Egypt's new president may be no moderate, but he deserves a chance to prove he's no enemy.
- By Yossi Beilin<p> Yossi Beilin served as a minister in the cabinets of Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. He initiated the Oslo peace process in 1992, worked on the Beilin-Abu Mazen talks between 1993 and 1995, and launched the Geneva Accord with Yasser Abed Rabbo in 2003. </p>
Egypt’s new president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsy, is not a man after my own heart. He represents a movement that seeks to apply religious norms to a secular state — even as he vows to represent all people, including Coptic Christians and liberals. Clearly, at some point in the near future, he will face the necessary conflicts between liberty and human rights on the one hand and his religious precepts on the other, and we cannot know how he will resolve them. His values are extremely remote from Western-liberal values: Americans will take no comfort in the fact that he devoted part of a major address in Tahrir Square to seeking the release of the fundamentalist sheikh who planned the 1993 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.
His statements regarding Israel are very harsh. His first active role in the Brotherhood was in an anti-Zionist movement within its ranks, he objected to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and he insinuates that he will not continue the "cold peace" that existed under his predecessor, President Hosni Mubarak. He talks about Israel’s alleged failure to comply with its part of the agreement, and maintains that Egypt will only comply with its obligations if Israel does the same. Even if he does not move forward with the foolish idea of submitting the 1979 peace agreement to a referendum, it appears that he will make great efforts to justify its deterioration.
And yet, since June 30, Morsy has held the most important position in the Middle East. Even if Egypt’s generals have limited his powers, he is still the leader of the largest Arab state in the world. He has a powerful bully pulpit, and his decisions will influence the future of the Middle East — and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even if the generals in Cairo would prefer they didn’t. Any attempts to punish Morsy — to isolate him or attempt to push Egypt to the point where voters are convinced that his election was a colossal failure — would be a serious mistake.
The world should honor its promises — both financial and political — to Morsy’s Egypt. Withholding U.S. aid from Morsy is tantamount to withholding aid from Egypt and there is no reason to harm the Egyptian people, who suffer from no small degree of poverty and social disparities. The withholding of aid will only exacerbate Egyptian hostility to the West and strengthen anyone who argues that Morsy failed in his position as a result of the cessation of aid.
Setting Morsy up for failure will not set up the United States or Israel for success in the Middle East. A failure in running the country — even if it is fairly predictable, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood — does not mean that the next time, the Egyptian masses will shift their vote to a more accommodating candidate. Take the Israeli boycott of Hamas in the Gaza Strip: Even though the Islamist movement has unambiguously failed to make life better for the average Gazan, the people have been persuaded that it was the Israelis who are the culprit for these failures, not Hamas.
Morsy came into office as a total surprise to the world. We do not know exactly what he will do as the leader of this large, destitute, and afflicted country, and I believe even Morsy himself does not know the answers to these questions. The dilemmas he faces are daunting: He has committed himself to saving the country’s collapsing economy, rolling back the influence of the powerful military establishment, and reconciling the Muslim Brotherhood’s lofty religious slogans with the practicalities of running the country.
In addition, he has nobody to learn from. Anyone who believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is keeping the Turkish model in mind as it embarks on this experiment in governance does not understand the depths of hostility it bears the legacy of the Turkish Republic’s founder, Ataturk. Recall the episode when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained in Cairo that Egyptians should not fear secularism — the Muslim Brotherhood reacted indignantly, criticizing the premier for interference in Egyptian affairs.
As far as Israel is concerned, Morsy’s election presents an extremely complex situation. The Muslim Brotherhood’s hostility toward us is deep and harsh. I would not suggest that we offer the Egyptians a great big bear hug, because it would be rejected immediately. But there is one way the Israeli government could pave the road to better relations with Cairo: In his speeches, Morsy makes a connection between the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the poor relations between Israel and Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not be prepared to pay the price to conclude a permanent status agreement, but he could conduct a dialogue with the Palestinians on agreements that would lead to that result.
The Israeli government could also suggest to Egypt’s new president that he host talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This would give the Egyptians the possibility of being involved in the resolution of the conflict, and it would develop an important channel between Israel and Morsy’s government. The very act of making the offer would be a positive step: Instead of the Israelis making do with listening to Morsy’s speeches — with a great deal of discomfort — it would be possible to set him a challenge and judge his intentions. And if Morsy accepts the challenge, then good would come out of it for everyone.
This is the moment to reach out a hand to Morsy and to offer him whatever help is possible. If he disappoints, the outstretched hand can be taken back. However, if there is no outstretched hand in the first place, Egypt’s resentment against the United States, Israel, and the West as a whole will be further deepened. Egypt is very important to the Western world, and now, more than ever, the West can prove how vital it is to the new leaders of the land of the Nile.