Does Morsi Really Intend to Uphold Egypt's Treaty with Israel?

Since the election of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, there has been considerable discussion about whether Egypt's government will honor the country's peace treaty with Israel.  In reality, the correct question is not whether Egypt will honor the treaty, but simply when and how Egypt will abrogate it.

Morsi was the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate.  With his election, that Islamist party now controls both Egypt's presidency and its legislature.  Morsi reassures foreign audiences that though he is a die-hard Islamist, he will not be an Islamist president.  Morsi claims that although he remains a "passionate" member of the Muslim Brotherhood, his policies are not beholden to his passion.  Likewise, he promises to "uphold" previous treaties, including presumably the Camp David Accords with Israel, though he campaigned on the promise of "jihad and death" and a constitution based upon sharia and the Quran.   

The key is what Morsi means when he promises to "uphold" the treaty.  For an Islamist, upholding a treaty with infidels means something entirely different from how the Western world interprets such an obligation.  An Islamist like Morsi looks to both the Quran and the hadiths (commentaries on the Quran) to determine what he should do regarding the treaty with Israel. 

Arguably, the Quran permits Muslims to treat with infidels (surah 9).  At the same time, though, it is easy to read that surah as permitting Muslims to abrogate any treaty at any time with "idolaters," but modern Muslim legal scholars assure that the Quran instructs Muslims to abide by such treaties so long as the other side holds up their own end of the bargain.  But the Quran, though believed by devout Muslims to be the unaltered word of Allah, is by its nature is a vague and contradictory document, subject to varied interpretation.  This is something that even the most dedicated Muslim scholars have realized for more than a millennium.  The Quran may be the unaltered word of God, but figuring out just what Allah meant can often be quite vexing.

To divine Allah's intention, Muslims turn to the hadiths.  The hadiths draw much of their authority from accounts of the Prophet Muhammad's life.  By observing how Muhammad interpreted Allah's word, a Muslim can better figure out just what the Quran is saying.  And with respect to treaties, the hadiths are quite clear, based on a famous incident from the traditional account of Muhammad's life, the Treaty of Hudaybiyya with the Quraysh tribe.   

The Quraysh were the pagan clan that dominated Mecca as Muhammad rose in prominence.  They opposed Muhammad and eventually caused the prophet to flee to Medina in 622.  Muhammad spent a few years consolidating his position in Medina, gaining in strength.  Then, in 628, Muhammad signed a treaty with the Qurash, ostensibly to permit Muslim pilgrims to return to Mecca for the hajj, thus establishing the principle that Muslims may treat with non-Muslims. 

Eventually, Muhammad felt he had gained sufficient strength that he no longer needed the treaty, so he sought a pretext to violate it.  He found one in 630, when feuding members of the Bani clan (a tribe that divided its loyalties between Muhammad and the Quraysh) killed some pro-Muhammad guys in what was essentially a 7th-century gangland fight.  The Bani feud had nothing to do with the treaty between Muhammad and the Quraysh, but it provided the excuse Muhammad required, at least as far as Muhammad interpreted his own legal and religious duties.  Muhammad tore up the treaty, went to war, and made himself master of Mecca.  This is somewhat akin to the United States abrogating a nuclear treaty with the Russians because a couple of North Korean gangsters were killed in a bar fight with South Korean gangsters.

The lesson Muslim scholars and jurists draw from this story is quite simple.  Muslims may treat with infidels and sign agreements.  But they are bound to these agreements only so long as the agreement suits the Muslim side.  Once a Muslim nation that is party to the agreement no longer wishes to be bound, it needs only find a pretext, however minor, to abrogate the treaty.  Thus, Muslim legal scholars can quite adamantly maintain that Islamic nations are bound to honor agreements with non-Muslims, so long as the non-Muslims also honor the agreement.  But in fact, there is no intrinsic obligation to honor treaties with infidels, other than the practical considerations as to Islamic benefit.  Upon any perceived "breach" of the agreement by the other side, no matter how minor, and no matter whether the breach is -- in the Western conception of contract law -- material to the agreement, the Muslim side ceases to be bound.

As Daniel Pipes pointed out in a complete analysis over a decade ago, Yasser Arafat invoked this rule in 1994 when speaking to a Muslim audience in South Africa.  There Arafat announced that although he had signed agreements with Israel, publicly shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, his obligations under the agreement were limited by the Hudaybiyya rule, which meant that at any time, as a practical matter, he could throw the agreement away.  And Arafat was not even an Islamist.

Morsi, of course, is an Islamist, and so he certainly not only knows how Mohammad dealt with the Quraysh, but must feel religiously compelled to follow the prophet's example.  His own words so far make this clear.  For while Morsi is prepared to state that he will uphold the agreements with Israel, he is also careful to note that Israel has already violated the agreements. 

Morsi claims that Israel is already in violation of the treaty because it has not resolved its problems with the Palestinians.  In Morsi's view, this requires Israel to grant "the right of Palestinians to return to their country, and the right of Palestinians to establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital[.]"  Of course, Israel has not done this and is not bound to do it under the Camp David Accords.  But never mind that.

The fact of the matter is that in the current situation there is no limit of pretexts for the Egyptians to claim that Israel has breached the treaty.   The Egyptians have allowed the Sinai (which Israel returned in its entirety under the Camp David Accords) to become a lawless no man's land, from which Islamist terrorists strike at Israel right under the noses of Egyptian border guards.  Several Egyptian border guards have been killed recently by Israeli counter-fire, and inevitably more will follow.  Any incident, no matter how minor, and no matter whether it was caused by Egyptian negligence or connivance, will be sufficient for Egypt, under Islamic law, to toss aside the treaty.

So as a matter of Islamic legal principle, as far as the Egyptian government is concerned, the peace treaty with Israel is already null and void, even if Morsi publicly assures us otherwise.  Morsi and his government will continue to uphold the treaty, so long as it is perceived to be beneficial to Egypt.  As soon as that ceases to be the case, there will be war.

Jonathan F. Keiler's new novel Upfall is available for sale at Amazon.com and other outlets.

Since the election of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, there has been considerable discussion about whether Egypt's government will honor the country's peace treaty with Israel.  In reality, the correct question is not whether Egypt will honor the treaty, but simply when and how Egypt will abrogate it.

Morsi was the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate.  With his election, that Islamist party now controls both Egypt's presidency and its legislature.  Morsi reassures foreign audiences that though he is a die-hard Islamist, he will not be an Islamist president.  Morsi claims that although he remains a "passionate" member of the Muslim Brotherhood, his policies are not beholden to his passion.  Likewise, he promises to "uphold" previous treaties, including presumably the Camp David Accords with Israel, though he campaigned on the promise of "jihad and death" and a constitution based upon sharia and the Quran.   

The key is what Morsi means when he promises to "uphold" the treaty.  For an Islamist, upholding a treaty with infidels means something entirely different from how the Western world interprets such an obligation.  An Islamist like Morsi looks to both the Quran and the hadiths (commentaries on the Quran) to determine what he should do regarding the treaty with Israel. 

Arguably, the Quran permits Muslims to treat with infidels (surah 9).  At the same time, though, it is easy to read that surah as permitting Muslims to abrogate any treaty at any time with "idolaters," but modern Muslim legal scholars assure that the Quran instructs Muslims to abide by such treaties so long as the other side holds up their own end of the bargain.  But the Quran, though believed by devout Muslims to be the unaltered word of Allah, is by its nature is a vague and contradictory document, subject to varied interpretation.  This is something that even the most dedicated Muslim scholars have realized for more than a millennium.  The Quran may be the unaltered word of God, but figuring out just what Allah meant can often be quite vexing.

To divine Allah's intention, Muslims turn to the hadiths.  The hadiths draw much of their authority from accounts of the Prophet Muhammad's life.  By observing how Muhammad interpreted Allah's word, a Muslim can better figure out just what the Quran is saying.  And with respect to treaties, the hadiths are quite clear, based on a famous incident from the traditional account of Muhammad's life, the Treaty of Hudaybiyya with the Quraysh tribe.   

The Quraysh were the pagan clan that dominated Mecca as Muhammad rose in prominence.  They opposed Muhammad and eventually caused the prophet to flee to Medina in 622.  Muhammad spent a few years consolidating his position in Medina, gaining in strength.  Then, in 628, Muhammad signed a treaty with the Qurash, ostensibly to permit Muslim pilgrims to return to Mecca for the hajj, thus establishing the principle that Muslims may treat with non-Muslims. 

Eventually, Muhammad felt he had gained sufficient strength that he no longer needed the treaty, so he sought a pretext to violate it.  He found one in 630, when feuding members of the Bani clan (a tribe that divided its loyalties between Muhammad and the Quraysh) killed some pro-Muhammad guys in what was essentially a 7th-century gangland fight.  The Bani feud had nothing to do with the treaty between Muhammad and the Quraysh, but it provided the excuse Muhammad required, at least as far as Muhammad interpreted his own legal and religious duties.  Muhammad tore up the treaty, went to war, and made himself master of Mecca.  This is somewhat akin to the United States abrogating a nuclear treaty with the Russians because a couple of North Korean gangsters were killed in a bar fight with South Korean gangsters.

The lesson Muslim scholars and jurists draw from this story is quite simple.  Muslims may treat with infidels and sign agreements.  But they are bound to these agreements only so long as the agreement suits the Muslim side.  Once a Muslim nation that is party to the agreement no longer wishes to be bound, it needs only find a pretext, however minor, to abrogate the treaty.  Thus, Muslim legal scholars can quite adamantly maintain that Islamic nations are bound to honor agreements with non-Muslims, so long as the non-Muslims also honor the agreement.  But in fact, there is no intrinsic obligation to honor treaties with infidels, other than the practical considerations as to Islamic benefit.  Upon any perceived "breach" of the agreement by the other side, no matter how minor, and no matter whether the breach is -- in the Western conception of contract law -- material to the agreement, the Muslim side ceases to be bound.

As Daniel Pipes pointed out in a complete analysis over a decade ago, Yasser Arafat invoked this rule in 1994 when speaking to a Muslim audience in South Africa.  There Arafat announced that although he had signed agreements with Israel, publicly shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, his obligations under the agreement were limited by the Hudaybiyya rule, which meant that at any time, as a practical matter, he could throw the agreement away.  And Arafat was not even an Islamist.

Morsi, of course, is an Islamist, and so he certainly not only knows how Mohammad dealt with the Quraysh, but must feel religiously compelled to follow the prophet's example.  His own words so far make this clear.  For while Morsi is prepared to state that he will uphold the agreements with Israel, he is also careful to note that Israel has already violated the agreements. 

Morsi claims that Israel is already in violation of the treaty because it has not resolved its problems with the Palestinians.  In Morsi's view, this requires Israel to grant "the right of Palestinians to return to their country, and the right of Palestinians to establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital[.]"  Of course, Israel has not done this and is not bound to do it under the Camp David Accords.  But never mind that.

The fact of the matter is that in the current situation there is no limit of pretexts for the Egyptians to claim that Israel has breached the treaty.   The Egyptians have allowed the Sinai (which Israel returned in its entirety under the Camp David Accords) to become a lawless no man's land, from which Islamist terrorists strike at Israel right under the noses of Egyptian border guards.  Several Egyptian border guards have been killed recently by Israeli counter-fire, and inevitably more will follow.  Any incident, no matter how minor, and no matter whether it was caused by Egyptian negligence or connivance, will be sufficient for Egypt, under Islamic law, to toss aside the treaty.

So as a matter of Islamic legal principle, as far as the Egyptian government is concerned, the peace treaty with Israel is already null and void, even if Morsi publicly assures us otherwise.  Morsi and his government will continue to uphold the treaty, so long as it is perceived to be beneficial to Egypt.  As soon as that ceases to be the case, there will be war.

Jonathan F. Keiler's new novel Upfall is available for sale at Amazon.com and other outlets.