Egypt should realize Israel is not the enemy
Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, should learn a valuable lesson from last weekend’s terrorist attack in Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian border policemen. Israel is not his country’s enemy, and it could and should be one of its most valuable allies.
Suspected radical Islamist gunmen on Sunday attacked an Egyptian border checkpoint, killing the troops and stealing two vehicles. One managed to burst through a security fence and penetrate about a kilometer inside Israel before Israeli aircraft scrambled and knocked out the truck and killed several of the attackers.
As his first major national security issue, the attack was a rude awakening for Mursi, who comes out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political tradition of deep hostility to Israel. The Brotherhood was quick to issue a knee-jerk statement on its Ikhwan Online website blaming the Israeli spy agency Mossad for the weekend attack and calling it an attempt to undermine the Mursi presidency.
According to the BBC: “Conspiracy theories are popular across the Arab world and suspicions of Israel often feed into them. Two years ago, the governor of South Sinai even blamed the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, for a series of shark attacks at Red Sea resorts.”
But it goes beyond that. Analyst Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote: “Anti-Semitism, the socialism of fools, is becoming the opiate of the Egyptian masses. And not just the masses … Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
Much of the focus on ties between the two neighbors revolves around the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which has been a pillar of regional stability, but which many in the Muslim Brotherhood would like to either amend or scrap altogether.
Mursi himself recently said he did not want there to be an impression of cooperation with Israel; nor did he want to strengthen security ties, due to his fear that Egyptian public opinion would be against both those moves.
But the reality is that Israel presents no strategic threat to Egypt. The real threat to both nations comes from al Qaeda and other jihadists who have established a dangerous foothold in the vast desert reaches of the Sinai Peninsula.
As the State Department’s annual report on terrorism worldwide released last week made clear, the situation in the vast and sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula has approached a crisis point.
“The smuggling of humans, weapons, cash, and other contraband through the Sinai into Israel and Gaza created criminal networks with possible ties to terrorist groups in the region. The smuggling of weapons from Libya through Egypt has increased since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime,” the report said.
The ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 created a power vacuum in Sinai that was quickly filled by jihadists. According to Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, they joined local Bedouin, many of whom felt alienated from the central government and hoped to improve economic conditions in their underdeveloped region through activities such as cross-border smuggling.
These Bedouin, especially those in the northeast and the mountainous central areas, are well armed and increasingly influenced by extreme Islamist ideology. They cooperate closely with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups from Gaza, which have established a foothold in Sinai by recruiting local tribesmen for various operations.
“Egyptian authorities have evidently lost effective control over large parts of Sinai, and the peninsula has become a no man’s land. In the past eighteen months, militant Egyptian and Palestinian groups have attacked dozens of police stations, checkpoints, and government institutions there, killing several policemen, while the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline in northern Sinai has been sabotaged 14 times,” Herzog wrote in June.
The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya created a bonanza for weapons smugglers. Among the most dangerous weapons taken from unsecured dumps in Libya are advanced SA-24 shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, there are reportedly al Qaeda forces in Sinai from Yemen, Iraq, Syria and other Arab and Muslim countries. These groups are supported by the local Bedouin. Meanwhile, various other terrorist groups are assisting al Qaeda and smuggling arms and goods into the Strip.
Israel is trying to cope with the new situation through various means, including constructing a new security fence. Unlike the Egyptians, who seem to have been taken totally by surprise, Israel’s forces reacted swiftly and forcefully to Sunday’s attacks, neutralizing the threat with no losses. Moreover, it emerged that the Israeli military had warned Egyptian counterparts that an attack might be coming – and had been ignored.
This is one of those occasions when rhetoric meets reality. Egypt should face the reality that Israel is a useful ally, and leave the old rhetoric behind.
IMAGE: Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi participates in a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the presidential palace in Cairo, July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool