Israel and the Islamisation of Egyptian Politics

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Despite a staunch, often wily, rearguard campaign by the interim military regime, the Islamists have registered another major victory in their gradual takeover of the Egyptian polity. Last weekend, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, (according to latest reports—the official result is not yet in) defeated his army-sponsored rival, Ahmed Shafik, in the presidential elections, capping last year’s victory by the Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nur Party in the parliamentary elections, in which the two together emerged with over 70% of the seats.

The parliamentary and presidential victories represent the defeat of the secular and liberal democratic forces—led by university-educated youngsters—that toppled the Mubarak dictatorship in January-February 2011 and the triumph of Islamism, a triumph replicated in other venues of the so-called Arab Spring, such as Tunisia and, to a degree, Morocco and Libya. The rebels in Cairo and Tunis wanted both to sweep away the old order of corrupt dictators and install a regime based on sharia and religious piety. The Islamisation of Arab politics has, so far, been the main outcome of the round of uprisings and revolutions that has swept the Middle East and North Africa.

But the process is still in evolution, and while the Islaimists’ emphatic and reiterated popular mandate clearly points to where Egypt—and with it, the bulk of the Arab world, for which Egypt has always been the weather vane and pace-setter—is heading, the situation in Cairo, on the ground, remains extremely confused.

The Supreme Military Council, which has governed the country since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, still retains power, with its armored personnel carriers and camouflage—uniformed troops abundantly in evidence in Cairo’s main squares and around the polling stations last weekend. And last week, the country’s constitutional court, whose members were largely appointed by Mubarak, ordered the dispersal of the Islamist-dominated parliament on legal-technical grounds, which will probably necessitate new, either full or partial, parliamentary elections later this year. At the same time, the country still has no constitution—a committee established last year with the cooperation of parliament failed to agree on one—and the president’s powers remain undefined. The military are bent on retaining their semi-independent status and abundant economic holdings and privileges, and are insisting that the president will not have the title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (as Mubarak was designated).

At the moment it appears that Morsi will have whatever powers the Supreme Military Council deigns to award him. Indeed, it is expected that he will be sworn in before a meeting of the Supreme Military Council rather than parliament. The military are expected to give Morsi the right to appoint a prime minister and cabinet but will retain control over the state budget and armed forces. But the military remain fearful of an Islamist mobilization of the Street against them at some point in the near or medium-term future if the Islamists come to feel that the military have not ceded them their due. But the Brotherhood remains constitutionally wary of taking on the military and security services, which, for decades, in fact since 1948, have periodically crushed and decapitated the Brotherhood in bloody crackdowns.

Since January 2011 (when the Brotherhood refrained from sending its foot soldiers into the streets to join the protests against Mubarak), the Islamists have cleaved to moderate, non-combative rhetoric and the democratic-electoral route to power. But many Egyptian liberals fear that Islamist “democracy” will prove to be “one man, one vote, one election” once (or if) they gain control of the state. Meanwhile, the military, the Islamists and even the (for the moment) quiescent liberals and secularists (and Egypt’s 10 million strong Coptic Christian community, who are fearful of the Islamists and their promotion of sharia) are all engaged in a delicate dance, with all rightly wary of a descent into violent confrontation and anarchy.

The military’s defeated candidate, General Shafik, who was seen as a leftover of the old regime, was shunned by the liberal-secular rebels of Tahrir Square, which partly accounts for the low turnout in last weekend’s presidential run-off vote (the heat wave may also have contributed). Shafik was outspoken about his foreign policy goals, which included firming up the alliance with the United States (the Egyptian army is overwhelmingly supplied by America) and retaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has traditionally opposed Israel’s existence and the peace treaty—though their rhetoric during the past year has been deliberately ambiguous on this score. But things are already changing. Unusually, Israeli intelligence attributed two Grad rockets fired last week from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into the southern Negev (one falling near the Israel Air Force base at Uvda) to Muslim Brotherhood orchestration. Yesterday’s (Monday’s) attack from Sinai by a squad of terrorists against Israeli construction workers building the new security fence along the Negev-Sinai border only underlines the threat Israel feels from a growingly Islamist Egypt.

Israel’s leaders, who, understandably, have been extremely tightlipped during the past 17 months about the potential danger to Israeli-Egyptian relations, are fearful that Egypt under Brotherhood governance will steadily nibble away at the bilateral peace settlement (already Egypt has stopped its supply of natural gas to Israel and in effect closed Israel’s embassy in Cairo) or even renounce the treaty in one fell swoop. A newly belligerent Egypt will substantially transform Israel’s geo-strategic situation, which, since the days of the Begin-Sadat rapprochement more than three decades ago, was anchored to the reality and provisions of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.