Although the victory of Islamist parties in last month’s Egyptian elections “is not good news for Israel in the short term,” a Drew University expert on Middle East politics said, deepening tensions between the two countries are not inevitable.
The Egyptian government’s “focus must be on economic issues, and it is not going to have the time to worry about Israel,” said Christopher Taylor, speaking to members of the American Jewish Committee Dec. 7 at a private home in Summit.
The Muslim Brotherhood — which won 40 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting — “has been very clear they are business guys, and war is not going to be good for them,” said Taylor, professor of Islamic studies and director of Drew’s Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict.
“They might want to renegotiate pieces of the peace treaty with Israel, but in the short term, there is instability, and I think that makes many people in Israel nervous, and many people in the United States nervous, too,” he said.
Taylor called the future of Egypt’s relationship with Israel “the $64,000 question.”
“But I suspect there are a lot of pragmatists in the picture,” he said. “Always in the Middle East — and it is hard for Americans to understand this — but there is a public statement level and what is really going on underneath the surface. There often is a lot of difference between them.”
In sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood — “people who are quite comfortable in the modern world” and who tend to “focus on how to accommodate and bring Islam and modernity together” — are the fundamentalist Salafi Muslims. The Salafis surprised many in Egypt, winning 25 percent of the vote by organizing rural Egyptians and urban slum dwellers.
“There is not a lot of love lost between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Taylor. “The Salafis are much more in the line of bin Laden neo-fundamentalists…sort of a cross between the Tea Party and the fringe of American religious politics…. They want to go back to live the way the prophets did in the seventh century. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to do that. They’ve got big color TV sets and Jaguars and BMWs. They don’t want to live in a cave in Afghanistan.”
‘Ripple effect on Hamas’
Another large factor that will play a role in the country’s future are the 60 percent of Egypt’s population below age 30. Nearly one-half of them are unemployed and are motivated by economic frustrations, Taylor said.
“These are young people with very little hope for the future, who saw no future in the way Egypt was going,” he said. “They are very desperate and growing increasingly impatient. Egypt could take another very dangerous turn.”
Deep economic inequalities will pose major challenges to the Brotherhood. “For the last 60 years the Muslim Brotherhood has said, ‘Islam is the answer to any problem Egypt faces.’ Well now, they have to go beyond ‘Islam is the answer.’ How is Islam the answer to the housing problem? How is Islam the answer to the education problem? How is Islam the answer to the employment problem?”
Media coverage of riots, major upheavals, and mob attacks on Coptic Christians and the Israeli embassy in the months since the January revolution distort the true picture on the ground, Taylor said.
“Everything we were seeing on TV was restricted to a two-block area. If you were anywhere outside of that two-block zone in Cairo, life was going on very much as normal.”
Taylor is married to a Copt whose parents live in Cairo. At the height of the anti-Christian turmoil, he telephoned his mother-in-law.
“She said, ‘Everything around us is fine. I am going out to get my hair done.’ So we are looking at it through a lens, and sometimes the media don’t provide us with a larger context. The demonstrations were very bloody and very serious, but they were going on in a very concentrated area.”
Asked whether a new Egyptian government might alter its relationship with Palestinians in neighboring Gaza, he said, “If the Muslim Brotherhood moves in a pragmatic way it may have a ripple effect on Hamas in Gaza as well.”
However, “the verdict is still out,” he said, before finishing on an optimistic note.
“Egypt, like many Arab countries, has pursed a virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic strategy in trying to deflect the attention of its own population from very real problems,” he said. “That strategy ran out on Jan. 25 of this year. It is a strategy that has been used pretty successfully by many governments in the region…but at some moment there will be some questioning about this kneejerk anti-Israel rhetoric.”