THE FALL of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 may have been widely welcomed in the West, but Egypt’s neighbour, Israel, was full of trepidation over what would follow.
Fears that the 34-year-old peace between the two countries was in jeopardy intensified when the Egyptian presidential elections of 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to power.
The denial of Israel’s right to exist had been central to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood as an opposition group. It viewed Palestine as sacred Islamic territory that should be liberated through ‘holy war’ (jihad).
But divisions within the movement regarding Israel emerged in 2007 when the Muslim Brotherhood debated its official policy platform.
Mr Morsi sided with the hardline view, led by the Brotherhood’s former spiritual leader, Mohamed Mahdi Akef and the current spiritual leader, Dr Mohamed Badie.
Mr Akef was quoted as saying ‘in our lexicon, there is no such thing as Israel. We recognise the Zionist gangs that occupied an Arab land and expelled its inhabitants. If they want to live amongst us, this should be within Palestine. But if they want a state [of their own], then we must object.’
But a second camp, which included Dr Essam al-Aryan, a senior official in the movement, said it was willing to recognise Israel implicitly, if not explicitly.
Dr Aryan said that the Muslim Brotherhood, once in power, would recognise and respect agreements with Israel.
But he made a distinction between the movement’s position, which considers Israel as an illegitimate entity, and the party’s position, which would deal with Israel pragmatically in line with political reality.
The official platform, which was finally adopted, referred to Israel as ‘the Zionist entity’, and defined it as an aggressive, racist and expansive entity.
The platform also made it clear, however, that the party would honour and respect international agreements signed by Egypt.
This became Mr Morsi’s policy on Israel during his presidential campaign.
The party’s platform also said that all efforts should be exerted to solve the Palestinian problem.
Since his election President Morsi has adopted a pragmatic policy and has considerably toned down his anti-Israeli rhetoric.
He has not yet made any negative statements denying Israel’s existence or repudiating the 34-year-old peace treaty, and has reiterated Egypt’s commitment to honour its international agreements several times.
Egypt did not sever its diplomatic relations with Israel during the eight-day military operation in Gaza, termed Pillar of Defence, in November 2012, despite repeated calls from the public and some Muslim Brotherhood members to do so.
Mr Morsi only recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv to express his concern over the military operation and to show solidarity with the Palestinians.
Mr Morsi also opened the Rafah Crossing, the only route into the Gaza Strip from Egypt which bypasses Israel. But while it did break the siege and allowed goods to pass through, President Morsi only extended the hours it was open for injuries and humanitarian aid.
Egypt has played a decisive role in contacts behind the scenes between Israel and Hamas for a ceasefire.
But while there have been no significant moves against Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Zionist and somewhat anti-Semitic rhetoric is still widespread on its internet site and in the preaching of its leader, Dr Mohamed Badie.
Dr Badie repeats his opposition to the peace treaty and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including the two-state solution. He still promotes jihad and resistance to Israel.
President Morsi’s pragmatism towards Israel is the result of a realistic assessment of Egypt’s place in the region and the international arena.
His first priority is to stabilise the Egyptian economy. Mr Morsi cannot antagonise the West in general and the US in particular by adopting an anti-Israeli position.
History shows that parties and organisations tend to become more moderate when in power, because they have to deal with reality in a pragmatic way. It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood will go through the same process.
But the mere preservation of the peace treaty, however cold, transmits a message throughout the Arab world that an Islamic regime and peace with Israel is not impossible.
Additional words by Limor Lavi, Head of the Egypt desk at the Middle East Media Research Institute.