What does the Egyptian chief of staff think?
Last week, Egypt's President Morsi promoted then-Brig. Gen. Sedky Sobhy to lieutenant general and made him army chief of staff, and deputy chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
As in every class, the class of 2004-2005 of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, had an Egyptian officer and an Israeli officer among its dozens of students representing foreign armies. The Israeli, Col. Yoel Strik, returned to Israel to command the Givati Brigade and other divisions, including those on the Egyptian border. Now a brigadier general, he is currently chief of operations on the General Staff. The Egyptian, then-Brig. Gen. Sedky Sobhy, was appointed commander of the Third Army. Last week, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi promoted Sobhy to lieutenant general and made him chief of staff of the Egyptian army and deputy chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Like President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who quickly freed himself of the ostensibly more senior leader Mohammed Naguib; like President Anwar Sadat, who established his leadership by a pre-emptive strike against the group around Ali Sabri (promoting, among others, Hosni Mubarak ), Morsi acted against individuals but not against the entire military leadership. The new top brass, which has declared its opposition to corruption and its desire for the democracy of elections with the blessing of religious mentors, will go with him at least for a good part of the way.
Sobhy, who opposes Al-Qaida and prefers the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority over Hamas, claims that Islam and democracy do not necessarily contradict each other, but not the Western, secular model of democracy. Considering his negative opinion of Algeria in the 1990s, where the military staged a coup against the rule of the Islamic Salvation Front (which, according to Sobhy, "killed approximately 150,000 people and caused at least $2 billion in damaged infrastructure" ), he will not be leading the Egyptian army against the president from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sobhy's sudden promotion had many people running to reread the thesis he wrote at the end of his studies at Carlisle Barracks, in order to understand the worldview of the officer who might be playing a key role in the new Egyptian government. He is opinionated, an open supporter of a combination of a strong central government and democratic processes in their Arab (not Western ) form. He opposes the dissolution of states into ethnic districts (then Iraq, now, obviously, Syria ). He demands that Washington cease its total support of Israel and use the military aid it gives Israel to leverage the establishment of a Palestinian state. He warns against a military operation against Iran's nuclear program and demands equal treatment of "Israel's possession of a nuclear arsenal."
Sobhy's paper, which included quite bold hints that were missed at the time by the regime's overseers, was written back in the days of Mubarak. That was seven long years ago, in another world. Although the paper is not up-to-date in terms of the vicissitudes of time, it presages the new and fascinating stratum now developing in Cairo of national-religious leaders who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Sobhy yearns more for economic than military involvement by America - for a new "Marshall Plan," and even for ideas of regional cooperation such as the plan proposed by the U.S. mediator Eric Johnston in 1953 for sharing the Jordan River's water.
At 56 years old, Sobhy is a child of the Six-Day War (which he describes as an Israeli military victory that, combined with the political power of the Israeli lobby in Washington, tilted U.S. policy in Israel's favor ) and a young man of the Yom Kippur War. The Americans made a terrible mistake, in his opinion, by supplying the Phantom fighter jets that attacked deep inside Egypt during the War of Attrition and in supporting Israel in the first Lebanon war in 1982 and Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Sobhy's attitude toward Sadat's peace initiative and to the "normalization of political and economic relations" between Egypt and Israel is practical, but he is skimping in his gratitude for American aid to Egypt. To Sobhy, this is Egypt's proper reward for allowing the United States to bring troops through the Suez Canal and for ensuring commerce and the passage of oil through the canal.
Israel should not fear Sobhy's platform, which does not convey longings for the years of hostility between the two countries. Even if tensions between Israel and Egypt grow, Brig. Gen. Strik is unlikely to meet his old classmate on the battlefield. But Israel's government and the Israel Defense Forces General Staff should realize that this is a different Egypt, which will pressure Israel to take its positions into account in two major bones of contention - the Palestinian issue and the nuclear programs, Israel's and Iran's.