Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) Israel’s Egypt Problem

Israel’s Egypt Problem

Caroline Glick Winter 2011

The regional repercussions of the Arab uprisings continue to unfold throughout the Middle East and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In Egypt, the most populous and powerful nation, those repercussions are rife with dangers for the U.S. and Israel.

Following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February, Egyptians went to the polls beginning November 28 to vote for the 498 seats of the lower house of parliament up for grabs. The country’s Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Al-Nour Party—won 72 percent of the seats. Shortly thereafter, the Islamist-led alliance nominated FJP Secretary-General Mohamed al-Katatni as speaker of the parliament.

The results constitute a glum harbinger for the likely results of Egypt’s presidential elections in the summer. Quite simply, the signs lead to the ineluctable conclusion that Egypt is on the fast track to becoming a totalitarian Islamic state.

From their comfortable perch across the ocean, Washington policymakers may believe that the fallout from Egypt won’t impact them. But with its long, already destabilized shared border with Egypt, Israel can afford no such delusions.

Security in the Sinai

Although no friend of Israel’s, Mubarak shared certain core interests with Jerusalem. He viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as the primary threat to his power. As a consequence, for Mubarak, maintaining a quiet border with Israel, combating the Muslim Brotherhood, and keeping Hamas at arm’s length made sense. To effect these goals, Mubarak protected the Egyptian regime’s control over the Sinai Peninsula by, among other things, sealing the official land border crossing from Egypt to Gaza at Rafah and defending Egyptian police stations, security installations, and vital infrastructure from attack. Importantly, forces from his Interior Ministry kept a firm grip on the Bedouin tribes who, since the mid-1990s, have been undergoing a process of Islamification as the loyalties of tribes have been transferred to jihadist forces.

Mubarak’s successors, however, do not perceive their interests in the same way. Muslim Brotherhood power is now a fact on the ground and the military junta understands it needs to bow to the prevailing populist winds. Consequently, since they overthrew Mubarak last February, the generals ruling Egypt have shown through word and deed that their interest in cultivating ties with Israel’s enemies far outweighs their interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship with Israel. In a sharp departure from Mubarak’s policies, in May, Egypt’s ruling military junta opened Egypt’s border with Gaza, giving local and regional jihadists the ability to freely cross between the two. Hamas and its fellow terrorists have used this freedom not only to steeply expand the missile and personnel transfers to the Gaza Strip, they have also escalated their challenge to the Egyptian regime’s control over the Sinai.

Hamas started taking advantage of the chaos in Egypt shortly after the protests against Mubarak began. In mid-January 2011, Hamas sent forces over the border into the Egyptian towns of Rafah and El-Arish to attack police stations with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Hamas fighters reportedly went as far north as Suez, where they joined other terror forces in bombing and raiding the police station in the town that abuts the Suez Canal. In consort with local elements, Hamas carried out the first of ten bombings so far of Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan.

In addition to the recurrent bombings, terrorist forces have attacked police stations and the Nueiba port on the Sinai’s eastern shore. Jihadist cells have distributed leaflets calling for the imposition of Islamic law in the Sinai and threatening more attacks on police. The flyers were signed “Al-Qaeda in Sinai.”

It is estimated that 400-500 al-Qaeda operatives infiltrated the peninsula under the cloud of anarchy that descended on the region after Mubarak’s fall. Inactive militant groups under Mubarak’s reign, such as Takfir wal-Hijra, are also now popping up.

More recently, there are reports that Hamas has established bases and rocket production facilities in the Sinai, where they are protected against attack from Israel. Egyptian forces have seized homemade bombs belonging to Hamas, and Israeli intelligence believes stockpiles of Libyan Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS) have found a new home there. The fear of MANPADS has forced passenger flights traveling from Tel Aviv to Eilat to change their flight paths so that less time is spent flying along the border with Egypt.

Last August, Bedouin terrorists carried out one of the largest attacks against Israel from the Sinai in years. That attack, which killed eight Israelis and wounded nearly 30, must be seen as a natural progression of the deterioration of the security situation in the region. In January 2012, militants attacked a hotel in Taba, a resort area in the Sinai adjacent to the Israeli border frequented by Israeli tourists. It was the first attack on Taba since 2004.

It is important to note that the transformation of the Sinai into a veritable hotbed of global and local jihad occurred under the watchful eye of the Egyptian military. In the vain hope of fostering cooperation with the ruling junta, Israel agreed to ignore the provisions of the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt, which prohibits the deployment of Egyptian military forces in the Sinai. Since Mubarak was overthrown at least three battalions of Egyptian forces have been permitted to deploy in the area.

In light of these deployments, it is clear that the military cannot be trusted to prevent the transformation of the Sinai into an extension of jihadist-controlled Gaza. And the situation can only be expected to worsen once a civilian government led by the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.

The End of Peace?

U.S. officials have repeatedly threatened that they will cut off American aid to Egypt if the latter abrogates its peace treaty with Israel. But the fact of the matter is that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood the peace will survive, regardless of whether or not it is formally abrogated. Unfortunately, rather than straightforwardly acknowledge this glum reality, U.S. officials have gone to absurd lengths to ignore it and wish it away.

Western governments and media outlets insistently argue that the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties—anti-Western and anti-Jewish movements—have become moderate and pragmatic over time. Leading the charge to make the case has been the Obama administration. Its senior officials have eagerly embraced the Muslim Brotherhood. The spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf Qaradawi, is reportedly mediating negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Qaradawi, an Egyptian who has been based in Qatar since 1961 when he was forced to flee Egypt due to his jihadist politics, made a triumphant return to his native land last February following Mubarak’s overthrow. Speaking to a crowd of an estimated two million people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Qaradawi led them in a chant calling for their invasion of Jerusalem. Over the years, Qaradawi has issued numerous religious rulings permitting, indeed requiring, the massacre of Jews.

In 2009, he called for the Muslim world to complete Hitler’s goal of eradicating the Jewish people. As for the U.S., in 2003, Qaradawi issued a religious ruling calling for the killing of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are happy to cater to the propaganda needs of Western journalists and politicians and pretend that they are willing to continue to uphold the peace treaty with Israel. But even as they make conditional statements to eager Americans and Europeans, they consistently tell their own people that they seek the destruction of Israel and the abrogation of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel.

Last summer Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Mohammed Badie gave an interview to Egyptian television. He was asked how a Brotherhood-led Egypt would react if Israel takes military action against Hamas. He responded, “The situation will change in such a case, and the Egyptian people will have their voice heard. Any government in power will have to respect the choice of the people, whatever that is, like in any democracy.” In other words, the peace between Israel and Egypt will die of populist causes.

As the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ Jonathan D. Halevi recently documented in a report on Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist positions on the future of the peace between Egypt and Israel, while speaking to Westerners in general terms about their willingness to respect the treaty, both groups place numerous conditions on their willingness to maintain it. These conditions make clear that there is no way that they will continue to respect the peace treaty. Indeed, they will use any excuse to justify its abrogation and blame it on Israel. And they will do so at the earliest available opportunity.

Israel’s Loss, Iran’s Gain

While Israel loses, Iran will benefit from Egypt’s revolution. In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Iran has been deeply involved in the anti-regime protests and movements from Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain and beyond. “Either directly or through proxies, they are constantly trying to influence events. They have a very active diplomatic foreign policy outreach,” she said.

Since Mubarak’s fall, Iran has worked intensively to expand its proxy forces’ capacity to operate freely in the Sinai Peninsula and on Israel’s border. Last March, the Israeli Navy intercepted a ship bound for Egypt, and ultimately Gaza, carrying 50 tons of weapons including mortar shells, anti-ship missiles, and ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles. This was the first time anti-ship missiles were found en route to Hamas. Packed with the weaponry were instruction manuals in Farsi with the emblems of Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the cover. Many analysts in Israel attributed the smuggling attempt to the uprising and subsequent anarchy in Egypt, notably in the Sinai.

Even more alarming, according to reports, the IRGC’s elite Qods Force seized “significant quantities” of advanced weaponry from Libya during the chaos that brought down Moammar Qaddafi. The stolen weapons include Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, such as the SA-24, which can shoot down an aircraft flying at 11,000 feet. It is believed that the weapons were smuggled to Sudan, where the Guard Corps is welcome, and then to Egypt and possibly Gaza.

In addition, Iran is working within Egypt. Iran has held a long-running policy of developing close ties to opposition figures in countries across the Middle East. These long-developed ties are reaping great rewards for Tehran today. Not only do these connections give the Iranians the ability to influence the policies of post-revolutionary allied regimes, they give the mullahs and their allies the ability to intimidate the likes of the Egyptian military and force them to appease Iran’s allies.

So long as the Iranian regime remains in power, it will be that much harder for the Egyptians to build an open democracy. The same is true of virtually every country in the region. Iran is the primary regional engine of war, terror, nuclear proliferation, and instability. As long as the regime survives, it will be difficult for liberal forces in the region to gain strength and influence.

An Eastern-Leaning Egypt?

Israel is not the only actor harmed by the rise of Islamist Egypt. Indeed, it can be argued that the U.S. is the primary victim of Egypt’s transformation. True, Mubarak cooperated with Israel where he saw that it served his purpose, but it is impossible to say that he was Israel’s ally. Under his regime, Egypt was the leading force in the political war against Israel in the international arena. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s state-run media published and broadcast a steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda indoctrinating Egyptians to seek the annihilation of the Jews.

On the other hand, Mubarak’s Egypt was the anchor of the U.S. alliance system in the Arab World. With his overthrow, that anchor is gone and the U.S. finds itself adrift, with no clear point of contact for coordinating its interests in this strategically vital region. Given Egypt’s singular importance to U.S. strategic interests, the Obama administration’s response to the jihadist victory in Egypt’s elections is nothing less than shocking. Rather than sound the alarm bells, U.S. President Barack Obama celebrated the results as a victory for “democracy.”

Unfortunately, just as night follows day, so it is inevitable that the consequences of Egypt’s transformation from the U.S.’s most important Arab ally into an Islamist state inherently hostile to America will soon become evident, even to the Obama administration. One can only hope that the U.S will contend more effectively with the consequences of this transformation than it has with its populist cause.

Caroline Glick is the senior contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post and senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy.