The Oddly Cordial Letter That the Muslim Brotherhood Sent to Israel

What we can learn from Egyptian President and Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi's note to Israeli President Shimon Peres -- assuming it's real.

amorsi peres.jpg
Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi (left) and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres (right). (Reuters)

One of the stranger episodes of Egypt-Israel relations in the post-Mubarak era occurred Tuesday with the emergence of a letter--first reported by Haaretz's Barak Ravid--ostensibly from the Egyptian president to his Israeli counterpart. The letter states, "I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle east peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including that Israeli people." This seems like routine and mundane for a correspondence between the heads of state of Egypt and Israel, but we are talking not about Mohamed Hosni Mubarak and Shimon Peres, but the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Peres. This is the same Muslim Brotherhood that was the first to raise the alarms about the threat of Zionism to Palestine in the 1930s. This is the same organization that claims its members fought heroically--even though they really didn't do much fighting--in the war of 1948-49, known throughout the Arab world as al Nakba (the setback). These are the same Brothers who mobilized against the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. This is the same group that opposed Cairo's strategic alignment with Washington because the United States maintains a "special relationship" with Israel. The same Muslim Brotherhood, which has vowed not to normalize relations with the Israelis until Israel fulfills the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which from the Brotherhood's perspective demands the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

The unambiguous willingness expressed in President Morsi's letter to work with Israel to find peace that would benefit "that Israeli people" is a departure for the Brotherhood, to say the least. Yet, this clear and surprising shift in Morsi's position along with several seemingly technical problems with the actual letter has left its authenticity open to question:

  • Whoever wrote the letter, which was in English, spelled the Israeli leader's last name "Perez" instead of "Peres." True, in Arabic Perez can be spelled using the "zaay," or "zayn," thus it would make sense to use a "z" in transliteration.  The name has also been rendered in Arabic using a "daad" and a "seen," which is closest to the English spelling.  Regardless, do the Egyptians really not know how to spell Peres's name by now? How long have they been dealing with him?
  • President Morsi's signature does not appear on the letter and there is no presidential seal or stamp on it. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the Arab world understands the importance of stamps and seals without which no document is actually official. Still, there may be an explanation for the missing stamps and signature. I am told that since the letter was communicated via fax, a signed original could have been sent in a diplomatic pouch that is yet to reach Peres's office. In addition, an Egyptian diplomatic contact told me that the cover letter from the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv had all the requisite stamps and the language was correct, leading him to conclude that it "looked authentic."
  •  The Egyptians are denying that Morsi sent the letter. Presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, told al Ahram Gateway that "President Morsi has not sent any letter to the Israeli president."

So what is going on here? Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood has had a change of heart about Israel. Hope springs eternal, but such a turnabout is unlikely. Maybe the responsibilities of power have not necessarily altered Morsi's worldview, but they have forced him to soften his position on working and dealing with Israel's leaders on issues of mutual concern. This would be that "pragmatism" thing we've all been hearing about for many months. It is also entirely possible that Morsi is saying one thing about Israel to his constituents, but doing the opposite in private. If that is the case, he has certainly grown into the office quickly given the penchant among Arab leaders to behave this way. There is also the possibility that Morsi and his people are total rookies who had no idea that the letter to Peres would find its way into the Israeli press. Maybe Morsi sent the letter, but did so in a way to maximize plausible deniability.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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