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Leading Muslim Brotherhood member and former presidential adviser Essam al-Erian created a stir when he called on Egyptian Jews in Israel to return home, because Egypt is now a democracy. Some might think that Erian’s courting of Israel and the Jews represents a break with the history of the Brotherhood, supposedly characterized by total enmity to the Zionist entity and its Jewish population. However, the fact is that this is simply a reflection of the Brotherhood’s untiring pragmatism throughout 80 years of political activity.
My point is not to accuse the Brotherhood of opportunism. Rather, it is the reformist nature of the group — investing in the support of a conservative middle class — that explains its stances regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Basically, the Brotherhood views the conflict in an ethical-religious light, which isolates the liberation struggle in Palestine from the tyranny in Egypt. The enemy is not Zionism in particular, but Jews in general, as proven by Prophet Mohamed’s biography, or Sirat, and sayings, or Hadith.
It was not by coincidence that the Brotherhood’s first intervention in politics came following the breakout of the 1936 Palestinian revolution, with a project called “A Penny for Palestine,” whose goal was to raise funds for the Palestinian cause. Ever since that time, the “Palestinian cause” has featured highly on the Brotherhood’s political agenda.
But it became clear early on that the Brotherhood’s vision of the issue of Palestine is anti-Jewish at its core. So, in the protests that broke out on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1945, young members from the Brotherhood destroyed shops owned by Jews and torched a synagogue.
The Brotherhood’s animosity toward Jews increased in the following years. In the 1947–1948 student union elections, the Brotherhood organized students in groups opposed to Jews. And after the 1948 War, their terrorist operations continued and their clandestine body was revealed.
After a long retreat during former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s era, members of the Brotherhood returned from the Gulf in the 1970s and resumed their activity, with new orientations that took into account President Anwar Sadat’s Open Door policy and his rapprochement with the US and Israel.
In the 1970s, Brotherhood magazines betrayed the contradiction between their religion-based slogans and pragmatic positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For example, the title of the editorial for Al-Dawah magazine’s October 1979 issue was, “Those Jews are not trustworthy.” The article rejected negotiations with Jews, accusing them of spreading moral degeneration and evils and conspiring against Muslims.
However, in the same issue, then-MP and Brotherhood Supreme Guide Omar al-Telmessany described the Americans as “people of the Book” who should be honored. Telmessany approved the negotiations with Israel, saying that Prophet Mohamed negotiated with the Jews when he entered Medina.
Consequently, he refrained from supporting the National Coalition against Camp David and opposed the Arab boycott of Sadat, expressing hopes that the president would remain in power.
The second Intifada, which erupted in 2000, sparked a broad popular movement in Egypt and the Arab world. The Brothers were, in their own way, part of the movement. However, they used a confused language in their views on the struggle: A language that mixed political realism with ethical-religious rhetoric, but that never hinted at the relation between Zionism and imperialism on one hand and Hosni Mubarak’s regime on the other.
For instance, on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Camp David Accords, in March 2004, MPs from the Brotherhood bloc called for freezing Camp David, blaming it for all the evils, diseases and destruction in the country — including AIDS.
Following the assassination of Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, the Brotherhood organized conferences for the professional syndicates, whose boards they control, to call for opening the door to “jihad,” the abrogation of the Camp David agreement, and the expulsion of the American and Zionist ambassadors.
The same ideas were repeated in former Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef’s discourse following the Dahab bombings in April 2006. But in this case, the man went the extra mile to assert that the Brotherhood accepted Camp David in principle.
The first time the Brotherhood linked US-Zionist hegemony and the tyranny of Mubarak’s regime was following the rigging of the 2010 parliamentary elections and the loss of the parliamentary bloc it had in the previous session. On 23 November 2010, a piece on Ikhwan Online read, “The peace treaty signed between Egypt and the Zionist entity prevents the conduct of fair elections because of fears of the rise of the Brotherhood, who said they are opposed to the peace treaty with Zionists.”
After the 25 January revolution, the Brotherhood only cautiously participated in public events organized to condemn Israeli practices. It continued to raise religious slogans against the Jews, while at the same time calling for the amendment of the Camp David Accords.
But as the Brotherhood edged closer to power, it became more pragmatic in handling the Arab-Israeli conflict and Camp David.
On 16 February, Mohamed Morsy, then head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said US aid was part of the Camp David Accords, adding that it was improper for the US to threaten to stop aid, or else the whole treaty would have to be reviewed. He added that his party wants the peace process to continue.
And when he ascended to the position of president, Morsy basically followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, demolishing Rafah tunnels, allowing surveillance of the Gaza borders, and coordinating the Israel-Hamas truce with Israel and the US. Nothing changed in reality, maybe with the exception of some rhetorical gestures.
It might be the case that Erian’s recent statement is not serious at all. It is probably simply a matter of improvisation from a man who feels persecuted in his own group. However, the fact remains that such statements are in complete resonance with a long history of Brotherhood zigzags and pragmatism.
Mohamed Hosny is a writer and researcher specializing in Israeli history and politics. He is a PhD candidate at Ain Shams University.
This article was translated from Arabic by Dina Zafer.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.