Israeli President Shimon Peres extended Israel’s congratulations to Mohamed Morsi upon his election as president of Egypt this week, but questions remain about his power and the viability of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
“We honor the peace between us, because peace is the real victory for both of us,” Peres said during an event Monday with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Peace is really the victory of all children in the world.”
But the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars published an interview it claimed it conducted with Morsi just hours before he was declared winner of the election Sunday in which Morsi reportedly expressed an interest in modifying the treaty. In addition, Fars said Morsi spoke of wanting to strengthen the ties between Egypt and Iran more than 30 years after they were severed.
A spokesman for Morsi later said the interview was a complete fabrication, but Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the idea of Egypt renewing ties with Iran is something that has been discussed.
“This is not a unique idea to Morsi,” he said. “It is obviously something that has been talked about, even though the Egyptian people as a whole do not want to see Iran become a significant force there.”
Hoenlein noted that Iranian officials have also been quoted as saying that an alliance between Iran and Egypt “would transform the Middle East and counter the voices of the U.S. and Israel.”
“The question now is whether Morsi moves in the direction of [Turkish Prime Minister Reoep Tayyip] Erdogan and tries to strip the military of its power,” he said.
Hoenlein was referring to the fact that Erdogan, who had been the leader of an Islamist movement before his election, successfully challenged the nation’s secular elite and pushed the military out of its traditional role as guardian of Turkey’s secular government. But he said that given the fact the Egyptian military has disbanded the Islamic-dominated parliament — the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafists won more than 70 percent of the parliamentary seats — Morsi is not now in a position to challenge the military.
David Aaron, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation, said it is his guess that Morsi would not interfere with the military and will instead deal with internal issues.
“He still has a lot of power domestically,” he said. “He can do things with the domestic budget. He has to deal with the economy. … It is only in the fields of foreign affairs and national security that he has been curtailed.”
That is because the military, while awaiting the outcome of the presidential vote, adopted a transitional constitution that gave itself those broad powers.
“The real struggle with the military will be over the constitution, and it is a challenge he cannot avoid,” Aaron said.
But little has been said in recent days about a new constitution and Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said Morsi “can talk as much as he likes, but the military is very clear about what it wants.”
“It doesn’t want to relinquish a single ounce of its domain,” he said. “It wants things as they were before the departure of [former President Hosni] Mubarak. The military has made the presidency pretty much hollow. He doesn’t have the power to make [foreign policy] changes. The military will not allow him to modify the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. If he tried, the military would act.”
Ben-Meir pointed out that the U.S. gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion annually because of its peace treaty with Israel, and that it would not dare to touch that treaty and risk losing that money.
He observed that the military controls businesses in Egypt that “constitute nearly 25 percent all businesses in the Egyptian economy — from soup to nuts, even lawnmowers. And the military made clear to the Muslim Brotherhood that nothing can be changed in the peace treaty.”
U.S. representatives also met with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in recent weeks, Ben-Meir said, and it was “made clear to the U.S. by the Muslim Brotherhood — including Morsi — that it would adhere to the peace agreement and not do anything to upset the balance of power in the Middle East. The relationship between the U.S. and the Egyptian military remains extremely tight. And Congress has made clear that if the military changes direction, the aid will be stopped immediately.”
But Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said things have changed from the days when Mubarak and the military ran the country.
“For the first time in Egypt’s modern history we have competitive politics,” he said. “The military will now be much more prone to listen and give greater weight to public opinion. And on issues concerning America and Israel, it is not going to be such a happy outcome. You are going to see an Egypt that is far more non-aligned than in the past, and this is going to be a concern to the U.S. and Israel.”
Referring to recent terror attacks on Israel from the Sinai, Miller said the Israeli and Egyptian military are discussing the problem.
“We are not talking about a drift back towards the confrontation line or towards war, but given the fact that [the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty] is now owned by the Egyptian public in a way it has never been before, it will decline. And so on that issue, there will be a reset.”
Anthony Cordesman, a leading military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Israel should start “establishing informal channels of dialogue and reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian factions. In spite of Egypt’s cold peace with Israel, its military and intelligence community still talk. … Judgment before dialogue is the worst stand. This is not the time to react or overreact in a way that is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. Several months of patience and a really careful effort at outreach and dialogue would serve Israel better than overreacting.”