Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace
The Montréal Review, March 2011
The dramatic downfall of Mubarak brings new hope for the Egyptian people and deep concern for Israeli and American political-security circles. A similar worry accompanied Mubarak's taking office as the Egyptian president 30 years ago following Sadat's assassination by a Jihadist group. But Mubarak, who considered peace with Israel an essential component in Egypt's strategic strategy, insisted on maintaining the peace relationships, thereby disregarding the numerous critics inside and outside Egypt. This time, however, there are some signs that a new Egyptian administration might withdraw from its relationship with Israel at both the political-diplomatic and security level.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most dynamic and organized opposition movement in Egypt, has long been the prime protagonist of Mubarak's relationship with Israel. Now, a few spokesmen on behalf of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, `Isam al-`Irian (the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Political Committee) and ' Abd al-Mun'im Abu Al-Futuh (a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's guidance office) are suddenly indicating through the international media that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (March 1979) is a reality. They have both mentioned that the peace treaty has gained international recognition and that the Brotherhood won't automatically oppose it. However, they have failed to indicate the Treaty's legitimacy and its recognition by Egyptian authorities. At the same time, other senior members of the Brotherhood have continued to reject the peace treaty. Given these current diverse voices within the Brotherhood, and the probability that they will legally participate in any future Egyptian government, one should ask what is the Brotherhood's traditional stance toward the peace treaty.
Although in September 1981 Sadat oversaw mass arrests of his political rivals, including the Brotherhood's leadership, Mubarak freed them from prison and allowed them to run for parliament as long as they campaigned as an independent organization rather than under the Muslim Brotherhood banner. This allowed the Brotherhood to be politically active, to integrate into the political establishment and to gain broader support. Their negative position towards peace with Israel created common ground with the various opposition groups and thus enabled the Brotherhood to escalate their attacks against the Egyptian regime. Indeed, because of its principal ideological stance, the Brotherhood staunchly has pressed for negating the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord with no thought of any compromise. 'Umar al-Tilmisani, who was leader of the Brotherhood from 1973 to 1986, staunchly rejected the peace treaty and intensively opposed any relationship between Egypt and Israel . As such, he contributed significantly to the escalation of the Brotherhood's attacks against Israel and Sadat.
According to the Brotherhood, Israel is an Islamic territory (Dar al-Islam) and, as such, it must be under Islamic sovereignty. Based on this premise, they sent volunteers to fight against Israel in 1948, and expressed their willingness to fight alongside the Egyptian army against Israel in 1956 and 1967. But at the time, most of their members had been jailed by the Nasser regime. When Sadat carried out the Egyptian peace initiative in 1977, the Brotherhood strongly condemned him. After the peace treaty became a reality, the Brotherhood accused Sadat of being a heretic and a traitor. Indeed, their leadership played an indirect role in the assassination of Sadat.
The Brotherhood's preaching over the years has revealed their absolutely negative attitude toward any diplomatic relations with Israel . Moreover, its current leader, Muhammad Badi' (elected in January 2010), has been calling for halting diplomatic and economic relations between Egypt and Israel.
During Sadat and Mubarak's times, the Brotherhood explicitly expressed concern about the danger of any Israeli presence in Egypt. Whenever Mubarak hosted Israeli prime ministers, the Brotherhood responded with severe accusations that the regime is responsible for defiling Egypt 's land by inviting Israelis. For example, when Israeli former Prime minister, Ehud Olmert (2006-2009), visited Cairo and Sharm al-Sheikh, Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef, the leader of the Brotherhood (2002-2010), considered Olmert's visits as "defiling of Egyptian pure land." This kind of terminology, which was used frequently, reflects both the Brotherhood's principal religious stance against Jews and their nationalistic stance against Israel .
The Brotherhood continues to reject any connections with Israel . They accuse Israel of trying to control Egypt and of poisoning its society. Put in other words, Israel is a threat to Egyptian society. As to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Brotherhood dismisses the fact that the Egyptian government signed the treaty within an international framework. It asserts Sadat had no legitimacy to rule Egypt since he wasn't elected but rather succeeded his predecessor. The recent withdrawal of Israeli diplomatic personnel in Cairo during the riots against Mubarak definitely serves the Brotherhood's goals. The bottom line is that if the Brotherhood decides to respect the peace treaty's terms, this would be a major deviation from its declared stances.
Given their preaching through the years, the Brotherhood will likely put pressure on the new Egyptian government to dissolve its diplomatic relationship with Israel . This would mean the closing of both the Israel embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian one in Tel Aviv. Furthermore, economic, scientific and cultural relationships would likely be severed. On the security level, the Brotherhood is very clear in its demand for Egypt to open the gates to Gaza . That Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood and is totally supported by them clearly raises major concerns in Israel. The Brotherhood constantly put massive pressure on the Mubarak regime to remove all the controls on goods and people moving across the Gaza-Egyptian border and was prepared to send humanitarian aid. If the Brotherhood will be a part of an Egyptian government, there is a high probability it will exert its influence to encourage the Egyptian army to support Hamas. In fact, the Brotherhood called for the Egyptian regime to send its army to support Hamas against Israel during the last military confrontation between the two. Therefore, it would not be a surprise if the Brotherhood directly and significantly assists Hamas.
To all of these circumstances is added a further complexity that the Brotherhood would likely support Hamas in its struggle against Mahmud 'Abbas. Thus, in contrast to Mubarak's period, the new Egyptian government may support Hamas both in its struggle against Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These possible scenarios will make it even more difficult for the United States to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Within the framework of a future Egyptian government there is the possibility, however, that the Brotherhood may downplay its traditional negative stance toward the peace treaty. The events of recent years have taught it to pay much more attention to their national responsibility and avoid harsh actions. All in all, the main question is: Will the Brotherhood show the same restraint and judgment as part of a future government in Egypt?
Liad Porat is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies (Brandeis University).
He has Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from Haifa University.