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Egyptian election promises uncertainty for ties with U.S., Israel

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Egyptians stunned even themselves in the vote to elect their next president — and observers are warning that the United States

An Egyptian woman casting her vote in the city of al-Mahalla in northern Egypt, May 23, 2012. (Nehal ElSherif via CC)

and Israel should be ready for continued uncertainty in their relations with Egypt.

Two finalists emerged following the roller-coaster first round at the polls last week: Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, who had been appointed prime minister in 2011 in the final days of the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Each took less than a quarter of the vote to reach the runoff, with three eliminated candidates splitting most of the remainder.

Morsi and Shafiq present strikingly different outlooks for Egypt’s future: Shafiq is stressing law and order, and at least a partial return to the days of the Mubarak regime. Morsi is promising governance based on Islamic values.

The runoff election is set to take place sometime before the end of June.

The two finalists — one an erstwhile Mubarak ally, the other a representative of the Islamist movement that was its bitter rival — are expected to make for a polarizing election. For the many Egyptians who supported the revolution against Mubarak but are wary of further empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, the runoff presents a dispiriting choice.

But whatever the results of the election, many observers expect that the country will be getting a government more inclined than its predecessors to play to the Egyptian street — a state of affairs that could lead to rockier relations with the United States and Israel.

“The individual result is probably not dispositive to U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations or relations with Israel,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank based in New York. “Those relations are going to change regardless because public opinion matters as it didn’t in the past.”

As an example, Hanna cited Egypt’s non-interference during Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, to the extent of maintaining strict controls on the Gaza-Egypt border.

“The government will not be able to take an affirmative role in terms of buttressing Israeli policy in relationship to Hamas,” he said. “The knock-on effect would be massive protests in the streets.”

Even Shafiq, the candidate better known to the West and with an established relationship with Israeli and U.S. interlocutors, would not be able to resist populist suspicion of Israel, said David Schenker, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Under Morsi, the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel are likely to come under review, he predicted.

“We still don’t know if they will put the treaty to a referendum or push to renegotiate,” Schenker said of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Popular suspicion of the accords is likely to be exacerbated as the two largest blocs in parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Democratic Alliance for Egypt and the Islamist Bloc, aligned with harder-line Salafists, compete for the Islamist vote.

“Regardless of who is president, you will have ongoing competition between the Brotherhood and Salafists which will push the Brotherhood to the right,” he said.

Schenker noted that even during the transition, under the West-friendly military, the relationship with Israel already has been affected. Egypt has effectively cut off natural gas supplies to Israel, a program that was unpopular with Egyptians. And last Sukkot, the first after the revolution, Egypt suspended the export of palm fronds, one of the four species needed to celebrate the holiday.

The key goal for the United States in the short run will be to preserve its interests and to promote a stable transition to democracy, whomever is elected president, said Schenker, who served as a senior Middle East policy official at the Pentagon under President George W. Bush.

“We’ll want assurances about access to the Suez Canal, the peace treaty with Israel, political pluralism, protection of women and minorities,” he said.

In the short run, at least, the continued preeminence of the military — in the form of the SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — likely guarantees the perpetuation of the peace treaty, which affords Egypt $1.3 billion in U.S. assistance annually, as well as the good will of the international community.

“We have to remember that anyone governing Egypt has to take into account the interests of the state,” said Elie Podeh, a professor at Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Because of its treaty with Israel, Egypt “gets a lot in terms of money, in terms of security, in terms of support.”

It is not clear what powers Egypt’s president will have – a new Egyptian constitution has yet to be drafted. Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that whoever wins will have some impact on how relations with the West go forward.

“The key question with Morsi is not how he will act in times of normal relations but how he will react in a time of crisis,” Alterman said. “Mubarak was dependable. It is unclear any leader of Egypt will be so dependable.”

The U.S. and Israel might have to accommodate a more hostile rhetoric, at least in the interim, while cultivating the new leadership, said Joel Rubin, the director of government policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a body that promotes peace initiatives.

“Israel and America will both have to accept there might be language coming out of the Egyptian parliament and leadership that is new playing to the crowd,” he said. “It’s not in our interests to see the relationship go in the wrong direction.”