Life (in Israel) after Mursi

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The resounding silence from the Israeli government, in response to the removal of President Mursi by the Egyptian military, has been deafening. The influx of mixed messages from government officials around the world filled the airwaves, but nothing of significance was heard from Egypt’s northern neighbour. Many were at pain to reconcile, not without a touch of hypocrisy and contradiction, between cautiously reprimanding the Egyptian army for what is essentially a bold and blunt intervention in the democratic political process, and a badly hidden satisfaction at the disposal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

The word “coup” seems to vanquish from official statements. It is especially tricky for the democratic world to endorse the military coup, which brought down a democratically elected president in the name of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of the Egyptian people. Mursi’s contribution to his own downfall was considerable and well documented. He managed to alienate not only those who opposed him from the outset, but also those who voted for him. Nonetheless, Israel’s lack of jubilation at this change might appear surprising at first, but reflects a satisfaction that Israeli’s worst fears of a Muslim Brotherhood Government never materialised. Furthermore, on some strategic levels there was more commonality than anyone could have anticipated only a year ago.

The threat to Israel

Israel regards the ascendency of fundamentalist Islamic parties to power in the Middle East as a real and long term strategic threat which isolates and endangers the well-being of the Jewish state. The ongoing feud with Iran, which has raged for more than three decades and is exacerbated by the nuclear issue, dates back to disposal of the more secular Shah and his replacement by a fundamentalist regime.

Reflecting on the 12 months of Mursi’s presidency, Israel’s main concerns were never fulfilled, and the fear of hostile polices gave way to pragmatism on the part of a novice president.

Yossi Mekelberg

The emergence of both the Hezbollah and Hamas on the borders with Israel, supported by Iran, aggravated this sense of siege on the part of Israel and led to protracted crisis and the intermittent outbreak of military confrontations with Lebanon and Gaza. Israel reacted to the election of the Hamas, in free and fair elections, by imposing sanctions, avoiding any official direct diplomatic contacts, and eventually laying siege on Gaza, not to mention targeted assassination of Hamas’ members and military incursions. To be sure this movement thrives on conflict with Israel and this became a major element in its raison d'etre and a tool to gain and maintain political power.

The fall of Mubarak posed a much greater challenge to Israel than the one posed by the Hamas, the Hezbollah, or even Iran. Egypt after all is not only the most powerful country in the Arab world, but also the one with whom Israel signed a ground breaking peace agreement. From an Israeli perspective the withdrawal from the territories was a strategic concession in exchange for acceptance by a major country in the region. Ideally this would have been followed by a comprehensive peace on all fronts. The election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader to the highest post in Egypt raised fears in Israel that the peace treaty was under threat or at least scrutiny. In reality, Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood exercised a much more pragmatic and conciliatory approach in their policies than the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its leaders would have suggested.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s dilemma

Reflecting on the twelve months of Mursi’s presidency, Israel’s main concerns were never fulfilled, and the fear of hostile polices gave way to pragmatism on the part of a novice president. For many years, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood called for the abrogation of the Camp David peace accords with Israel, but while in power mitigated this demand by asking only to change certain elements of it. Eventually even this was not pursued during their twelve months in power. It had always been anticipated that a real test to the firmness of the peace agreement and the relationship with Israel would come if hostilities were to breakout between Israel and Hamas led Gaza, something which happens with an alarming frequency.

When fighting started in November of last year, Mursi and his government faced a dilemma between outright support of the Hamas, or to take a more statesman’s like approach and avoid deterioration of their relationship with Israel and the United States. They choose the latter, and this was pivotal in brokering a relatively swift ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas, which still holds. Choosing to actively support the Hamas on that occasion would have had its own rational, for both ideological reasons and in scoring points with the Egyptian public, yet he choose differently. This could have been the making of Mursi as a leader, domestically and internationally, had he only refrained a few days later from tweaking with the constitution and granting himself almost unlimited powers, which he was forced to annul a month later.

Moreover, in the past few months, The Egyptian army took the initiative to regain control over the deteriorating law and order in the Sinai Peninsula, a grave concern of the Israeli security establishment. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime the Sinai area became a haven for smugglers and extreme Jihadists movements. Another of Mursi’s paradoxes, during his short term in office, was his willingness to confront radical Islamic movements, and destroy the tunnels used for smuggling to Gaza, which he pursued with more commitment than his predecessors. These actions were not done in order to please Israel, but to assert his own authority and tackle those who challenged Egyptian sovereignty. As it happened, it also served Israeli security interests and kept the United States on his side, the latter was barely critical of his political manoeuvres to establish a more Islamic Egypt or his compromising of international human rights standards. In addition, in the mysterious ways Middle Eastern politics operates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology coincides with Israel’s interests in relation to Iran. Both are suspicious of Iran’s intentions in the region, and see it as a source of competition for hegemony and expansionism. This meeting of minds brought together an unlikely tacit alliance between the Sunni type Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jewish state as a mean to counter the Shiite fundamentalist model of Iran.

It would be a gross exaggeration to expect that Israel would shed a tear for the loss of power of Mohammad Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the past year proved that both learned very quickly to coexist and engage in a way which served their mutual interests. By avoiding either vitriolic language or reckless actions, they steered clear of damaging their relationship, a move that some predicted and many feared. The end of the Mursi era and the potential instability in Egypt may prove an even larger challenge in these two countries remaining good neighbours.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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