Is ‘Israel’ Still A Bad Word in Egypt?

Article Summary
In a major interview with Reuters, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi did not once use the word Israel, choosing instead to address vague details of the “cold” peace treaty between the two countries. Saif al-Din Hamdan asks, how long can Morsi avoid discussing the most taboo topic in Egyptian politics?

The peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979 led to the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations between the two countries. However, it received considerable criticism on popular, intellectual and political levels in Egypt.

The political relationship between the two countries came to be known in the media as a “cold peace.” Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak himself only visited Israel once during his tenure, under utmost secrecy, to offer condolences following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Now that a Muslim Brotherhood leader has reached the helm of Egypt, will the saying “politicians in power have different calculations than politicians in other positions” turn out to be true?

President Mohammed Morsi took office on June 24, 2012. He has shown time and again that he is not a weak president, and that he is able to make decisions observers believed he could not. The most important decision made by Morsi was firing the heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and stripping the council of its powers.

Israel's reaction to Morsi’s presidential win was calculated and in line with protocol. Though Morsi was at one point involved in the establishment of the popular Egyptian Resist the Zionist Project Committee and was a member of the Anti-Zionist Committee in Al-Sharqia Governorate, Israeli President Shimon Peres took the initiative in sending a congratulatory letter to him.

In the letter, Peres expressed hope for "continued cooperation, based on the peace treaties signed between us more than three decades ago, which we have committed to preserve and develop for the sake of the future generations of the two peoples.”

Later, Reuters quoted Morsi as saying in a letter to Peres that he was "looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.”

Egypt’s presidential spokesman Yasser Ali denied claims that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi received a congratulatory letter from the Israeli president. He also denied that the Egyptian president sent a letter to Peres.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also sent a cable to Morsi to congratulate him on his presidential victory.

An Egyptian presidential spokesman then said that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry responded to Netanyahu, since it is in charge of communications between the two countries.

The incident repeated itself when Peres sent a congratulatory cable to Morsi on the advent of the holy month of Ramadan. The media circulated a response by Morsi, citing Peres’ media office, saying, “I have received, with deep gratitude, your congratulation on the advent of the holy month of Ramadan.”

Israel and the United States are aware that it is difficult for Morsi, regardless of his ideological background or previous political experience, to deal smoothly with the issue of Egyptian-Israeli relations at this time.

They might be temporarily accepting guarantees made behind closed doors, or during private conversations away from the media.

In a Reuters interview conducted with Morsi, the two interviewers insisted that the president give an elaborated comment regarding Egypt’s relationship with Israel, or to disclose some of what is happening behind the scenes.

If we closely examine the full interview that was published by Egyptian Voices, we conclude the following:

  • The two prominent Reuters interviewers asked Morsi six questions on Israel, Egypt and peace, but not even once did he utter the word Israel.
  • Morsi evaded a question about visiting Israel or receiving Israeli officials. Instead, he talked about comprehensive and just peace for all the peoples of the region, and the justice and stability that should come with peace. He said that “our international relationship” is based on this balance.
  • The two interviewers tried to corner Morsi with the question: “Will you receive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Egypt?” Morsi quietly replied that Egypt and the Egyptian people decide on foreign relations "with free will."
  • As for coordination with Israel on the issue of Sinai, he underlined Egypt's sovereignty over Sinai, stressing that no side will be allowed to interfere in Egyptian affairs. He said this, of course, without specifically naming Israel.
  • When asked if amendments will be made to the agreements with Israel, he said that all international conventions will be respected.

Judging from the interview and previous ones, it is clear that the position adopted by the government so far with regard to peace with Israel is that the Egyptian president carries a message of peace to the world. On respecting the peace agreement with Israel, the Egyptian official position is that it respects all international agreements and other diplomatic formulas.

The question is: How long will Morsi’s lexicon lack the term Israel? More importantly, how long can he continue with this approach? How much longer will the United States and Israel justify Morsi’s evasion of publicly addressing key regional issues such as the relationship with Israel, the peace treaty and neighborly, diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries?

All eyes are focused on this deferred file — the eyes of the Palestinians, with their Hamas and Fatah factions, as well as Egyptians of all political and social affiliations.

The Israeli border officer stationed in the watchtower at the border with Egypt will hold on to his binoculars with worry and dismay, waiting for a "warm peace" with Egypt to appear on the horizon.

The author of this article is the editor-in-chief of Egyptian Voices, which is run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The opinions expressed in the article are the author’s personal views.

Found in: yitzhak rabin, shimon perez, muslim brotherhood, mohammed morsi, hosni mubarak, egypt-israel peace treaty, benjamin netanyahu

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