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Oh, Morsi! The dismal saga of the letter Egypt’s president swears he never sent, and certainly wishes he hadn’t

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: Amr Nabil/AP)
Mohammed Morsi (photo credit: Amr Nabil/AP)

Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi this week sent a letter to “Shimon Perez,” thanking Peres for his Ramadan good wishes, and saying positive things about the need for regional security and stability, including for the Israeli people.

Or did he?

Hours after news of the letter spread on Tuesday, Morsi’s office denied that he’d been corresponding with his Israeli counterpart.

So the letter was a hoax?

No, it’s genuine all right, insist Israelis not a million miles from the president’s office in Jerusalem. And its text still sits on the Foreign Ministry’s website at time of writing, “Communicated by the President’s Office.”

Confused? You should be. Oh, Morsi!

Let’s start at the beginning.

On Tuesday afternoon, the office of the Israeli president in Jerusalem sent reporters scans of a two-page fax — a cover note (of which more later) and the Morsi letter itself — together with a press release stating that Morsi had kindly responded to a letter in which Peres expressed his good wishes for the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's letter to President Shimon Peres. (Courtesy)
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s letter to President Shimon Peres. (Courtesy)

The Morsi letter was an amateurish missive, to say the least. It looked rather like it had been banged out on a manual typewriter, and one with a few delinquent keys — some of the “l”s, “i”s and “t”s aren’t too clear, for a start.

Written on a blank sheet of paper with no official letterhead, no date and no signature, it has Morsi expressing his wish to “get the Middle east [sic] Peace Process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including that Israeli people.” That Israeli people?

So when, a few hours after news of the missive was released in Jerusalem, Morsi’s office denied ever sending it, the notion that it might be a hoax seemed potentially credible. He may only have been in office a month, but surely Morsi would have managed a more, well, presidential letter.

“President Morsi did not send any correspondence to the Israeli president, and the reports to that effect in Israeli newspapers today are fabricated,” spokesman Yasser Ali said. “These fabrications do not stop.” As firm a denial as you could imagine.

Except that it’s the denial, not the letter, that’s untrue, the Israelis insist. Officials in Peres’s office won’t go on the record; evidently there’s a limit to how badly they want to embarrass the unhappy writer. But privately, the firm word is that “it’s 100 percent guaranteed” that the letter was genuine; evidently there’s a limit to how badly they want to embarrass the happy recipient.

The faxed Morsi letter and cover letter both bear the Egyptian Embassy’s ID, and a Tel Aviv phone number that is indeed a fax line. And the cover letter itself rather underlines the Israelis’ contention that all is genuine. This piece of paper, though also produced in old-fashioned typewriter font and featuring various errors, does have the official letterhead of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and an official Egyptian seal.

The cover letter the Egyptian embassy sent to President Peres (credit: courtesy)
The cover letter the Egyptian embassy sent to President Peres (credit: courtesy)

At the Egyptian Embassy, situated on Tel Aviv’s Basel Street, nobody wanted to talk about the letter on Wednesday. The embassy’s counsel for media affairs, who is also its only spokesperson, is currently abroad and won’t return until next week, a staffer told The Times of Israel. Nobody else could comment on the letter, he said. How inconvenient.

Plainly, something went awry here. Perhaps the Israelis weren’t supposed to publish the letter, although the word in Jerusalem is that Peres’s office asked the Egyptian ambassador if it could publicize the letter or if it should be kept secret. The Egyptian envoy phoned Morsi’s office to inquire, and then told Peres’s aides that Morsi’s staff had given the green light to make the letter public.

More likely, Morsi — a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, remember — underestimated the passions his short note would unleash, and feared a full-scale crisis if the Egyptian public got wind of his correspondence with the Israelis. If so, he might have known better. Last month’s Egyptian TV prank gone wrong, which included an Egyptian celebrity slapping a female TV anchor so hard that she fell over because he believed her to be Israeli, provided a dismaying insight into instinctive Egyptian sentiment where the Jewish state is concerned.

Still, Yitzhak Levanon, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, argues that Israel, and Israel alone, is to blame. Publishing the letter showed “a lack of Israeli sensitivity,” he charged. According to Levanon, Morsi must have been inundated by phone calls inquiring whether he really wrote such a nice letter to the Zionists. “Trying to escape from all these calls, he resorted to denial,” Levanon said.

‘Morsi is embarrassed and we get nothing, no benefit, from this ping-pong between us and the Egyptians’

Since the Tahrir Square revolution, Israel has been trying to keep neighborly relations as normal as possible, added Levanon, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Cairo from 2009 until 2011. “In my opinion we succeeded: A year and a half [after the fall of Hosni Mubarak], relations are still stable; we don’t see any dramatic or radical change,” he said. Morsi’s letter was an “encouraging sign” that the new president is acting in accordance with diplomatic protocol, which requires a head of state to respond to communications from another head of state. “He could have easily ignored Peres’s letters, but he didn’t,” Levanon said.

By publishing the letter, Israel has made it harder for Morsi to maintain the hitherto cold, but at least not belligerent relations, the former ambassador added. “With the publication of the letter, everybody in Egypt now forgets about their internal and domestic issues, and concentrates on this debate — did he or did he not send this letter to the Israelis? Morsi is embarrassed and we get nothing, no benefit, from this ping-pong,” Levanon said.

Given that the bilateral relations are so potentially volatile, and knowing the pressures Morsi’s Islamist colleagues were likely to exert on him, the President’s Residence in Jerusalem would have been well-advised to keep the letter secret, added the ambassador. “Now that we’ve embarrassed him, he’ll think twice before answering any future letter,” Levanon said.

Okay, Mr. Ambassador. But why, then, would the Egyptian ambassador have purportedly given Peres the green light to publish it? Maybe, one insider speculated, it would have been undiplomatic for the Tel Aviv envoy to say no.

Whatever the appropriateness of Jerusalem’s handling of the letter –which may well have been written, in part, because of US pressure on the new president to engage in at least some level of communication with the Israelis — Cairo’s resort to a denial raises new questions about Morsi’s credibility.

This, after all, is not the first time in his short presidency that Morsi has been quoted sounding friendly to a Middle Eastern power only to claim that he’s been misrepresented. In June, the Iranian Fars news agency reported that Morsi had promised to visit and strengthen relations with Tehran, and to “reconsider” the peace treaty with Israel. Fars claimed Morsi made these comments in an interview with one of its reporters in Cairo. But a spokesman for the then incoming Egyptian president insisted that Morsi had not given any interviews to the Iranians and that “everything that this agency has published is without foundation.”

Sound familiar?

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