The success of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party (FJP) in Egypt's 2011 parliamentary elections has given rise to a concerning trend. Too much of the discussion surrounding the Egypt-Israeli relationship centers now on fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ostensible rise to power in Egypt. This fear is proving an unfortunate distraction from the potential for real progress in strengthening this relationship, and yet it continues to be fed by the tendency to reinterpret and sensationalize quotes from Brotherhood leadership.
Since it first became apparent that the FJP would win a plurality, if not a majority, of seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections, journalists, pundits, and analysts have speculated about the future of the relationship between Egypt and Israel and, most notably, about the 1979 peace treaty signed by those two countries. Countless articles and op-eds featured in newspapers and journals worldwide have leveraged quotes from the Brotherhood's leadership, interpreting them as needed, either to argue that the first Arab-Israeli peace agreement will remain intact or to predict its imminent demise.
A recent article in the Jerusalem Post follows this pattern, citing Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Dr. Rashad Bayoumi: "The Brotherhood respects international conventions" but will "take legal action against the peace treaty" with Israel. The Jerusalem Post staff's interpretation of this quote is clearly indicated by their headline: "[Muslim Brotherhood] will seek to cancel peace treaty."
While the Brotherhood's intentions and long-term goals in regard to the peace treaty and the Egypt-Israeli relationship are not known, Bayoumi's quote certainly does not spell out the death of the peace treaty. The "legal action" to which Bayoumi refers is most likely to be a national referendum on the treaty — a policy that has long been part of the Brotherhood's platform. Such a policy does not necessarily forebode the collapse of an historic peace. If anything, the possibility of a national referendum on the treaty has the potential to bring the peace between Egypt and Israel back to life.
The case has never been made to the people of Egypt that a treaty with Israel is, perhaps, in their best interest. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat put the treaty to a referendum in 1979, but, as evidenced by a suspiciously high 99.9% approval rate, this vote did not reflect the will of the people. Sadat, and his successor Hosni Mubarak, never had to answer to the people, and, consequently, never had to argue in favor of the treaty.
They did not try to convince the people of Egypt that peace with Israel brought lasting economic benefits — in the form of a new market for Egyptian goods, a nearly exclusive customer for Egyptian oil and gas, and large waves of Israeli tourism in the Sinai, not to mention the billions of dollars in military and economic aid that Egypt received from the United States in exchange for signing the peace treaty. Nor did they explain how peace with Israel reduced the number of Egyptian forces stationed in the Sinai, enabling the Egyptian military to more efficiently train and mobilize troops. Sadat and Mubarak never demonstrated to the Egyptian people that, by minimizing the greatest threat to Egyptian national security, the peace with Israel allowed for (in theory) a reduction in military and security spending, freeing up funds that could be put towards social programs and infrastructure projects.
Rather than waste time fearing the Muslim Brotherhood's oft-misinterpreted statements, it would be prudent for proponents of peace to argue the positive virtues of the Egypt-Israeli relationship. The treaty's preamble explicitly calls for "the establishment of a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace," indicating that the negotiators and signatories of the 1979 agreement envisioned, above all, a comprehensive peace — one that met the needs of both parties. Such a peace does not currently exist between Egypt and Israel, but this does not indicate that it is unattainable. Both Egypt and Israel are to blame for the cold nature of their relationship, and revitalizing the peace agreement will require concessions from both sides, as well as a recognition that peace is in each country's long-term best interest. A referendum initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ensuing political discussion just might be the way to realize the necessity, to both Israel and Egypt, of a truly just, comprehensive, and lasting peace.
Journalists, pundits, and analysts alike would do well to look past their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and to focus instead on the potential that political changes in Egypt have brought for positive changes to the geopolitical status quo.
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