On 27 June, Rami Ginat, Professor of Middle East Politics at Bar Ilan University, briefed journalists on Egypt’s regional policies following the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in Egypt’s presidential elections. The following is a report on his comments.
The future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty
Egypt’s relations with Israel will be determined by a triangle of forces: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the newly elected president and the Egyptian parliament. The military has traditionally shaped and controlled the bilateral ties and have a clear interest in maintaining this relationship on solid footing. Morsi has already stated that he intends to respect Egypt’s international treaties, a hint that he will also uphold Israel-Egyptian agreements. Though the parliament may include representatives of Islamist factions who publically call for the revision of the agreement, parliament does not have the power to determine the future of this relationship.
The international and regional standing of the United States is also likely to impact Egypt’s policy toward Israel. As long as the US remains an influential player in the region, Egypt will avoid taking any step that may jeopardise its relationship with Washington and the immense assistance it receives from the American administration.
However, we must not dismiss the anti-Israel sentiments that prevail in large segments of Egyptian society. In this regard, the future of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is also likely to influence Egyptian sentiments toward Israel. Progress on the Palestinian track will also help address some of the reluctance of many Egyptians to normalisation of relations with Israel.
Terrorism and strategic threats
Even under an Islamist leadership, Egypt and Israel share many strategic concerns. The threat of global terrorism in the Sinai is a factor the Egyptian leadership will have to address due to its potential impact on its own economy and tourism in the Sinai. The second factor is Egypt’s ongoing interest in containing the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.
Given the current terror threat in the Sinai, Israel may agree to an? ad hoc increase in Egyptian military presence in the region, even though this is in breach of the limitation on military forces stipulated in the peace treaty between the two countries. This will, however, be limited in scope and the fundamental need to maintain Sinai as a demilitarised zone still remains strong.
Egypt will also not rush to change the status of its relationship with the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. Even though the two movements are ideologically affiliated, the Egyptian military leadership will be hesitant to see the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt permanently opened. Nevertheless, Egypt still retains significant influence over Hamas and the election of a new regime is also an opportunity to use this influence to mediate between Israel and Hamas.
Despite recent statements quoted in the Iranian media, there are no concrete indications that Egypt is about to sharply change its regional policy and seek an alliance with Iran. Cairo’s most powerful ally in the region remains Saudi Arabia and though Egypt may seek a normalisation of relations with Iran, the Saudi influence and its strategic bond with Egypt is unlikely to weaken.
Egypt’s role in the Palestinian arena
The Palestinian issue remains one of the most burning foreign policy issues for many Egyptians. Drastic deterioration in Gaza or along the border in Sinai might cause significant Egyptian tension with Israel, however it is very unlikely that such tensions will lead to a full scale war, primarily due to the US’s strong involvement and leverage over both countries.
In addition, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to political prominence in Egypt is also a chance to enhance its impact on Hamas and perhaps take a more proactive role in mediating between the Gaza-based Islamist group and Israel.