One of the stranger episodes of Egypt-Israel relations in the post-Mubarak era occurred yesterday with the emergence of a letter—first reported by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid—ostensibly from the Egyptian president to his Israeli counterpart. The letter states, “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle east peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including that Israeli people.” This seems like routine and mundane for a correspondence between the heads of state of Egypt and Israel, but we are talking not about Mohamed Hosni Mubarak and Shimon Peres, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy and Peres. This is the same Muslim Brotherhood that was the first to raise the alarms about the threat of Zionism to Palestine in the 1930s. This is the same organization that claims its members fought heroically—even though they really didn’t do much fighting—in the war of 1948-49, known throughout the Arab world as al Nakba (the setback). These are the same Brothers who mobilized against the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. This is the same group that opposed Cairo’s strategic alignment with Washington because the United States maintains a “special relationship” with Israel. The same Muslim Brotherhood, which has vowed not to normalize relations with the Israelis until Israel fulfills the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which from the Brotherhood’s perspective demands the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The unambiguous willingness expressed in President Morsy’s letter to work with Israel to find peace that would benefit “that Israeli people” is a departure for the Brotherhood, to say the least. Yet, this clear and surprising shift in Morsy’s position along with several seemingly technical problems with the actual letter has left its authenticity open to question:
- Whoever wrote the letter, which was in English, spelled the Israeli leader’s last name “Perez” instead of “Peres.” True, in Arabic Perez can be spelled using the “zaay,” or “zayn,” thus it would make sense to use a “z” in transliteration. The name has also been rendered in Arabic using a “daad” and a “seen,” which is closest to the English spelling. Regardless, do the Egyptians really not know how to spell Peres’s name by now? How long have they been dealing with him?
- President Morsy’s signature does not appear on the letter and there is no presidential seal or stamp on it. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the Arab world understands the importance of stamps and seals without which no document is actually official. Still, there may be an explanation for the missing stamps and signature. I am told that since the letter was communicated via fax, a signed original could have been sent in a diplomatic pouch that is yet to reach Peres’s office. In addition, an Egyptian diplomatic contact told me that the cover letter from the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv had all the requisite stamps and the language was correct, leading him to conclude that it “looked authentic.”
- The Egyptians are denying that Morsy sent the letter. Presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, told al Ahram Gateway that “President Morsy has not sent any letter to the Israeli president.”
So what is going on here? Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood has had a change of heart about Israel. Hope springs eternal, but such a turnabout is unlikely. Maybe the responsibilities of power have not necessarily altered Morsy’s worldview, but they have forced him to soften his position on working and dealing with Israel’s leaders on issues of mutual concern. This would be that “pragmatism” thing we’ve all been hearing about for many months. It is also entirely possible that Morsy is saying one thing about Israel to his constituents, but doing the opposite in private. If that is the case, he has certainly grown into the office quickly given the penchant among Arab leaders to behave this way. There is also the possibility that Morsy and his people are total rookies who had no idea that the letter to Peres would find its way into the Israeli press. Maybe Morsy sent the letter, but did so in a way to maximize plausible deniability.
Finally, as one member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party cryptically suggested, the Egyptian presidency did not send the letter, but perhaps some other faction or group did in an effort to embarrass the new president. Conspiratorial? Without a doubt, but one can actually understand the logic train in this one, unlike most conspiracy theories. President Morsy has recently taken over a state apparatus in which large numbers of people are not necessarily predisposed toward him. Some of those people—in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? General Intelligence Service? Supreme Council of the Armed Forces?—could conceivably use a sensitive issue like Israel to embarrass Morsy. The question is: Are they competent enough to forge a letter that would get passed to the Israelis?
I do not know what the answer is, but I’d like to discount the conspiracy theory and lean toward errors borne of inexperience if only because a former U.S. government official once told me that when it comes to the government—any government—“Count on incompetence.”
The whole episode speaks to the ambiguous nature of Egypt-Israel relations at this moment in Egypt’s transition. The letter comes after three Israeli messages to Morsy (two from Peres and one from Prime Minister Netanyahu) that went unanswered. If the note from Morsy is authentic, it is a good sign because it seems to defy predictions (including my own) that relations between the Egyptians and Israelis were going to get tough. Still, Yasser Ali’s denial is curious. Why send a letter and then deny it? If Morsy and his team are not willing to own up to even routine communications with Israel’s leadership, it is not a good sign. The bilateral relationship cannot possibly be in the black forever. After all, this is the new, more democratic, transparent Egypt.
In the end, the letter and the controversy surrounding it are likely to cause friction in Egypt-Israel ties if only because Morsy and the people around him may feel political pressure to burnish the anti-Zionist street credibility more fitting for Egypt’s first popularly elected and Islamist leader.