Egypt's Islamists play to anti-Israel sentiment
Cairo • A fiery tirade against Jews by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's leader highlights one of the foremost diplomatic challenges facing the country's new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as he balances popular sentiment with the need for security relations with Israel.
The Brotherhood's supreme leader Mohammed Badie called on Muslims worldwide this week to defend Jerusalem, saying "Zionists only know the way of force." He said that Jews were spreading "corruption," had slaughtered Muslims and desecrated holy sites.
Badie's condemnation went well beyond the harsh criticism of Israel and its policies that is common in Egypt, opening even greater friction between the country's most powerful political group and its Jewish neighbor. And it will likely put more pressure on Morsi, who ran for president as a Brotherhood candidate, to take a more assertive role than his predecessor had in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Morsi made no public comments about Badie's remarks, the strongest criticism against Israel since Morsi took office in June. His spokesman, Yasser Ali, did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said the Brotherhood's statement was aimed at deflecting attention from Morsi's troubles in his first 100 days in office, from fuel shortages to mounting piles of garbage on the streets.
"Every time there is domestic tension in the new Egypt, Israel and the Jews will be targeted and every time the Egyptian street is tense or protests the Muslim Brotherhood will bring the anti-Semitic genie out of the bottle," he said Saturday.
Israel has increasingly become worried about the ascendance of the formerly repressed Brotherhood to power after last year's ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who was often pictured warmly greeting Israeli officials in Cairo.
The two nations share security concerns about their volatile border area, and both control entry and exit points for the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Islamic militants in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula have carried out attacks this past year against security forces from both countries.
Tensions were stoked last year when the Israeli embassy was ransacked by Egyptian protesters after a cross-border shootout that killed six Egyptian policemen. This summer, 16 Egyptian soldiers were gunned down in Sinai by suspected Islamic militants during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Israeli officials grumbled that Egypt had increased the number of troops there to battle the militants without coordinating the move first with Israeli officials, as the nations' 1979 peace accord stipulates.
Morsi has avoided speaking of Israel in public, only making pledges to respect Egypt's international agreements and the peace accord. The treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab country, has been a foundation for regional stability for more than three decades.
This summer, new tensions arose when Israel said Morsi wrote back to Israeli President Shimon Peres, who had sent the Egyptian president a letter wishing him well on the start of Ramadan. Morsi's office denied sending the message.
The 69-year-old Badie, who served 15 years in prison in his 20s for his Islamist views and was elected to his post in 2010, is the Brotherhood's eighth supreme leader since its founding in 1928. His statement reflects the group's overall position toward Palestinian aspirations for statehood and control of East Jerusalem, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. He does not have sole authority over group decisions, but presides over the group's top council that vets major issues.
Badie's statement was published on the group's website and emailed to reporters on Thursday, coinciding with the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. Muslims used to pray toward al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem before praying toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
"It is time for the Muslim ... to unite for the sake of Jerusalem and Palestine after the Jews have increased the corruption in the world, and shed the blood of (Muslims)," Badie said. The comments were denounced as hate speech by organizations that track anti-Semitism.
Peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have stalled over Israel's refusal to stop Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as their future state.
Gamal Soltan, a political science professor at the American university in Cairo, said the Brotherhood may be playing to a regional audience in evoking the Palestinian crisis.
"Morsi as president, trying to act as a statesman, is responsible for running the country. Badie has more freedom to express views," Soltan said.
Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon called on the United States and the European Union to take action, adding that such "incitement and anti-Semitism in Egypt" must stop before Washington sends more financial aid to Cairo.
"The direction of the new Egyptian government is very worrying and we are following with great concern what is being said and done and what is not being done there against extremists," he said in a telephone interview Saturday.
Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said Israel's suspected possession of nuclear weapons coupled with wars in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and "the slaughter of Palestinians and expansion of settlements" means that relations with Egypt cannot be "normal."
Ghozlan insisted the Egyptians would adhere to the terms of the 1979 treaty, "but we are dealing with Israel at the limits of the treaty.
"Improved relations were with the former regime ... against the will of the people, the will of Arab people and the will of Palestinians. Now relations are different."
Beyond religious links to Jerusalem, the Brotherhood inspired the formation of Islamic militant groups around the Middle East, including the Palestinian Hamas. Badie, who was once part of a group of radical members charged with seeking to overthrow Egypt's government, has since renounced violence, but supports Hamas in its "resistance" against Israel and met with Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh last year in Cairo.
Soltan, the political science professor, warned that the Brotherhood and Morsi cannot continue this "duality" for long.
"They continue to be torn apart between ideology on the one hand and politics on the other," he said. "To survive as a president for Egypt he has to pursue a moderate policy vis-a-vis Israel and there will definitely be people in the Brotherhood who don't like that."
Associated Press correspondents Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.