EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: When speaking to the Western world, the Egyptian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood preaches its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel. To its own countrymen, however, the Brotherhood, led by President Mohamed Morsi, has made no secret of its desire to cancel the treaty. The Brotherhood sees Israel as a strategic threat and has aggressively lobbied Morsi to strengthen Egyptian military presence in Sinai. While a military conflict with Egypt is not likely in the near future, the anti-Israel rhetoric emanating from senior Brotherhood leaders must be taken seriously.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood has not changed its hostile position towards Israel, it has sent mixed messages since rising to power in Egypt. On one hand, the political leaders, such as President Mohamed Morsi, speak of Egypt’s intentions to abide by its international treaties. On the other hand, these leaders emphasize that they will do so only when the treaties serve Egypt’s national interests. They argue that Egypt’s treaty with Israel harms the Egyptian national interest and intend on bringing it to a national referendum, with the ultimate intention of cancelling the treaty. The Brotherhood’s contradictory stance should raise alarms in the West regarding the organization’s true intentions.
President Mohamed Morsi’s Rise to the Top
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 and is the world’s largest political Islamic organization. Morsi joined the party in the late 1970s when opposition to the peace treaty with Israel was a main topic of discussion within the organization. He quickly became the head of the regional committee dedicated to opposing the “Zionist Project,” and was later appointed chairman of a similar committee on the national level. He was elected in 2000 to Parliament as an independent representative of the Brotherhood (since under President Hosni Mubarak the Brotherhood was banned), and remained in that role until 2005, when he was promoted to a position in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office. In 2011 he was chosen as the head of the official Brotherhood political party, the Justice and Freedom Party. Brotherhood candidates ran under this party in the local and national elections held in the wake of the revolution.
In the period immediately after Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood declared that it would not enter a candidate in the race. However, nearly two months before the elections the organization changed course. It claimed that its intervention was designed at combating forces that were allegedly trying to disrupt the election process and the democratic nature of the state. Its initial candidate, longtime leader Khairat El-Shater, was released from jail a short time after Mubarak was deposed; however, allegations of embezzling Brotherhood funds derailed his candidacy. Morsi was selected to replace him, won the election, and became Egypt’s new president in June 2012.
The Brotherhood’s Policy on Sinai and Israel
According to the Brotherhood, Sinai is Egyptian and Islamic territory upon which the country has not yet exercised its full sovereignty. It believes that the region must be “freed” from international agreements and treaties, specifically the peace deal with Israel that declares Sinai a demilitarized zone. Development of Sinai was a major issue on the Brotherhood political platform during the elections, on a much greater scale than the development of other needy areas in Egypt. The Brotherhood demands that the government develop Sinai in all aspects, including building civilian infrastructure, creating industry, and strengthening its internal and military security. The organization recognizes the importance of securing Egypt’s border with Israel and wants to see more troops deployed to the region. In essence, its desire to develop Sinai is only in the context of its conflict with Israel.
The Brotherhood defines Israel as an enemy state and does not officially recognize it. “Palestine” is viewed as holy Islamic land, and Hamas, a Brotherhood-affiliated organization, is seen as the spearhead in the battle to liberate the land and Jerusalem. The Brotherhood acknowledges that this battle must be fought gradually and that it must be patient and careful in trying to achieve this goal.
In recent months, Brotherhood Supreme Leader Mohammed Badie referred to Israelis as “rapists” and called on Muslims to liberate Jerusalem through jihad. He defined Palestine and Jerusalem as holy Muslim land and said that any means used to liberate those lands are acceptable. He did permit Jews to live as minority citizens in any other country, as long as they do not have their own state. On November 22, 2012, the day after Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Badie again declared that jihad was “obligatory” for all Muslims and said that Israel “knows nothing but the language of force.”
In addition to the Brotherhood’s control of the regime, it has influenced the Egyptian street to think that Israel is no longer a stabilizing factor in the region. The Brotherhood has convinced the Egyptian public that a treaty with Israel harms Egyptian national security and threatens internal Egyptian stability. This thought process goes against the spirit of the peace treaty signed between the two nations.
The Brotherhood recognizes Israel’s military and technological advantage and doesn’t want to start a war. In its move to take over Egypt, the Brotherhood has acted with near-precision and has until recently made almost no mistakes. Regarding foreign policy and security, however, it has no experience. Therefore the possibility of a security threat emanating from Egypt in the near future cannot be dismissed.
America has an interest to financially assist Egypt as an actor that is still considered moderate in the Middle East and is officially registered as a democracy. Perhaps it should look more closely at the Brotherhood’s true intentions before providing future aid.
Dr. Liad Porat is a lecturer of Middle East history at Haifa University and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.