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Peace treaty in peril

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TEL AVIV -- Egypt inaugurated on Monday its newly elected and Muslim-dominated parliament that will redefine the role of Islam in Egypt's Second Republic.

The emergence of political Islam began in Tunis, when a liberal Muslim scholar won the Oct. 23, 2011, elections. It was followed in Morocco on Nov. 25 and Monday was Egypt's turn.

The new turn in Egyptian politics coincides with a major change in American Middle Eastern policy. On Nov. 25, the administration of President Barack Obama shifted its public position on the continuing standoff between the Egyptian army and the liberal demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Obama urged a full transfer of power to a civilian government "as soon as possible." Obama came to the conclusion that he needed a new Middle Eastern policy that would meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people for human rights and democracy. The Obama administration appears to have accepted now that any future Egyptian government will have to share power with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the U.S. did not expect that the young liberals who started the revolution and forced the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak would be decimated in the parliamentary elections.

They won only seven seats in the 498-member parliament. Nor did Washington expect that the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extremist Salafist movement would practically dominate the new parliament.

According to official figures, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists together won close to 67 per cent of the vote, while the Christian Copts -- who constitute 10 per cent of the population -- are largely under-represented in the new parliament.

In its inaugural session Monday, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Saad el-Katatni, was elected as the new speaker. The new speaker said that the parliament will chose 19 parliamentary committees, where the real parliamentary work will be conducted.

The new parliament will now appoint a 100-member Constitutional Committee that will draft a new constitution and pave the way for presidential elections, to be held on June 12. Until then, the interim government of Kamal el-Janzouri will remain in place.

Israel and many other countries have been following closely the Egyptian elections. Russia and China were among the first big powers that rushed to Cairo and promised assistance in facilitating the transfer from military autocracy to popular democracy. The U.S. promised to continue its annual $1.3 billion in aid for the Egyptian military.

Israel's case is different. Experience has shown that a revolution might produce a popular government, but that does not necessarily mean a liberal democratic government, as practised in the West. Since the elections, and even before, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have repeatedly said that their Islamic-oriented government will honour the 1979 Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The sad truth, however, is that this peace treaty has become meaningless. Since the capture of the Israeli embassy, Egyptian landlords refuse to rent a place for the new embassy and the Israeli ambassador is forced to conduct his diplomatic work from home. Even then, the work is very limited, since Egyptian officials repeatedly tell the ambassador that they are busy. Hence, the ambassador's routine diplomacy is limited to meetings with other diplomats, especially the Americans. Furthermore, Muslim Brotherhood leaders are repeatedly hinting that Israel should understand that things in Egypt have changed and that Israel should show more understanding of Palestinians' aspirations.

In practical terms, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is dead. People-to-people contacts are non-existent, commercial ties are minimal and gas supply to Israel is frequently interrupted because of sabotage to the gas pipeline in Sinai.

As for the Palestinian problem, Egypt is now trying to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, and once this is achieved, it intends to launch a "Palestinian initiative" the nature of which will certainly not be to Israel's liking.

But what concerns Israel most is the likely dangers emanating from Egypt's lack of control of the Sinai desert. Since the 1948 war, when the Muslim Brotherhood sent volunteers to fight against Israel, there has been no military confrontation between Israel and the Brotherhood. On the contrary. In October 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt after a failed attempt to assassinate former president Gamal Abdul Nasser.

This situation remained in force during the Sadat and Mubarak administrations.

Now, the Muslim Brotherhood controls Egyptian politics. Israeli officials do not expect a formal repudiation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. But the new Egyptian regime has other options, and not all of them are reassuring.


Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2012 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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