Morsi′s stance toward Israel, Iran still unclear | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 26.06.2012
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Middle East

Morsi's stance toward Israel, Iran still unclear

An Iranian claim that just-elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is planning to move his country closer to the theocracy in Tehran may have been a false alarm. But it showed just how jangly nerves are at the moment.

Everyone with an interest in the Middle East was jolted by reports on Monday that newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi had told Iranian state radio he wanted closer ties to Iran and a revision of the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

The situation then took on an almost surreal quality as Morsi immediately denied not only making the statements, but also having given an interview at all to Iran's FARS network.

In the aftermath, even the experts are uncertain as to what, if indeed anything, really happened.

"No one can say from here right now whether any sort of interview took place or not, but it's interesting that such a claim is coming from an official Iranian institution," Sylke Tempel, a Middle East expert at German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) told DW. "It's also interesting that Morsi was so quick to deny that he'd given the interview or that he'd said he wanted closer relations with Iran."

Media in the West have tended to treat the interview as fictional. Still, the discussions surrounding it do give some real insight into how various parties - first and foremost Iran - may approach a democratic Egypt led by an Islamist president.

Iranian pipe dream?

Men waiting for Egyptian election results to be announced

Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate

Tempel points out that Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei was quick to welcome the popular uprising that began a year and a half ago and toppled the secular leader Hosni Mubarak.

But she says the notion that the triumph of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will lead to a strong alliance between Sunni Egypt and Shiite Iran probably represents "wishful thinking."

"We know that there is a gulf between Shiites and Sunnis and that many within the Muslim Brotherhood are sceptical toward Iran," Tempel explained. "It's not as if the Muslim Brothers are all fans of Iran. So it seems a bit strange that one of the first things Morsi would say is that he wants better relations with Iran."

The story about Morsi's alleged statement got a lot of play in Russia, while being generally dismissed elsewhere outside of Iran. But it could also be seen as bit of internal Iranian propaganda.

"The state-run media in Iran is exactly that: state run," Tempel says. "It's in the interest of the Iranian government to depict the revolutions in the Arab world as pro-Iranian. They want to pretend there's no divide between Sunnis and Shiites. They want regional hegemony, and a pro-Iranian Egypt would be perfect for that aim. So it's not surprising to find reports like this in the Iranian media."

But regardless of its truth content, the Iranian report did create significant concern - a fact that reflects just how much of an open book Morsi is.

Unwelcome distractions

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood backed Presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi

Demostrator at Cairo's Tahrir Square cheered when Morsi was declared the winner on June 24

Morsi's background as a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood with its hostility to Zionism has made many countries, and particularly Israel, nervous. But Morsi resigned from that organization when he was elected, and experts say they don't expect any immediate drastic changes in Egypt's foreign policy.

"I think we can take Morsi at his word when he says international treaties will be honored," Florian Kohstall, the director of the Free University of Berlin's Cairo office, told German broadcaster ARD. "The peace treaty with Israel will definitely be honored."

Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa at British think tank Chatham House, shares that assessment.

"I think it's overwhelmingly likely that no party that comes into power in Egypt is going to want to go back to a state of war," Kinninmont told AFP news agency, adding that Israel's main concern would likely be security in the Sinai area, a haven for both anti-Israel and anti-Egyptian-government militants.

Tempel concurs with that view, but adds that the uncertainty Morsi represents has given Israelis another issue to think about in a situation already fraught with worries.

"Israel's border with Egypt is about to become complicated, and it remains to be seen to what extent Morsi will insist upon the state's monopoly on force there," Tempel told DW. "For the Israelis, Iran is the paramount threat since their leaders have directly threatened to destroy Israel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking that threat seriously. Egypt represents an unwelcome further distraction."

Up in the air

Anwar el Sadat and Menachem Begin shake hands in 1979

Morsi's pledge to honor past agreements should apply to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel

For years, observers in the West worried about what would happen if an Islamist came to power in Egypt, where the government has usually been far more accepting of Israel than the general populace.

Now that scenario has come to pass, even if Morsi has been speaking in relatively moderate tones and promising to uphold his country's previous agreements. Political Islamism is fact of life in democratic Egypt, and as Sylke Tempel points out, what long-term foreign policy ramifications it will bring simply cannot be foretold at the moment.

"We've yet to see a clear foreign policy direction from Morsi," Tempel said. "But after all he's only been in office for a day and a half."

And the circumstances under which Morsi came to power bring contraints that may push him in certain directions.

"You have to remember that the Islamist parties got 70 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, but in the first round of the presidential ones, there was only 24 or 25 percent for Mohammed Morsi," German journalist and Middle East expert Esther Saoub told DW on the eve of Morsi taking power.

"That means half of his votes came from people who didn't vote for him in the first round, and he has to keep these people," Saoub said. "If he disappoints them with overly conservative decisions, he will lose power."

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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