Israel has been concerned about the stability of the regime in Egypt since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty. The growing struggle between the ruling authorities and radical Muslims was one of those concerns.
In 2005 the Muslim brotherhood won 88 out of 454 seats in the Parliament. This relatively minor success was seen by Hosni Mubarak as proof that the MB was a growing radical political force which could exploit elections continuously to seize control of the country.
In the 2010 elections the 2005 achievement of the MB was not permitted to be repeated by the regime’s manipulation of the results. However, this move backfired. The Egyptian rulers cheating in the elections, created a growing resentment among the population at large, not only within the MB, which helped trigger and escalate the uprising in February 2011. Now, with the recent achievements of the MB and the Salafis in the Egyptian elections, Mubarak’s warning seems very realistic.
The MB may not want to collaborate with the Salafis because they are too radical. The MB would not want the Salafis pushing them to implement extreme steps, at least not too quickly, a move that carries the risk of creating a strong backlash against the MB both from inside and outside Egypt. Thus, they could resort to playing by the rules, forming a government with secular and more liberal ones, and making a deal with the military.
The MB needs the secular parties to share responsibility for the huge economic challenges facing any Egyptian government. This might protect the MB from future blame for failing to solve the country’s problems. As a last resort the government could increase its rhetoric against Israel in order to divert public opinion from internal problems. An escalation in the relationship between Israel and Egypt could serve the MB, without them bearing sole responsibility for it.
Furthermore, in the next elections –if and when they are held- the MB could try to direct the people’s disappointment of the government towards the seculars then try to leverage this unhappiness to achieve a clear majority which would allow them to call all the shots in Egypt.
When the MB becomes part of the government, not to mention leading it, it will take time until their ideology would be implemented, such as toward Israel, due to political constraints, including the influence of the United States. Another challenge to MB rule could be the protests of the Egyptian opposition, although these would be directed more against the internal policy of the MB, and not necessarily against a hostile approach toward Israel.
The MB would also require time to become accustomed to exercising ruling power, due to their unfamiliarity with governing after being an oppressed opposition for so many years.
The military does not trust the MB. After all, for the military - which actually represents the former regime - the MB was and always would be an internal threat. For the military the best results of the elections for the Parliament would have been a kind of draw between the MB and the seculars. That way neither of them would have been too powerful to jeopardize the military, and the military could have turned them against each other while keeping its superior position.
Until now, the hope of avoiding a radical Islamic takeover relied on the Egyptian military that had helped the country get rid of its secular dictatorship. The military still fears anarchy and loss of its political and economic position, along with its other privileges. If the military assumes the MB might try to do that a struggle even a violent one could burst out.
During the 90' there was a fierce conflict inside Egypt between the ruling regime and the radical Muslim underground. This time, however, such a clash could escalate into an open civil war, because the military might not be able to win so easily. Portions of the military, particularly those more junior in the ranks, might stand aside or even join the MB.
Iran would be expected to support the MB against the military, despite that the MB is Sunni and Arab, while Iran is mainly Persian and Shiite. Even now, Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Egypt with the abolition of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel a prime goal. Iran has gained experience in sending weapons to the Gaza Strip through Egypt, from Sudan and the Red Sea. In the future it could deliver weapons directly to Egypt.
An inner struggle within Egypt could cause friction between Israel and Egypt if the latter sought to extort concessions from Israel relating to the peace agreement based on its internal woes. If the Sinai becomes a base for members of the MB, the Egyptian military would seek to deploy more troops throughout the peninsula, in defiance of the limitation of the 1979 peace treaty. Israel will like to assist the Egyptian military against the MB but without jeopardizing the peace treaty. Therefore Israel might agree only to a temporary Egyptian surge in Sinai.
The uncertainty in Egypt could lead the country to another dictatorship, severe political and economic problems and even a civil war. All those ramifications would have a major influence on its relationship with Israel.
Ehud Eilam (Ph.D). is an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel's national strategy, having been involved, academically and practically with the study of those subjects for more than 20 years.