Analysis |

Israel Should Understand Who Is Commanding Egypt's Forces in Sinai

After President Morsi's defense chiefs shakeup, it's crucial that we understand the ideology and the goals of those who are commanding these troops, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff
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Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff

The fears in Israel of a deterioration in relations with Egypt, following President Mohammed Morsi's removal from office of the head of the Supreme Military Council, Hussein Tantawi, and armed forces chief Sami Anan, are both premature and exaggerated. Security coordination between the two countries will continue; there is nothing to indicate that it's about to come to an end. In fact, Israel-Egypt security coordination is good and in some cases, even very good. Not surprisingly perhaps, it becomes increasingly effective at the lower levels of division and brigade commanders, and so forth. While this is also largely true at the higher levels, there there are some causes for concern.

To begin with, President Morsi is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that perceives Egypt's relations with Israel as an unavoidable necessity, not a particularly happy circumstance. Eighty-four years after its founding, and 64 years after Israel's establishment, the Muslim Brotherhood still refuses to use the word "Israel." Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Gadallah, referred not to Israel, but to "the entity," when he said this week that the president will reexamine the Camp David accords. The new defense minister, General Abdellatif Sisi, and the new chief of staff, General Sidki Sobhi, owe their appointments to Morsi and so can be expected to assume a different attitude vis-a-vis Israel, in comparision with the relatively positive approach that characterized their predecessors (who were trying to placate their boss, Hosni Mubarak ).

The status of the two new appointees in relation to the president also differs from that held by Tantawi. It's a good bet that a working meeting between Morsi and the former head of the military council was quite different from a meeting between Morsi and the current two top generals. In short, Sisi possesses neither the status nor the ability to say no to Morsi.

On top of all this, there is the general atmosphere of enmity toward Israel that prevails among the Egyptian public. The new generals, in contrast to their predecessors, understand that in the era of the Arab Spring, the public is a full partner to decision-making in the country, and they feel the public's hate of Israel.

Actually, both Sisi and Sobhi have been in contact with the Israeli side more than once, and are well acquainted with their counterparts in Tel Aviv. This is especially true of Sisi, who was until recently the commander of Military Intelligence. Both of them acquired an advanced military education in the West (in Britain and the United States ). However, they are not part of the group of generals that viewed the Israelis as full partners. At no stage, not even during the Mubarak period, did Sisi and Sobhi forge ties of friendship with the Israeli side.

Seven years ago, Sobhi, who until this week was the commander of Egypt's Third Army, attended the U.S. Army War College (as did Sisi ). In his master's thesis in strategic studies, he recommended that the United States withdraw its forces from the Middle East and end what he considered its one-sided policy regarding Israel's security interests. In many senses, that thesis (which was first publicized on Twitter by someone called "Arabist" ) reflects the new chief of staff's regional approach.

According to Sobhi, the United States, ironically, defines its Mideast policy around Israel, which is conducting an "illegitimate occupation." He argued that the United States must contend with hostile and emotional response from Arab states, because of its policy on Israel. "The Islamic religion is strongly interlinked to various degrees with the functioning of most Arab governments and their respective societies," Sobhi wrote.

His recommendation, seven years ago: The United States should tighten its relations with Iran. But much has changed in the region since 2005, and it is not because of what Sobhi wrote that the cooperation between the various sides will be transformed.

No one noticed

The development that, more than any other, should set off warning bells in Jerusalem, is the unilateral action taken by the Egyptians in Sinai during the past few days. Israel had prior knowledge about, and consented to, the use of some of the military reinforcements that were sent into the peninsula as well as the warplanes that were employed. But Egypt took action above and beyond what both sides agreed the Egyptian military needed to do in order to operate throughout Sinai. It turns out that additional forces were sent in, almost without anyone noticing, and without Jerusalem's agreement.

While Israel is prattling itself to death on the Iranian issue, the decision makers here are choosing not to respond to the fact that Egypt is moving forces into Sinai, contrary to the terms of the peace agreement. It is possible that the Israeli side prefers to take this lying down for now. In the final analysis, the purpose of the movement is a positive one: to do battle against the nests of extremist terrorists who are attacking Egyptian troops, but have also tried, and will try again, to perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israeli targets as well.

At the same time, there is apprehension about the trickle of Egyptian forces into Sinai in numbers that will ultimately be unacceptable to Israel. This is creating facts on the ground. After sending in these forces, Cairo might officially request that they be allowed to stay. It's a good guess that a negative Israeli reply will not exactly prompt the new Egypt or its leader from the Muslim Brotherhood to quickly remove the troops.

In the meantime, there are a growing number of conspiracy theories being hatched in Cairo regarding Morsi's decision to dismiss Tantawi. The website of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masriyoun reported that Morsi moved quickly to depose Tantawi because the general was planning a coup for the end of August. In this case, however, the truth is probably simpler. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are out to complete their takeover of the January 2011 revolution.

A blog posted on Wednesday by Jonathan D. Halevi (in both Hebrew and English ) on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs presented a document purportedly written by an intelligence body in Egypt and uploaded by an Egyptian site. It claims that the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact a central player in planning the demonstrations and the revolution, with the aim of buttressing its standing. The document is said to be dated January 28, 2011, three days after the start of the demonstrations, and Morsi's name appears in it repeatedly, as a key figure in planning the protests and confrontations against the old regime.

The Supreme Muslim Council was a bone in the craw of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Morsi's move against the two generals removed the final obstacle for the movement. Although the deputy general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater (a former candidate for the country's presidency ) , continued to claim this week that the lengthy power failures in Egypt were part of a domestic plot by those who sought to undermine the revolution, in many senses there is actually one remaining power center in Egypt today: the Muslim Brotherhood. The military council, which challenged the movement, has ceased to exist.

In the end, the movement's supporters will argue, it recouped the powers that are part and parcel of the presidency. However, just before Western media outlets begin to declare their admiration for Egypt's magnificent democracy, it needs to be said that the direction in which the Muslim brotherhood is leading the country hardly resembles classic democracy. Most of the media, fearing a confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, are parroting the line espoused by the new president. On Wednesday, a journalist, Yussef al-Qaid, claimed that the new editor of Al Akhbar, a Muslim Brotherhood appointee, had prevented him from publishing an article critical of the movement. King Mubarak is gone. Long live King Morsi.

Tip of the dune

Ten days after the start of the Egyptian army's operation in the Sinai Peninsula, it is shaping up as an exceptional event in Egyptian terms. It is the most extensive activity by the army in Sinai since the Yom Kippur War 39 years ago.

The Egyptian forces that were sent into northeastern Sinai are operating with determination in the area of El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. They have killed or arrested a number of wanted individuals belonging to groups identified with global jihad and also extremists among the local Bedouin population.

The activity has included battles in the region of the village of al-Jourah and the confiscation of weapons. The Egyptian authorities have also, apparently, been able to reach agreements with the sheikhs and other leaders of the tribal groups in northeastern Sinai about the need take action against extremists who harmed Egyptian security and killed 17 Egyptian soldiers in an attack near the Kerem Shalom checkpoint.

However, this is only the tip of the sand dune. The Egyptians are now focusing their activity in the area of the border with the Gaza Strip. They have yet to launch the more difficult and complicated campaign to uproot the armed militants in central Sinai and to act against the tunnels from Sinai into the Strip. For the time being (and it needs to be emphasized that this is only the start of the operation ), the Egyptian army is carrying out actions that are aimed mainly at pacifying domestic public opinion and creating a semblance of activity.

This is the case with the tunnels, several of which east of the Rafah crossing were demolished by the Egyptian army (these tunnels are not considered part of the Hamas network of subterranean passages ). The same holds true for the searches being carried out in El-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. The first goal was to purge the area of terrorist nests.

The question that remains open is what will happen in the second stage. What will the Egyptians do about the challenge of the tunnels, and how will they deal with the major problem of central Sinai?

For the moment, at least, the most urgent problem is Jebel Halal. This hilly region, some 70 or 80 kilometers from El-Arish, was thought by some archaeologists to be the site of Mount Sinai.

The hills slope into Wadi el Arish and are in the area controlled by the Tarabin Bedouin tribe. Probably dozens, if not hundreds, of armed individuals are taking shelter there. The area is studded with nooks and crannies, burrows and caves, which evoke the Tora Bora caves in eastern Afghanistan. Armored vehicles cannot be deployed there, and aerial strikes are unlikely to penetrate the thick cave walls. The only choice is for the Egyptian army to send in infantry, and steel itself for a large number of casualties. Until that happens, we will continue to be witness to a war of attrition between the army and the Islamists.

Morsi's supporters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in June this year. Credit: AFP



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