By Nour Bakr
The shooting down of an Egyptian military helicopter earlier this year prompted new fears over the security threat posed to both Egypt and Israel by militant groups with access to MANPADs. But whilst bilateral cooperation has remained strong, Egypt’s tumultuous domestic situation is fuelling Israeli security concerns; leading to an underlying tension in relations.
Whilst at an official level Israel has generally refrained from commenting on the situation in Egypt since 30 June, the new threat of surface-to-air missiles in Sinai prompted an uncharacteristic public criticism of Egypt’s military. In the days following the attack, Israel’s Deputy Defence Minister remarked that he “expects Egypt to pay attention to the security situation on its territory,” and that “Israel will find and punish anyone who’s planning to carry out attacks against it, even if they were in the territory of another country”. Danon’s remarks in turn prompted a strong response from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry: describing them as “totally unacceptable”, “incompatible with international law”, and that “Egypt would not be lenient in maintaining its national sovereignty and security”.
On the surface this appeared to be a fairly typical exchange of inflated diplomatic posturing; however there are a number of reasons why there could be substance behind the rhetoric.
Danon’s remarks were fairly blunt in the suggestion that the Egyptian regime, and the military in particular, have paid insufficient attention to the situation in Sinai. With an upsurge in terrorist attacks, ongoing daily protests, day to day politics subsumed by uncertainty over Sisi’s political ambitions, and a crackdown on political opposition and press, it is not inconceivable that the situation in Sinai might not have been the regime’s top priority at the time. Notably Danon did not question Egypt’s capability to contend with this new threat, despite of a portion of US military aid (primarily the delivery of Apache helicopters) being suspended in October.
In an op-ed piece for Foreign Policy in November, Danon clearly set out a stance that the removal of Islamists from power would mean greater security for Israel as it would signal a “near-lethal blow to the Islamist organisation’s stolid allies in Gaza, Hamas”. This sentiment was similarly shared by Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, who said “Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi is Egypt’s strong man right now and has been fighting against radical Islam and against the Muslim Brothers. This is very positive both for Egypt, but also for Israel and the entire Middle East,”. In reality since the toppling of Mohamed Morsi, militant groups have stepped up their efforts to undermine the Egyptian regime. The Sinai-based jihadist group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, have claimed responsibility for a number of major bombings in Cairo, a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat in January, and the bombing of a tourist bus which was preparing to cross into Israel last month. The tone change in Danon’s words within the space of a few months reflects the reality that the forced removal of Mohammed Morsi from power, and outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, has led to greater insecurity for both countries. Whilst the number of Egyptian military airstrikes, and smuggling tunnels destroyed, has risen this year, it is not enough to put Israeli concerns to rest. Particularly with both presidential and parliamentary elections upcoming, the situation in Sinai may once again fall down the regime’s list of priorities; and yet Egypt’s security situation is still far from stable.
Danon’s blunt indication of Israel’s preparedness to conduct a strike beyond its borders clearly ruffled feathers amongst Egypt’s politicised military elite for the sheer fact that Israel have gone through with the threat previously. Last August an Israeli drone entered Egyptian airspace over Sinai and killed 5 militants. Both sides initially attempted to play down the strike; Israel for its part was cautious of potentially undermining a post-coup regime led by a military with strong ties to Israeli counterparts. The timing of the strike itself would fit well within the rationale of Israeli concerns over whether Egypt’s military was either capable of paying sufficient attention to the situation in Sinai.
The initial response to the strike from Egypt’s military spokesman was to dismiss the reports as “totally bare of truth”, and the suggestion of Egyptian-Israeli cooperation as “groundless, insane, and illogical”. However as a number of international News Agencies cited military officials on both sides confirming the strike was conducted by an Israeli drone, it became increasingly clear Egypt’s military were at the very least aware of the strike before it was carried out, and at most actively cooperated with Israel on the mission.
Even if Israeli action was not unilateral, and it had actively cooperated with Egypt on the mission, this in itself could be a telling admission of the Egyptian regime’s inability to cope with the upsurge in militancy alongside other domestic crises. The strike took place a matter of weeks after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, and amidst ongoing anti-coup demonstrations spreading from Cairo to Alexandria. Israeli confidence in Egypt’s ability or willing to focus its efforts on Sinai would have been understandably low, and likely matched by Egypt’s own internal assessments.
The pride of Egypt’s military
In the event of a second and increasingly likely Israeli strike on Egyptian soil, an outright denial of Israel’s involvement or Egypt’s cooperation will be met with scepticism from the get-go, and prove a much harder sell even with Egypt’s domestic media toeing the military’s line. More important, it could potentially cause great embarrassment for Egypt’s military at a time when one of its own (whether Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi or Sami Anan) will be running for the presidency. Al-Sisi in particular has sought to reinvigorate a Nasserist image of country and military, harking back to an era of military pride in its many conflicts with Israel. Despite graduating from a US military college and being a regular fixture in US Defence Secretary Hegel’s call schedule, Al-Sisi has not bent to the will of the US government to anything like the extent many expected. Whilst he has not spoken publicly on relations with Israel; actions such as his courting of Russian arms to offset US leverage deliberately invoked a historic narrative of Egypt’s role in the region under Nasser. An Israeli drone strike would be an opportunity for someone such as Al-Sisi to propel a nationalistic narrative firmly onto the political stage in relation to Egypt’s stance towards Israel, and it’s too early to judge whether he would be willing to sacrifice Egypt’s military pride to pragmatism.
Egypt’s current regime has not been averse to public criticism of Israel’s settlement expansion or Israeli military attacks in Palestinian territories; often calculated to appease a domestic audience and maintain the image of the military’s historic “prestige”. However whilst the response to Danon’s remarks broadly fits the same category, Sinai is a much more sensitive issue. Both nations tread carefully due to the long-standing peace treaty which plainly requires both sides to respect each other’s territorial integrity; notably including airspace. Despite a tendency for analysts to isolate Sinai as part of Egypt’s external relations, it is strongly tied to the kind of trumpeting historical narratives on which Egypt’s military has based its domestic claims to authority and popularity since the Nasser era. In the midst of a ‘War on Terror’ and a battle for political power, this narrative has become imminently more important to the military’s standing then arguably at any point under Mubarak. This time around there is likely to be genuine domestic pressure for a strong response to an Israeli strike, particularly for a military regime which has drawn authority based on the pretext of carrying out the will of the Egyptian people.
The role of US aid
The United States will inevitably have a major role to play in defusing this tension, but it will only complicate its own policy on Egypt further. Lobbying efforts to resume the suspended aid will almost certainly have intensified in response to the sharp rise in terrorist attacks emanating from Sinai (particularly the shooting down of a military helicopter), and Israeli security concerns. Whilst the purpose of military aid is often contested, Egypt’s ability to co-operate with Israel on security in the Sinai is a safe bet to explain at least part of the logic behind it. But the resumption of military aid is no guarantee of easing Israeli concerns over Egypt’s ability to quell militancy in the Sinai; the Israeli drone strike last year took place months before the decision to suspend aid was taken. The reality, which all parties involved are avoiding addressing for political reasons, is that it is not Egypt’s capability to police the Sinai which has decreased, but rather the scale and intensity of terrorist attacks which have increased primarily due to Egypt’s domestic political instability. The restoration of military assistance is thus unlikely to remedy neither Egypt’s political instability nor Israeli security concerns.
Nour is a masters student in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @nour_bakr.