To be the peace broker or the war enabler, that was the question facing President Mohamed Morsi and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood. But if in the midst of this Shakespearian moment Morsi chose wisely, the bigger choices are yet to come: Will Egypt become the regional leader pushing for a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Or will Egypt’s elected leaders forfeit this opportunity and chose the path of ambiguity and mixed signals? The November 21 pre-Thanksgiving announcement of a Hamas-Israel ceasefire brokered in part by Egypt only raises the stakes on these fateful questions.
The challenge facing Morsi derives not merely from the obvious fact that he has to balance the desire of the Egyptian populace to confront Israel and the U.S. wish to have Cairo press Hamas into a ceasefire. The bigger problem is structural: the legacy of a 30 plus year cold peace premised on the fiction that it would create the strategic framework for Palestinian-Israeli peace. With Cairo’s foreign policy now conducted in the cauldron of a fractious democratization, Egypt’s leaders will feel ever greater pressure to put aside -- or at least substantially revise -- the Camp David Treaty. But there is far more to this equation than that for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its president.
In many respects, Camp David was a good deal for Egypt. Having expelled the Soviets and cast his lot with Washington, the late President Anwar Sadat was able to extract Egypt from the snare of a periodic military conflict with Israel, as well as from a relationship with Moscow that promised no future. Over time, Egypt’s huge professional middle class -- secular and Islamist alike -- came to view the peace treaty with Israel and the related U.S. financial assistance as the quid pro quo for excluding the possibility of achieving even a fig leaf of sovereignty for the Palestinians. But for the Palestinians and the wider Arab world, Sadat’s move was a strategic disaster: in one fell swoop, he blocked any future recourse to conventional war by a meaningful alliance of Arab states. It was this fact -- and not only his trip to Jerusalem or “abject surrender” (as nearly all Arab leaders called it) that infuriated the Arab world.
Looking back, that strategic vision appears acute. Although in the Camp David accords the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin actually promised to “recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians,” this did not happen. On the contrary, the removal of Egypt from the strategic-military equation positioned Begin to vastly expand Israeli West Bank settlements. It is no coincidence that settlement building rapidly accelerated after the Camp David Accords, or that Israel’s effort to smash the Beirut-based PLO unfolded three years later. That ill-fated effort to win “Lebanese sovereignty” by dint of Israeli force helped pave the way for the emergence of Hezbollah. But from Jerusalem’s vantage point, it seemed (at least at first) like a tremendous strategic success, and one that the Camp David Accords helped make possible.
Egyptians generally took a dim view of the peace treaty, which quickly settled into a "cold peace" limited to strategic relations. But in a political system that could tolerate no vestiges of real democratic practice, Egypt’s leaders felt unconstrained by popular and elite opinion. Thus having held a reasonably open election in 1976, in 1979 Sadat engineered a fake election that removed his critics from the parliament. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, enjoyed a brief political honeymoon in the 1980s. But with the escalation of Islamist terrorism in the early 1990s and the related expansion of the internal security forces, he became increasingly dictatorial and thus immune to public opinion. One consequence of this unfortunate dynamic was that in the minds of Egypt’s middle classes, peace with Israel came to be equated with autocracy. If Israel’s relationship with Arab leaders recast this relationship in terms of state-to-state relations, it also helped to reinforce the widespread perception in Egyptian civil society that the survival of autocracy and the failure of Palestinian-Israeli peace making were somehow linked.
This perception enjoyed a brief vacation during the hay day of the Oslo Peace Process. The inspirational image of late Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat shaking hands not only revived hopes for a two-state solution, it also took pressure off Mubarak. But in the ensuing years, a lethal combination of terrorist violence targeted Israeli civilians in a manner calculated to provoke Israeli retaliation, and a process of settlement building or expansion, undercut the trust necessary for moving beyond Zones “A, B, and C” to two states. Indeed, the failure to clearly identify the end goal of the entire exercise -- i.e. Palestinian statehood alongside Israel -- and even more so, to quickly move toward it, empowered spoilers on all sides. If we are now staring at the abyss in Gaza, and preparing for the possible emergence of Hamas as the dominant force on the West Bank, this development is partly a consequence of policies that have stripped pro-peace West Bank leaders of popular credibility.
The absence of successful Palestinian-Israeli peace-making -- or the presence of Palestinian-Israeli conflict making -- had similarly deleterious effect on Egypt’s internal political scene. During the late 1990s and beyond, the only thing that Egypt’s fractious opposition could regularly agree on was opposition to Israel. In the context of a non-peace process that did not present the possibility of a two state solution, Egyptian activists who might have otherwise supported such a solution had little choice but to make common cause with forces that opposed such a solution on principle. This logic became ever more compelling with each outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, or Israel and Hamas. Fury with Mubarak's seeming complicity in the blockade on Gaza and Israel's wars contributed to the overall rejection of his regime.
Egypt’s January 25 Revolution may have brought to an end the luxury of indulging in endless populist sloganeering without prospect of real policy change. Morsi and the Brotherhood now are faced with the daunting prospect of making hard choices. The specter of a democratically elected president who comes from an organization that articulates elemental discomfort with the legitimacy of Israel and the very idea of a two state solution is disquieting for Israel and the United States. But it could be a real opportunity, albeit one full of dangers.
It is surely one of Hamas’s goals to make sure that an Egyptian government beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood embraces Hamas and in so doing takes the first steps to effectively (if not formally) breaking its peace treaty with Israel. If Morsi cannot accept this smothering embrace, neither can he afford to broker a compromise that simply reinstates another fragile truce and puts Egypt again at risk in a few months. Instead, in the coming months he must clearly signal that a democratic Egypt will now take the lead in pushing all key regional parties toward making an enduring peace.
This will be a very hard pill for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to swallow. But if the idea of Egyptian-Israeli peace as a bridge to Palestinian-Israeli peace once seemed little more than a bad joke, it does not have to remain so. Nor does it have to be replaced with a new fiction, and that is of a democratic Egypt that seizes the mantle of Arab regional leadership by fudging rather than confronting the peace issue. If it fudges, Cairo will certainly make Tehran happy, and even more, it will invite further competition from Turkey, some of whose leaders are trying to outflank Egypt by echoing Hamas’s own violent rhetoric. Egypt cannot afford to indulge this reckless outbidding, which only lets both Palestinians and Israelis indulge in the fantasy that a combination of force, time, valiant endurance, and God’s favor will deliver them from disaster.
Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.
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