not uncommon occurrence, the celebratory gunfire unleashed by Hamas supporters accidentally killed a 24-year-old man and wounded two girls in Rafiach, near the border crossing to Egypt.


Soon after the official election results were announced, President Obama called Morsi to congratulate him and offer him his personal support. With that Morsi now has international recognition as Egypt’s legitimate elected ruler as he faces the next stage in the Brotherhood’s struggle to wrest effective governing power over Egypt from the military.


Morsi has also temporarily regained the support of some of the other leaders of the anti-Mubarak revolution who were alarmed by the military’s power grab before the election.


But other secular and pro-democracy elements in Egypt still see the Brotherhood as the main threat to their original goals. They were hoping that the military council would recognize Shafik’s claim to have won the presidential election. Given a choice, they would prefer to see the country remain under the control of the generals rather than to allow the Brotherhood to turn Egypt into an Islamic state.


Up to 10,000 of them rallied the night before the official election results were announced to declare their support for the actions of the generals in dissolving the Brotherhood-led Parliament. During the rally, the secular political leaders accused the Brotherhood of “hijacking” the anti-Mubarak revolution, and posing a threat to the “civil” character of the Egyptian state.




Morsi’s election probably sets up a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the generals over whether Egypt will become a true democracy, with other groups sharing government power, or a radical Islamic dictatorship ruled by the Brotherhood. A third possibility is that the Egypt will remain what it is today, a military dictatorship dedicated to preserving Egypt’s existing strategic alliance with the US and its peace treaty with Israel.


This third option is the outcome that Israel would most prefer. Israel’s leaders fear that an Egypt ruled by radical Islamists will ultimately renounce the Camp David treaty which has been a key linchpin of Israel’s security for the past 30 years.




The legitimacy of Israel’s fears about a Brotherhood-led Egypt were demonstrated dramatically Sunday, when, Safwat Hejazy, a Brotherhood cleric introduced Morsi as Egypt’s newly proclaimed president to the cheering crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In a clear warning of the Brotherhood’s intentions, he declared that, “our capitol shall not be Cairo, Mecca or Medina. It shall be Jerusalem and our cry shall be: Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem. Banish the sleep from the eyes of all Jews. Come on, you lovers of martyrdom. You are all Hamas. Brandish your weapons. We say it loud and clear so the whole world will hear: Yes, Jerusalem is our goal. We shall pray in Jerusalem or else we shall die as martyrs on its threshold.”


The roar and hate-filled chants which answered the cleric’s bloodthirsty call from the crowd sent a chilling message to anyone who still dared to hope that the thin veneer of pro-democracy tolerance and responsibility which the Muslim Brotherhood had adopted in recent months would last for long, now that the group was on the verge of achieving its longtime goal of taking over Egypt.




 Morsi, 60, an American-trained engineer and former Egyptian lawmaker was the Brotherhood’s second choice to run. The first choice, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified by the state election commission.


Morsi is Egypt’s fifth president, since the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk by a group of Egyptian army officers including Gamal Abdul Nasser. He is the first president from outside the military and the first to be chosen in a free election.


Morsi had been a relatively obscure Brotherhood leader before being chosen as its presidential candidate, and even after winning the election, he is still an unfamiliar figure to most Egyptians.


He speaks English well, having lived, worked and gone to school in Los Angeles. Upon returning to Egypt, he became active in the Brotherhood and was chosen in 2000 to lead its parliamentary faction during Mubarak’s brief experiment in multi-party democracy. He was jailed in 2008 and again during the street revolt last year against Mubarak


During most of Mubarak’s 30 year rule, the Brotherhood was outlawed. It has always claimed to be a peaceful religious and social welfare organization, but over the years it has given rise, in addition to Hamas, to several Islamic terrorist organizations which have carried out a series of bloody attacks on non-Muslim groups in Egypt and visiting Western tourists.




During the Egyptian election campaign, Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders promised to set up a democratic national unity government with the participation of liberals and other secular groups.


In his victory speech Sunday, Morsi pledged to be “a president for all Egyptians.” He reassured the large Coptic Christian community that he would preserve their rights to freely practice their religion. Coptic leaders in turn congratulated him, and called his election a victory for democracy.


However, leaders of Egypt’s pro-democracy groups remain deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood’s true intentions. They expect Morsi as president, to hand over control of the country to the Muslim clerics, turning Egypt into an Islamic state, much like Iran.




The US embraced Morsi’s election with little hesitation. After Obama congratulated Morsi personally, the White House issued a statement congratulating “the Egyptian people for this milestone in their transition to democracy.”


It cautiously added, “we believe that it is important for President-elect Morsi to take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens — including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.”


The White House commended Egypt’s military council, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) “for their role in supporting a free and fair election, and look forward to the completion of a transition to a democratically elected government.”


Finally, the statement added that “it is essential for the Egyptian government to continue to fulfill Egypt’s role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability.”




While the world waited for an official announcement of the election’s winner, exaggerated media reports claimed that Mubarak had fallen so seriously ill that he was clinically dead. In fact, he had suffered a series of minor strokes, but was alive, conscious and under guard in an Egyptian hospital. An Egyptian state newspaper reported that Mubarak accepted the news of the new president stoically.




Morsi and the Brotherhood leaders behind him realize that their struggle for power in Egypt is still far from over. They have promised to continue their fight in the courts and in the streets of Egypt to take back control over the country from the generals.


During the time between the end of the runoff election and the formal announcement of Morsi’s victory, the Brotherhood organized a continuous sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square by tens of thousands of supporters. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory was formally announced, the demonstrators began chanting, “Morsi, Morsi!,” and “Down, down with military rule!” The demonstration quickly turned into a celebration, as an estimated 100,000 people flocked to the square, to enjoy the festive atmosphere, complete with fireworks and vendors selling cotton candy.




Israel’s leaders would feel much more comfortable if the military council under Field Marshal Tantawi remains in charge of Egypt’s borders and foreign policy. Over the past 16 months, the council has proven that it can be trusted to maintain the cold peace on Egypt’s long border with Israel. Egypt’s military also has a vested interest in maintaining the Camp David peace treaty, because as long as it remains in effect, the military will continue to receive more than $1 billion annually in US aid.


Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulated the Egyptian voters on their choice. He issued a statement saying, “Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects its outcome. Israel expects continued cooperation with the Egyptian administration on the basis of the peace accord between the two countries, which is in the interest of the two peoples and contributes to regional stability.”


Privately, an Israeli official said bitterly, “looks like we were right when we said the Arab Spring would become an Islamic Winter, even though Western nations laughed at us at the time.”


However, Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said in an interview with Israel Army Radio that the authority of Egypt’s new president was likely to remain sharply limited by the Egyptian army generals, who would maintain the status quo along the border.




Whoever emerges as the effective ruler of Egypt, Morsi’s victory has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge after 84 years as a secret and often outlawed organization as Egypt’s largest political party. It is also a boost for the prestige of the Brotherhood’s radical Islamic affiliates across the region, including Hamas.


It is no coincidence that at the same time that the Brotherhood was emerging as Egypt’s ruling political party, Hamas leaders in Gaza abandoned a de facto cease-fire with Israel, and actively participated in the most intense missile barrage targeting cities in southern Israel in more than a year.




Beginning on June 18, with a fatal terrorist attack along Israel’s long border with Egypt’s Sinai desert, the intensity of the missile attacks and retaliatory air strikes has ebbed and flowed. Hamas and other Gaza terrorists launched more than 150 rockets during that period at Israel’s southern cities. The vast majority of them fell harmlessly in open areas. A few missiles, which were on course to hit densely populated Israeli cities, were intercepted and destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. A handful managed to inflict minor damage and a few non-fatal injuries. Israel’s military response to the missile attacks was relatively mild, limited mostly to pinpoint air strikes targeting terrorist leaders and missile launching crews.


The unfolding political situation in Egypt has made the military situation facing Israel in Gaza even more complicated. Israel’s hands are virtually tied by the fact that Hamas has officially accepted a cease-fire that was brokered by the Egyptian military, even though Hamas has not done anything to halt the missile attacks being launched by smaller Gaza terrorist groups.


At this point, it does not matter whether Hamas is deliberately holding back or not. As long as it no longer takes an active part in the missile strikes, Israel will not dare to launch a serious counterattack, for fear of giving Egypt’s new president an excuse to renounce the Camp David treaty.




Even though the Gaza missile barrage has driven thousands of Israelis living in the south back into their bomb shelters, the damage the rockets have caused has been relatively light. As a result, the government has determined that the security situation is not serious enough to risk angering the Egyptians by escalating Israel’s military response.


The performance of the Iron Dome anti-missile system has pleasantly surprised experts who were doubtful that it could protect the Israeli cities closest to Gaza. But the protection it offers is not perfect. The Iron Dome battery protecting Sderot, located less than a mile from the Gaza border, was able to intercept and shoot down only five out of the six rockets fired at its residential neighborhoods over the weekend.




Israeli media reports claim that Hamas leaders in Gaza have been sending urgent messages to Israel through their friends in the Egyptian military that they do not want any further escalation in the violence. However, because of all the instability in the region, Hamas claims that it needs more time to calm things down.


Obviously, there is a limit to Israel’s patience. But as long as the damage and casualties remain low, Israel appears ready to give Hamas a little more time.


 The rocket fired at Sderot’s residential area which got through the Iron Dome shield hit a school which was empty at the time, damaging some windows and walls. Another rocket which was fired at an industrial zone hit a factory, inflicting a shrapnel wound to the neck of a 50-year-old worker, who was treated at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.


This was still unacceptable to the mayor of Sderot, David Buskila, who called on the government to order an army attack in order to bring a rapid halt to the rocket bombardment. However, given all of the other considerations in play, Israel’s leaders will continue to react cautiously while nervously watching the political developments in Egypt.



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