Egyptians are a domestically-obsessed population right now. It’s understandable given the state of the country 15 months after Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power.
But one of the few foreign policy issues that has featured prominently in the post-Mubarak public discourse has been the future of the Camp David Accords and the overall Egyptian-Israeli peace. None of the original 13 candidates in the still-ongoing Egyptian presidential race made the relationship with the Jewish State a central campaign platform. But every candidate has had to address it; and the things they’ve had to say could challenge Western assumptions that an Islamist-controlled government would be the biggest threat to peace between Israel and Egypt.
One of the cornerstones of Mubarak’s 29-year reign was a continuation of his assassinated predecessor Anwar Sadat’s commitment to his relationship to the United States — and by proxy his commitment to Camp David. It was a policy he maintained even at the expense of his own domestic prestige. His final years in power were partially spent fending off accusations from critics that he was complicit in the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and was essentially a puppet of Washington and Jerusalem. After Mubarak fell, one of the least surprising steps taken by the new transitional authority was the suspension of an Israeli-Egyptian natural gas deal — a highly unpopular agreement that saw Egypt selling gas to its ally/adversary at well below market rates.
First-round presidential voting in late May yielded a run-off between Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force Chief, Mubarak-era minister, and all-purpose symbol of a return to the old regime.
Much of the anxiety among Egypt-watchers in Washington and Jerusalem has centered on the prospect of an Islamist presidency to go with Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament. But that interpretation ignores the reality of just how widespread Egyptian antipathy for Israel has always been. Perhaps the most implacable opponent of Camp David in the race was the surprise third-place finisher Hamdeen Sabahi — a longtime Nasserist opposition politician who came of age as an activist by leading anti-Camp David protests as a Cairo University student leader in the 1970s. Sabahi represents the often overlooked reality that much of Egypt’s so-called secular/liberal crowd is also heavily anti-Israel
“My view on Israel hasn’t changed — it is a racist country,” Sabahi told me prior to the vote. “Part of Egypt’s value is its role in the Arab world. Camp David put so many restrictions on that role. We lost so much because of it.”
Sabahi added that he wouldn’t sell natural gas (or any Egyptian resource) to Israel at any price, and that he would love to cancel Camp David. But he emphasized that the issue would be low on his list of presidential priorities given Egypt’s long list of domestic concerns.
Let’s be clear here: almost nobody in Egypt is calling for a return to war with Israel. But most citizens do applaud the suspension of the natural gas agreement and many advocate eliminating any element of wider cooperation and stripping Egypt’s treaty obligations down to the bare minimum of “not trying to kill each other.”
Below-the-surface feelings towards the Jewish State are still visceral and public hostility to Israel pops up regularly. Earlier this spring, Egypt’s Mufti Ali Gomaa stoked controversy and criticism by visiting Jerusalem. And last summer, a cross-border shooting incident in the Sinai Peninsula ended with the Israeli ambassador in Cairo being evacuated home. Local activists seized the shooting incident as an opportunity to launch a series of dramatic protests outside the Israeli embassy that culminated in the Israeli flag being removed from the building and the embassy itself being temporarily overrun by enraged crowds.
Morsi and Shafiq will now face off June 16-17 in a national run-off vote, and the military — which has controlled the country since Mubarak’s ouster — has pledged to hand over executive authority by July 1. The two candidates so far have sounded essentially similar stances on Egypt’s northern neighbor. Both criticize Israeli policy but say the Camp David Accords should stand. "I object to Israel's current actions,” Shafiq said before last week’s vote. But, he added, "I am a man who honors past agreements."
One Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Camp David would have to undergo some alterations no matter who wins the election.
“It’s going to change either way, and it probably should change,” he said.
For starters, any future Egyptian government is going to demand more leeway in dealing with the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip. Mubarak’s reputation suffered greatly as a result of his Rafah policies. During Israel’s Cast Lead siege of Gaza in December 2008/January 2009, Mubarak kept Rafah largely sealed up despite the humanitarian disaster taking place inside Gaza. In the process, he was widely decried across the Egyptian political spectrum, with critics labeling him a complicit partner in the siege. No democratically elected Egyptian president could get away with such a move and expect to retain his office.
Even Shafiq, who is essentially packaging himself as Mubarak 2.0, is expected to initiate changes in the nature of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship if he wins the presidency, the Western diplomat said. “Don’t assume that Shafiq [as president] will simply go back to the Mubarak era policies. He’s going to have to show the ways that he’s different than Mubarak and this is one of the areas where he could do that,” he said.
During the May 23-24 first round of presidential voting, no less an authority than Jimmy Carter himself had a chance to weigh in on the prospects of Camp David under democratic Egypt. The former US president presided over the historic signing of the accords and the iconic White House lawn handshake between Sadat and late Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin. His Carter Center was one of the few international organizations conducting polling place monitoring on election day. Carter, now 87, said in a television interview that he understood the nature of electoral rhetoric, but didn’t expect any future Egyptian administration to move radically against Camp David.
“During a political campaign, [the candidates] might have some adverse comments to make about Israel or Zionism or so forth. But they know that peace for Egypt and for Israel is crucial to their people and to the future, and they all gave their assurance that the peace agreement with Israel will remain intact,” he said.
However, Carter, a longtime critic of Israel’s sincerity as a peace partner with the Palestinians, also sounded an ominous note for decision-makers in Jerusalem.
“The [Egyptian] people themselves are deeply committed to maintain peace with Israel,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt though, and this may concern some Israelis, that Egyptians are going to insist that Israel abide by the two-state solution … and that the 1967 borders will ultimately prevail.”
Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.