By Barry Rubin
We’re starting to get a good picture of what the lower house of Egypt’s parliament will be like. Close to 50 percent of the seats will be held by the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 25 percent will be held by the al-Nour party of Salafists. With 75 percent, the two Islamist parties will be able to do as they please.
But, they — or at least the Brotherhood — are determined to be cautious. Note that there is a big difference between actually being moderate and simply being patient, advancing step by step toward radical goals. The Western media will report that the Brotherhood is indeed moderate. Actually, as I review coverage over the last year it is almost impossible to find even a single article in the mass media that reports any such evidence, much less analysis, despite the massive documentation available to the contrary .
The non-Islamist seats will be held by the Wafd, nine percent, and the Free Egyptians Party, another nine percent, with the rest spread among a dozen different parties, mainly liberal with a small number of leftists. The Wafd will be willing to make deals with the Islamists in order to obtain a share of power for itself. Only the Free Egyptians will oppose them with determination.
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There is no reason to believe the “moderates” will be able to work together; the Islamist parties also won’t unite. There is, however, an important difference. While the Wafd’s cooperation with the Brotherhood will undermine the ability of anti-Islamist forces doing anything at all, the Salafists will pull the Brotherhood toward a more militant stance.
Both Islamist parties will support laws making Egypt more Islamist, and when the Brotherhood does less than the Salafists want it will be proclaimed as moderate. Yet the two parties have no substantive difference on foreign policy except about how openly anti-American they will be and how active to push on conflict with Israel. Internationally, the Brotherhood will be portrayed as a wonderful bulwark against the Salafists, even as it moves Egypt step by step down the road toward radical Islamism.
Two key events will dominate Egyptian politics: writing the constitution and also the election of the president, currently expected in June. In order not to scare people, the Brotherhood continues its strategy of not directly sponsoring a presidential candidate. It is likely, however, that the Islamists will vote for Islamist candidates and in any run-off the likely two candidates will be an Islamist, probably Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and the radical nationalist Amr Moussa. But here’s a thought: what if the two candidates that receive the largest number of votes in the first round are both Islamists? That could mean an all-Islamist run-off between the Brotherhood’s favorite and a Salafist.
Finally, here are some thoughts about the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. This provides a wonderful case study of how the media and elite analysts have entirely missed the point. Generally, the discussion is over whether the Islamists will explicitly revoke the peace treaty. It is said that they will be moderate because they won’t tear it up.
The problem is that for all practical purposes they have already done so. Consider what the treaty is all about. It was Egypt’s acceptance of Israel’s existence, agreement that there were no issues between the two countries that could lead to war, and pledge that there would be no more armed conflict.
Yet the Brotherhood and the Salafists do not accept Israel’s existence, they openly look forward to wiping it off the map. They see multiple issues between the two countries worth fighting wars about. They are the patrons of Hamas. And we can no longer assume that Egypt will not go to war with Israel.
Thus, whether or not the piece of paper remains, it is now meaningless. For example, there will still be an Israeli embassy in Cairo but no Egyptian government official will meet the ambassador and no Egyptian would dare talk to an Israeli diplomat. Israeli tourists will be able to visit Egypt but few will do so because of the security risk. There will also be a natural gas pipeline but it will be out of operation most of the time due to terrorist attacks.
True, it is better to have the treaty in existence, for its dissolution would be a sign that war is closer. Yet the treaty no longer has any content. In other words, the treaty will probably exist until, if that ever happens, the day Egypt’s government goes to war with Israel. And if Egypt does not go to war with Israel it will not be because of the treaty, or the belief that disputes have been resolved, or a decision that war is no longer desirable.
It will only be because the Islamists calculate that they might not win the war, that the armed forces will oppose going into a losing battle, that the generals fear losing U.S. military aid, and that Egypt had a president who opposed war.
But none of those four points — which might be sufficient to prevent an open war — relate to the thinking of President Anwar al-Sadat and other Egyptian leaders that the two countries were now in a situation of “no more war, no more bloodshed.”
Remember that due to realistic calculations, Syria has not attacked Israel directly for almost 40 years but there is no peace between those two countries and the Syrian government has constantly plotted attacks on Israel through Lebanon and by terrorist groups in various places. The Gaza Strip is now Egypt’s equivalent of Lebanon.
There should be no doubt that the Brotherhood and Salafists will promote war with Israel indirectly, through Hamas and other fronts. Egyptian volunteers might go into the Gaza Strip to fight; weapons, money, and terrorists will cross the Egypt-Gaza border without restriction. Hamas camps are already opening in the Sinai that will make weapons and organize supplies.
So the treaty is useless, except for limiting conventional Egyptian military forces in eastern Sinai. If Egypt’s army doesn’t advance, breaking the limits set by the treaty for that zone, that is a good thing, a sign that it is not about to attack Israel.
But there will be various terrorists and Hamas units operating in the area anyway, using it as a safe haven. Even if al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, or Hamas were to attack Israel from eastern Sinai, Israel could not retaliate there lest that bring war with Egypt. Israel will have to depend on Egypt’s army to police the area and block terrorists. But once a new constitution and president are in place, Egypt’s army cannot be depended on to do so. What would happen to a general who was too vigorous in, to use the common Arabic expression, being “Israel’s defender”?
Do you think we will be seeing headlines reading: “Egyptian authorities arrest terrorists planning to attack Israel”? Are we going to be hearing news items like: “The Egyptian government has confiscated rockets, mortars, and weapons being shipped into the Gaza Strip for use against Israel”? And if not, then how is Egypt’s government observing the peace treaty?
From Israel’s standpoint, of course, the treaty has no value.
Thus, while Western analysts cheer about the “continuation” of the Egypt-Israel treaty, it is now effectively a dead letter.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com