Middle East

Egypt vote: The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty

Children wave Egyptian national flags at a rally in support of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi
Image caption The candidates' campaigns have been gathering pace as the election nears

Very few elections anywhere in the world are won and lost on foreign policy issues.

Just ask the first President Bush who enjoyed an 88% approval rating after his victory in the first Gulf War. He went on to lose the 1992 presidential race to Bill Clinton, who ran on the slogan: "It's the Economy Stupid."

Egypt's presidential poll will be no exception to that global rule.

Whoever emerges from a crowded and unpredictable field to win will face one of the fullest in-trays in world politics.

The very powers of the office itself will have to be defined as a new constitution is written and some kind of legacy will have to be preserved from last year's revolution as stability is restored.

And there is the vital business of persuading foreign tourists to return - not to mention school places, hospital beds, water and jobs to provide for a population that has been growing at a dizzying speed.

Unpopular neighbour

But one foreign policy issue does bubble away beneath the bread and butter business of electoral politics here; what should newly-democratic Egypt do about the peace treaty with Israel signed more than 30 years ago back in the days of authoritarian military rule?

It is a campaign issue, although it has not dominated campaigning.

The truth is that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was a deal between leaderships, not a deal between peoples, and it is now deeply unpopular with the Egyptian street.

The Egyptian military has supported the deal because it opened the way for American subsidies and access to American tanks, weapons and helicopter gunships. And there are lines of communication between Egyptian intelligence officials and their Israeli counterparts.

Now that Egypt is becoming a democracy though, it seems inevitable that some of the popular hostility felt towards Israel will filter through into policy - or at the very least into the tone with which the Egyptian ministers deal with their Israeli counterparts.

Image caption The Israeli embassy in Cairo was stormed by protesters in September

The general drift of events since the revolution has not been encouraging.

A long-standing deal under which Israel was supplied with Egyptian natural gas appears to be dead. Officially that is the result of a commercial dispute but it is bound to have a chilling effect on the diplomatic atmosphere too.

And more seriously, the Israeli embassy in Cairo was ransacked by an angry mob last September. Israel is not thought to have used the building since, although diplomatic relations do continue.

Not surprisingly then, none of the candidates for the presidency has taken the view that the peace deal is to be defended or celebrated.

The only television debate of the campaign so far brought together the two men seen at the time as front-runners; the Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is standing as an independent, and Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister who was once sidelined by Hosni Mubarak - apparently for the crime of becoming too popular.

They disagreed over whether Israel should be characterised as an "enemy" or an "adversary" - a worrying straw in the wind for the Israeli government, which on paper at least could be considered an ally.

Image caption Amr Moussa hopes his foreign policy experience will appeal to voters

Mr Moussa, who has by the far the most foreign policy experience of any candidate, has signalled at the very least that the Israeli government can expect a much tougher time diplomatically if he wins.

He once said: "The message to Israel is clear: an entry permit to the region includes foregoing the policy of intransigence, threat, settlements and occupation and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state."

Mr Moussa has a more informal credential in this area too. His name once featured extensively in a pop song called "I Hate Israel (But I Love Amr Moussa)". A rewritten version is out to mark the campaign.

But the whole issue may work best for Ahmed Shafiq, the former general who is in effect running as a kind of representative of the old days - he was the last man to be appointed prime minister by Hosni Mubarak before the old regime was swept away.

He is able to point to his record as a wartime fighter pilot to claim that he once shot down two Israeli military planes; that seems to imply that he is in tune with the people's attitudes without spelling out how he would handle the relationship in any detail.

Reviewing the relationship

The easiest formula for the candidates to trot out is that they favour honouring Egypt's historic commitments but that they also favour reviewing or revising the treaty.

That, of course, could mean anything from tweaking the strictly-controlled troop levels on the Sinai peninsula to reconsidering the fundamental basis of the deal.

When I travelled to Luxor I was struck by the way in which even junior members of the various parties - including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour - trotted out that line.

When I asked a young Salafist if he could imagine another war with Israel in the future, he answered not that war would be terrible or unimaginable, but that Egypt could not afford a war with anyone.

Israel watches all this anxiously, but impotently.

For more than 30 years, the peace treaty meant it could indulge in the luxury of reduced military vigilance on its southern border. It also paved for the way for cuts in defence spending which were a huge benefit to the civilian economy.

There could be no surer kiss of death in Egyptian politics than the impression a candidacy enjoyed even the tacit backing of Israel, but for all the difficulties that may lie ahead one former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Zvi Mazel, is in no doubt that in broad historical terms the rise of democratic government in Egypt is in Israel's interests too.

He told me: "We believe in our deep souls that democracy is better for Israel. A real democracy has no interest in making war... Real democracies think about the well-being of their citizens."

Egyptians will remember this campaign for the joy of being able to choose their own leader - and they will measure its outcome by how quickly stability returns and prosperity flourishes.

But sooner or later the question of the future relationship with Israel must be dealt with - and around the Middle East, and further afield in Washington, that process will be followed anxiously.