By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
The Islamist landslide in recently concluded parliamentary polls has led to fears in some quarters of an impending paradigm shift in Egyptian foreign policy. Most local analysts, however, dismiss the likelihood of any sea changes, especially when it comes to the sensitive issues of Palestine and the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
“An Islamist-led parliament is unlikely to make any major foreign policy realignments, especially in terms of the Palestine/Israel file,” Gamal Fahmi, political analyst and managing editor of Egyptian opposition weekly Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri told IPS.
Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections, the third and final round of which wrapped up last week, served to ensure Islamist domination of Egypt’s incoming parliament. According to preliminary results, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party are set to control more than 65 percent of the assembly, giving them unrivalled influence over Egypt’s future legislative environment.
Coming less than a year after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak last February, the turn of events has led to fevered speculation that Egypt’s first Islamist-led parliament would hasten to abrogate the Camp David peace treaty. When polling kicked off in late November, Israeli Civil Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warned that democratic elections in Egypt were likely to lead to “a grave erosion of (the Camp David) agreement.”
Signed in 1979, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty called for the return of the Sinai Peninsula – occupied by Israel in 1967 – to Egypt, in exchange for full diplomatic relations between the two countries. Jordan, which signed its own peace deal in 1994, remains the only other Arab country to officially recognise the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
But ongoing Israeli abuse of the Palestinian population – and the outrage this has engendered on the part of the Egyptian public – ensured that the official peace instituted by Camp David was never more than a cold one. Egyptian critics of the treaty also complain that the agreement tightly restricts Egyptian military deployments in the Sinai, effectively preventing authorities in Cairo from policing – or, if need be, protecting – the strategic peninsula.
In an indication of the issue’s sensitivity, one of the first statements issued by Egypt’s ruling military council following Mubarak’s ouster last year – in an obvious reference to Camp David – reiterated the transitional government’s “commitment to comply with all international treaties and conventions to which Egypt is signatory.”
Despite its longstanding opposition to Israeli policy, the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly echoed this position since Egypt’s revolution – but has not ruled out the possibility that certain terms of the treaty might eventually be subject to amendment.
“The Brotherhood and the FJP are committed to complying with all international agreements signed by Egypt,” FJP Vice-President Essam al-Arian told IPS. “As for Camp David in particular, any future decision to amend the treaty will be put before a popular referendum for approval by the people.”
A recent poll by the Pew polling agency found that 54 percent of the Egyptian public stand in favour of the treaty’s annulment.
Egyptian political analysts, however, say the Brotherhood has no intention of pursuing any radical changes in terms of foreign policy, especially as it pertains to Palestine-Israel.
“This is the first time in Egypt’s history for Islamist parties to achieve a parliamentary majority, and they will therefore exercise extreme caution when it comes to maintaining their position,” Mohamed Abo Kraisha, political analyst and managing editor of state daily Al-Gomhouriya, told IPS. “They aren’t likely to do anything that might threaten their popular support base, or make any policy changes that might expose their newfound political clout to the threat of foreign interference or intimidation.”
“The last thing the Brotherhood wants is conflict with Israel,” agreed Fahmi. He went on to note that even Palestinian resistance faction Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot that has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007 – “has maintained a ceasefire with Israel despite its longstanding refusal to recognise the Zionist state.
“Their language might become more assertive with their assumption of power, but they won’t make any dramatic foreign policy changes,” Fahmi added.
Abdel Ghani Hindi, coordinator of the Popular Committee for the Independence of Al-Azhar and leading member of the Union of Young Revolutionaries (which consists of several revolutionary youth movements established in the wake of the revolution), stressed that any foreign policy changes on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood would only be implemented incrementally.
“The Brotherhood might try to change the Egyptian position on certain sensitive issues, like the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip, but it will only do so very, very gradually,” Hindi told IPS. “It will be very cautious not to do anything that might bring it into conflict with the U.S.
“The Brotherhood and its allies just won an enormous share of parliament; it doesn’t want to risk losing the power it has waited decades to achieve,” he added. “The group will work to restore the country, politically and economically, after 30 years of autocratic rule before attempting any serious policy reorientations.”
Hindi believes that Salafist parties, too, despite their ultraconservative outlook and hard-line reputation, are unlikely to take any steps – at least in the short term – that might threaten the status quo in terms of Egypt-Israel relations.
“The Islamic scholars (ulema) that lead the Salafist movement are closely linked to the ruling dynasties of the Gulf, particularly the Saudis, who are themselves close allies of Washington,” said Hindi. “And since Israeli regional ascendancy represents a priority for Washington, I doubt the Saudi-backed Salafist parties would do anything to dramatically impact Egypt’s relations with Israel.”
Indeed, late last month, Nour Party spokesman Yosri Hammad declared the party’s intention to respect the treaty. “We do not object to the treaty; we believe Egypt is committed to all treaties signed by former governments,” he said. He added, however, that the party would use all legal means to amend “unfair clauses” in the agreement.
According to Abo Kraisha, the notion of ‘national sovereignty’ as it has traditionally been understood “no longer applies to contemporary international relations, especially as it applies to Israel.
“Even if Islamist parties wanted to make contentious policy changes, like cancelling Camp David or unilaterally opening the border with Gaza, the so-called ‘international community’ wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “Any radical changes made by Egypt in terms of its relations with Israel or Hamas would certainly be met with profound repercussions, even the possibility of foreign intervention.”