Friday, 25 July 2014

Egypt and Israel - allies at last?

Ever since the treaty signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, way back in March 1979, Egyptian-Israeli relations have been somewhat equivocal.  The widely-used term “cold peace” seemed most apt to describe them.  Over the years neither the Egyptian public, nor its various leaders, have exhibited a great deal of enthusiasm for a genuine friendship with Israel.  Yet, through thick and thin, the peace treaty has held.

Its main features, drawn up following Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, were cessation of the state of war that had existed since 1948, Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula  captured during the 1967 Six-Day War, mutual recognition, and normalization of relations.

So ambassadors were exchanged, Egypt repealed its boycott laws, trade began to develop, regular airline flights were inaugurated. Egypt also began supplying Israel with crude oil, and as part of the agreement, the US began a program of economic and military aid which over the years has subsidized Egypt’s armed forces by literally billions of dollars.

But there is no gain without pain, and Egypt certainly paid a price for the benefits it won through the treaty.  The Arab world condemned it root and branch, and Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for ten years.  And, of course, Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic jihad.

The revolution in Egypt in 2011, which resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president in Mohamed Morsi, led some influential voices within Egypt to call for the treaty with Israel to be abrogated.  Although the call was not heeded, and the new government soon announced that it would continue to abide by all its international and regional treaties, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship had been decidedly shaken.  

As far as Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza, was concerned, the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during 2012-2013 was a golden age.  Missiles and massive quantities of ammunition moved through the tunnels dug between Egypt and Gaza, along with the materials needed to manufacture armaments.

Egypt’s second revolution a year later, which replaced Morsi with President Fattah el-Sisi, has given the kaleidoscope a good shake.  Sisi, clearly a believer in smiting his enemies hip and thigh, has declared total war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension its offshoot Hamas in Gaza.  Within Egypt Sisi has been ruthless in rooting out Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters; as far as Gaza in concerned, he shut down the crossing at Rafah through which armaments once flowed from Egypt, and has destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border which were the hidden conduit for shipments of armaments and other supplies that Hamas could not obtain from Israel. He has, moreover, designated Hamas a terrorist organization.

As respected Arab journalist Khaled Abu Taomeh recently reported, Sisi's Egypt has not forgiven Hamas for its involvement in terrorist attacks against Egyptian civilians and soldiers over the past year, while many Egyptians today understand that Hamas and other radical Islamist groups pose a serious threat to their national security. As a result a growing number of Egyptian public and media figures have actually been voicing support for the Israeli military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"Thank you Netanyahu,” wrote Azza Sami of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas!"

Addressing the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Egyptian actor Amr Mustafa told them not to expect any help from the Egyptians. "You must get rid of Hamas,” he said, “and we will help you."

Egyptian ex-general Hamdi Bakhit was quoted as expressing the hope that Israel would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.

On a recent TV program Egyptian presenter Amany al-Khayat launched a scathing attack on Hamas.  "Hamas is prepared to make all the residents of the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price in order to rid itself of its crisis,” she said. “We must not forget that Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist movement."

In 2013, a significant chunk of the Egyptian media, in total support of government policy, called for the Muslim Brotherhood’s “liquidation”. These Egyptian journalists link Hamas to ongoing violence in the Sinai Peninsula where in the last 12 months, armed Islamist groups have attacked Egyptian security forces on an almost daily basis. They see the neutralisation of Hamas as crucial to winning Egypt’s undeclared war in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's leading cable channel, CBC, described what was happening in Gaza as "Israeli air force targeting terrorist sites." Meanwhile, Hayat al-Dardiri, a controversial presenter of the Faraeen Cable Channel said on-air that the "Egyptian people will not accept anything less than a strike by Egypt's military to destroy Hamas" ­ a remark which comes remarkably close to declaring the need for a military alliance with Israel.

On July 15 Israel accepted a deal proposed by Egypt that would halt the conflict in the Gaza Strip, but Hamas rejected the plan as "unacceptable".  Its spokesman said the Islamist group had not received an official draft of the proposal, and added that in any case the conditions Hamas has set must be met before it lays down its weapons.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is intent on achieving a cease-fire by further negotiation, but has so far come up hard against President Sisi’s determination to give no further ground to Hamas. The only flexibility Egypt has been willing to display was its statement that any change in the proposal’s wording would require the agreement of “all sides.”

As commentator Zvi Bar’el has noted, this formulation reveals the close cooperation between Israel and Egypt. Not everything Israel wants will necessarily be acceptable to Egypt, but it seems that Sisi isn’t too upset over the prospect of Israel continuing its military operation in Gaza. Meanwhile Sisi is testing his strength against other would-be mediators, especially Turkey with whose prime minister (and would-be president) Recep Tayyip  Erdogan, a vicious critic of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, he is at daggers drawn.

In fact three rival groups are in a tug-of-war over a ceasefire initiative.  First are the US and UN; second are Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and thirdly Qatar, Turkey and Hamas. On July 21, US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to press their case. Sisi told them he would not amend his original ceasefire proposal to suit Hamas’ demands. Israel has reserved its response, needing time for the IDF to accomplish its counter-terror mission in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt and Israel have never seemed closer in purpose.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 28 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 July 2014:

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