Was Morsi’s brief presidency an opportunity lost for Israel?

The late Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi hated Israel, but his relationship with Hamas held the promise of negotiating a long-term truce between the organization and Israel and potentially altering the landscape in Gaza.

al-monitor Deposed President Mohammed Morsi greets his lawyers and people from behind bars at a court wearing the red uniform issued to prisoners sentenced to death during a court appearance with Muslim Brotherhood members, Cairo, June 21, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

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abdel fattah al-sisi, camp david accords, peace treaty, muslim brotherhood, mohammed morsi

Jun 24, 2019

The child born 68 years ago in the village of Adwah, in northern Egypt, might have been a lot like the peers with whom he grew up, receiving a very limited education and becoming enthusiastic consumers of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda. Mohammed Morsi was a gifted child who abandoned his village for the big city of Cairo, where he would earn a BA and an MA from Cairo University and then receive a rare scholarship from the Egyptian government to pursue advanced studies in the United States. After earning a PhD in materials science at the University of Southern California, Morsi spent the early 1980s working with NASA as a consultant on the design of a new engine for the Space Shuttle.

Most people in Morsi's position would have stayed in the United States and built a career for themselves there. That is what some other famous Egyptians did, such as Omar Sharif, but not Morsi, who returned and began teaching at Zagazig University in 1985. He also became an enthusiastic supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and their positions, including vehement opposition to the existence of the State of Israel and consequently to the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Morsi was still teaching at Zagazig when he was elected to the Egyptian parliament in 2000. He had run as an independent candidate because the Islamist movement he supported was banned.

Upon resigning his university position in 2010, Morsi gave a speech on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood in which he preached hatred of Israel and Jews, not least because of the way he claimed they treated his Palestinian brethren. On the other hand, during a visit to Germany in 2013, he denied that he hated Jews and said that his comments had been taken out of context. Nevertheless, he seemed to blur the line distinguishing Israelis and Jews. He considered the two-state solution to be a form of Arab surrender to Zionism and adamantly opposed it. He called Israelis bloodthirsty and the descendants of apes and pigs, terms that also appear in Hamas' charter. For Israel, there could be no greater nightmare than imagining this man, once thought to represent the delusional fringe, becoming the leader of Egypt.

After the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 in a popular uprising driven by the protesters who filled Tahrir Square and supported by the top military brass, Egypt decided to hold free elections for the presidency. Days after Mubarak's overthrow, Morsi had been arrested, but escaped two days later. The Muslim Brotherhood then chose Morsi as its presidential candidate, running for the ostensibly independent Freedom and Justice Party, founded one year before the balloting. In the 2012 elections, he ran against Ahmed Shafiq, who had served as prime minister under Mubarak and was seen as representing the old regime. Morsi beat Shafiq by a few percentage points in the second round of voting to become Egypt’s fifth president and the first to be democratically elected. His supporters included quite a few young liberals who voted for him because they wanted “anyone but Mubarak and his lackeys.” They cheered when Morsi emerged the winner.

Jubilation over the first democratic revolution in the largest Arab state was mixed with deep consternation over what Morsi might do. Israel was concerned that he might withdraw from the peace treaty or, as he insinuated shortly before his election, hold a referendum on it, to produce a result that everyone would know in advance.

Morsi surprised everyone, but also did not. When it came to democracy, the professor and scientist acted as the Muslim Brotherhood expected. He repealed the constitution and wrote a new one (which passed in a nationwide referendum by a two-thirds majority), claimed extensive legislative authority for himself without parliamentary oversight and set out to transform Egypt into a country governed by Islamic law.

When it came to Israel, however, Morsi acted pragmatically, realizing that a good relationship with the United States was in Egypt's national interest. At the same time, he may have concluded that being a good neighbor to Israel would not hurt his country either. He appointed a new ambassador to Israel and sent a letter to President Shimon Peres, whom he addressed as, “My great and good friend.” At the time, Peres said to me, “I would understand if he wrote, ‘Your Honor, my dear Mr. President,’ or something like that, but to write ‘My great and good friend,’ when he never actually met me is a bit over the top.” In the letter, Morsi affirmed his commitment to maintaining good relations between Egypt and Israel.

It is hard to believe that Morsi's disdain for Israel vanished as soon as he became president. It does, however, make sense to believe that he was wise enough to avoid conflict with Israel, and by extension with the international community, which supported the peace agreement between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat negotiated with the intense involvement of US President Jimmy Carter. In November 2012, Morsi was very involved in efforts to achieve a cease-fire during the war that month between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It was the first time that official Israel realized that the relationship between Morsi and Hamas could provide momentum for a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but Morsi’s presidency would last just one year.

In June 2013, masses of Egyptians returned to the streets in reaction to the “Islamic revolution” that Morsi was pushing, and a few weeks later, on July 3, 2013, his defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, demanded that he resign. When Morsi rejected the ultimatum, he was respectfully taken to prison.

Many leaders sighed in relief, but there were also those who protested the idea that Egypt’s first democratically elected president was deposed in a military coup. On the other hand, Morsi’s undemocratic behavior made it difficult to accept this criticism. Many people around the world found it easier to deal with an authoritarian general than the Islamist who spoke fluent English.

Morsi died during his trial on June 17, while still being held in prison. Obviously, Israel cannot mourn Morsi’s death. If pressed, even this author would have to admit a preference for Sisi’s dictatorship over Morsi’s democracy. The removal of the Islamist leader left the peace between Israel and Egypt a deal between leaders in which the Egyptian people had no part. That one of the most vehement opponents of the agreement eventually realized that it was necessary to protect it and even foster it could have convinced millions of hostile Egyptians to take a completely different approach to this important agreement. It is also possible that the situation in Gaza would have been different today, but we will never know.

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