Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is currently evaluating the idea of amending the Camp David accords, a legal adviser to the president said Aug.13. Mohamed Gadallah, the presidential adviser, told Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that Morsi would like to change the accords with Israel to give Egypt full sovereignty and control over the Sinai Peninsula and allow Cairo to permanently station military forces in the strategic buffer zone, which is currently barred.
There are a number of reasons that Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, may be hinting at amending the Camp David accords. Under intense pressure to rebuild Egypt's troubled economy, Morsi may be raising the prospect of changing the accords as a way to extract more economic and military aid from the United States, which wants to avoid any potentially destabilizing changes in the Egypt-Israel relationship. Morsi's overt review of the accords is also intended to signal that the Muslim Brotherhood understands the Egyptian public's disapproval of the peace treaty and is serious about redefining the country's relationship with Israel, the United States and its own military establishment.
Amending the terms of the accords would be a politically popular move for Morsi. The Camp David accords, which form the foundation of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, are widely disliked in Egypt, and public opinion toward Israel in general is also hostile. However, the short-term political gains would do nothing to address the country's more pressing concern, which is to provide economic growth and jobs.
Egypt's economy faces serious problems. Its foreign reserves have plunged, standing at $36 billion before the 2011 unrest and totaling $14.4 billion in July, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. Cairo may be also facing a currency devaluation if it cannot stabilize its balance of payments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have made or pledged to make deposits in Egypt's Central Bank to help stabilize the system. Doha has offered $2 billion, a tranche of $500 million due around Aug. 18, while Riyadh has already provided a $750 million credit line for oil imports and deposited another $1 billion in the Central Bank, though this is not enough to solve Egypt's economic difficulties.
In the past, U.S. financial assistance provided under the terms of the Camp David accords has played an important role in supporting the Egyptian military, and by extension the overall economy. The public discussion of revising the accords is likely intended to encourage the United States to boost that aid or at the very least prevent Washington from reducing it. Already in February, the Muslim Brotherhood raised the issue of U.S. financial aid and the peace treaty, warning that a cut in U.S. aid to Egypt -- currently $1.5 billion annually -- would abrogate the peace treaty.
Financial considerations are not the only motive driving Morsi's plan. The Brotherhood has decades of experience in gradually accumulating influence and is now working on ways to curb the military's control over the government and segments of the economy. Taking control of the relationship with Israel and the United States through a possible modification to the accords -- and the aid that flows from them -- will help reduce the military establishment's influence over the state in the longer term.
The Brotherhood has made the argument that the Camp David accords were imposed on Egypt and on the Egyptian people against their will. It sees renegotiating the terms to allow a permanent Egyptian military presence in the Sinai as a way to rebalance Egypt's relationship with Israel to one in which both sides are treated as equals. However, given the countries' troubled history, the critical strategic role of Sinai is an extremely sensitive issue.
Egypt and Israel have fought four full-scale wars since 1948, in addition to various conflicts and clashes largely in Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula is a controlled buffer, divided into four zones with differing levels of demilitarization. In 2011, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to move 3,500 troops in the border zone, and in recent days Egypt also moved in attack helicopters, 80 armored vehicles carrying an unspecified number of troops, 40 light tanks and elite counterterrorism police to the border zone to combat rising militancy.
The rising insecurity and expanded Egyptian military presence in Sinai coupled with Morsi's recent reshuffling of senior military leadership may point to an effort by the Brotherhood to exploit Egypt's single most critical security issue to exert greater influence over the military. At the same time, it could also push Israel and the United States to open a dialogue with the Brotherhood over the issue.
Despite its reservations, Washington has already acceded to the reality of an Islamist government in Egypt. Israel, faced with turmoil and change on every border, is deeply worried about what will happen in Egypt -- and with the Camp David accords -- over the longer term.
While it is unlikely the Brotherhood wants to suspend or annul the treaty, a potential revision is sure to draw Israel's attention. At the same time, Israel is trying to avoid a scenario in which its own military preparations escalate tensions with Egypt, given the other regional security issues it is already facing. This gives Morsi and the Brotherhood leverage, including the leverage to push for more financial assistance from the United States if it wants to preserve the status quo.
Reviewing the Camp David accords also sends the message that the new government sees its authority over Egypt's foreign policy as equal to that of the previous government, despite the fact that Morsi's powers remain constitutionally undefined and the parliament remains annulled.
The Brotherhood has explicitly stated that it would not abrogate the treaty. However, that does not mean that even trying to amend it would not escalate tensions with Israel. That said, given the constraints the president is facing and the urgency with which he needs to revive the ailing Egyptian economy, it's unlikely Egypt will push Israel too far.