The absence of war between Israel and Egypt for the last thirty years is unrelated to the peace treaty. Egyptian society has changed, and the change began before the 1973 war. Nasser prepared for his wars openly and disregarded casualties; Sadat prepared clandestinely and was so concerned with Egyptian losses that he refused to bomb the Israeli troops who drove on to Cairo and surrounded the Egyptian forces. Unlike Nasser, Sadat doubted that Egyptians would support a total war against Israel.

Nasser ruled over a poor country seething with residual discontent from colonial and monarchic times. His people saw few economic prospects and readily channeled their energies into hatred. Nasser rallied them by trumpeting the dangerous and obnoxious Zionist enemy around the corner. The fear produced some bravery and made the masses stick together. Even so, the Egyptian army was unwarlike: the peasants, used to the lush scenery around the Nile, felt little attachment to the Sinai desert.

Consumerism changed the Egyptians. Today, city dwellers—those who really influence politics—dislike the Jews rather passively. Everyone thinks of paying off loans, buying something, and preserving their lifestyle. Egyptians don’t go to demonstrations for fear of losing a week’s income while in jail (the same goes for Israelis). While the Egyptian economy develops and banks push loans, they don’t care to attack Israel. If there were to be a tremendous downturn, the Egyptians, unable to pay off their loans, would revolt. Riots erupted in 1977 when Sadat increased the regulated price of sugar a half piastre, but now the government raises prices often and Egyptians are silent. Where people have a chance of economic development, they usually forgo militancy.

On other hand, a booming economy produces private sponsors. They not only prop up the few radicals financially, but legitimize them politically. The Muslim Brotherhood thus evolved from a fringe group of religious crackpots into a moderate, highly respected Islamic organization. The Muslim Brotherhood became the major opposition force in Egypt, and drew a lot of middle class citizens and youth. To them, the Muslim Brotherhood offered Egyptians an acceptable Islam-lite: hijab and occasional mosque attendance, but not jihad or war for a caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood positions itself as a peaceful organization but it inculcates its members with Islamism, which drives them to Islamic Jihad in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Just as the Taliban could not refuse hospitality to bin Laden, so the Muslim Brotherhood cannot abandon the militant groups. The Brotherhood’s only concession to moderation is that it formally divests from the militant groups while maintaining ties with them; Hamas is one example. If a sharp-tongued demagogue arises from the Muslim Brotherhood, some Egyptians will abandon the group. Many, probably most, will radicalize in response to his calls. Still, they will not launch a total war against Israel, but rather will support the Palestinians, as the Iranian ayatollahs do. Weapons of mass destruction will make the difference; upon coming to power, the Muslim Brotherhood could take the risk in return for the realistic chance to wipe the Zionist state off the map.

The Egyptian government tightly controls the Muslim Brotherhood, and recently jailed more than a hundred leaders and confiscated their bank accounts. But the Brotherhood is too useful for the government to destroy. Sadat allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to return from the exile into which Nasser had forced tham, in order to counter the communists. The Brotherhood sucks votes from the opposition political parties and doubles as a scarecrow to discourage the US from pressing too hard for democratic elections in Egypt. Mubarak cracks on the Muslim Brotherhood now and then to remind them who is the boss. Mubarak, it seems, collaborated with bin Laden to woo Islamic Jihad away from attacking Egypt, encouraging the “US-first” approach. Playing with the devil is not easy; Hosni has the required skills, but he is old. His son Gamal Mubarak will be a strong ruler, but the slightest error can plunge Egypt into militant Islamism. Many Sunni Egyptians admire Nasrallah, a Shiite. The society’s curiosity about and approval of violent Islamism could at any moment give way to overt support. Egypt retains its militaristic backbone: it continuously upgrades its army with the newest American weapons, flirts with Russia, and runs a protective racket for Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Egypt is not an urgent problem for Israel. It’s just a very big problem.

temporary moderate