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Mirage

Egyptian-Israeli relations reached a low point this weekend. But Egypt’s military, secure in its power, has no interest in undermining the 1979 peace treaty.

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Protesters knock down a concrete wall in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

Israeli-Egyptian relations hit a crisis point Friday night, when thousands of protesters, some armed with Molotov cocktails, stormed the Israeli Embassy compound in Cairo. The mob tore down the concrete wall protecting the building, burned handmade Israeli flags, and protested throughout the night. By early Saturday, the ambassador, embassy staffers, and their families were on an emergency Israeli Air Force flight back to Israel. This is the first time since Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv during the Second Intifada that either country has been without the other’s envoy.

The incident didn’t come out of nowhere. On Aug. 18, eight Israelis were killed on a highway near Eilat by Gazan and Egyptian terrorists who had infiltrated southern Israel by way of the Sinai—Egyptian territory. Israeli forces pursued the terrorists back into Egypt and mistakenly killed five Egyptian soldiers and police officers. The next day, the Egyptian Cabinet called an emergency meeting, where it considered recalling Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv if the Israelis wouldn’t apologize or agree to a joint probe of the officers’ killings. Activists and political parties demanded the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in Cairo. Several major activist groups, including the left-leaning April 6 Movement, organized a large protest in front of the Israeli Embassy. It culminated with a 23-year-old carpenter scaling the 13-story building to replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one.

Israeli and pro-Israel skeptics of the Egyptian revolution have predicted since the Mubarak government fell that Egypt’s pathologically anti-Israel population could push the country toward a violent confrontation with its northern neighbor. These past weeks have made it painfully clear that at least some of the Egyptian people—at best—refuse to tolerate any Israeli presence in their country.

But the real question is how much popular sentiment against the Jewish state actually matters. On a recent reporting trip I took to Cairo, I found that despite the view from the street, the country’s military and its key political factions have no interest in upending the status quo. The cold peace is colder than ever. But even in the wake of Friday’s violence, it’s proving durable.

***

Ever since Anwar El Sadat signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, the Egyptian government has combated any sense of national inferiority by propagating an amazingly resilient myth: Egypt won the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Camp David Treaty represented Israel’s capitulation to a morally and militarily superior enemy. It’s a myth that helped Egypt recuperate some of its national self-esteem in light of its recognition of the Jewish State and subsequent expulsion from the Arab League. Murals of the Egyptian Army crossing the Suez Canal dot the road between the airport and downtown Cairo, and a downtown bridge and a major suburb of Cairo are named after Oct. 6, 1973, the date of Egypt’s assault on Israeli positions in the Sinai. Whenever I asked Egyptians about their country’s attitude toward the 1973 war, the answer came immediately: It was a major victory.

All of this made Egyptians feel better, but the myth also helped bolster the power of Hosni Mubarak, who took over as president after Sadat’s 1981 assassination. The North Korean-built October War Panorama, a multimedia depiction of Egypt’s attack on the Suez Canal located in the Heliopolis district of Cairo, includes a mosaic that places Mubarak in the center of a group of military commanders planning the war’s opening offensive. Similar imagery is on display at the Cairo Citadel’s National Military Museum.

While Mubarak incited hostility toward the Jewish State at home, he successfully convinced Israel and the United States that he could uphold Western interests in the region. Ezzedine Fishere, a former Foreign Ministry official at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture, likened Mubarak’s political strategy to riding two horses simultaneously. “You can ride the two horses so long as you’re going straight,” Fishere explained to me. “This is why stability was so important to Mubarak. When there’s instability, the two horses go in opposite directions. Because the public wants you to live up to your commitments, you’ve been feeding this inflammatory discourse about Israel being the source of all evil. … On the other hand, the Israelis are basically your security partners in the region.”

Future Egyptian leaders can’t afford to play this kind of double game, Fishere argues. “The challenge is for the state to face the public and say, ‘We’ve been having very good relations with Israel for 30 years,’ ” he said. “And at the same time, we’ll have to be frank with the Israelis and the Americans and say ‘We can’t be your accomplice.’ ” The Mubarak regime’s system for dealing with Israel won’t work anymore. The question, then, is whether a more aggressive, and possibly outright hostile, dynamic will take its place.

“The majority of people would agree that we shouldn’t get into to a military conflict with Israel,” Gamal Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me in his Cairo office in July. “But this doesn’t mean that they will refrain from doing things that would make this more likely.” He believes that a future, representative Egyptian government—parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for October—will have no choice but to respond to the public’s overwhelmingly anti-Israel attitude, which could result in less security cooperation between the two countries.

Soltan added that the new Egyptian government will also have to contend with the long-standing popular sense that the country should reorient its foreign policy. He says that much of the Egyptian street looks to Iran’s open defiance of the West with a certain degree of envy. “We felt inferior vis-a-vis Iran because they did the things we weren’t able to, like supporting the Palestinians, criticizing both Egypt and the United States, and allying with some of the champions of Arab rights, like Hezbollah,” said Soltan. “After the revolution, things might change.”

Like Soltan, Fishere believes that most Egyptians do not want to fight another war with Israel. But he’s more hopeful that democracy will ultimately lead to a less-radicalized discourse on the Jewish State. “We have to make [Egyptian policy toward Israel] more truthful and ultimately more responsible,” Fishere said. “It will be more in the direction of Turkey than in the direction of Iran.” So, Egypt’s strategic posture toward Israel will likely change. That doesn’t mean the peace treaty is going anywhere.

***

Luckily, the most powerful player in Egypt—the military—already understands this.

And the army, which Egyptian intellectual Tarek Heggy called the “the only power in the country,” enjoys deep popular support. According to last month’s Pew poll  of Egyptian political attitudes, 53 percent of Egyptians have a “very good” view of the military, compared to the 29 percent religious leaders enjoy. Field Marshal Mohammad Tantawi, the head of the Military Council, has a 45 percent favorability rating—higher than that of the April 6 Movement (38 percent) and the Muslim Brotherhood (37 percent).

At a major protest in Tahrir Square on July 8, I heard protesters reprising the revolutionary chant that “the army and the people are one hand.” Across Cairo, both Egyptian flags and displays of support for the military (such as fatigue-pattern street art) were ubiquitous. Egyptians still believe that the army is on their side: On Aug. 1, when the military dispersed a three-week tent protest that had shut down Tahrir Square, passersby cheered them on. A Sept. 9 protest against military rule in Tahrir Square was underwhelming. (Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha branch, called it “the most incoherent, ineffective, anti-strategic protest in recent memory.”)

The military has every reason to preserve Egypt’s treaty with Israel. According to an official familiar with the U.S. government’s operations in Egypt, there are currently “tens of thousands” of American military contractors in Egypt, which still receives over $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the United States. Experts I spoke to in Egypt estimated that the military controls between 20 and 40 percent of the country’s economy. War with Israel serves no obvious strategic purpose for Egypt, and it would probably end American financial assistance, threaten the army’s business holdings, and lead to massive casualties. (Nearly 20,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the 1967 and 1973 wars.) Plus, the sectarianism that makes Lebanon and Syria so threatening to Israel is absent in Egypt. There are no religious or ethnic militias that could plausibly challenge the military’s monopoly on force.

Tellingly, even the more extreme elements in Egyptian politics have sought accommodation with the military, rather than pressuring it into a more confrontational stance. Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, the former editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, told me that he quit the organization partly over its willingness to cooperate with “the Brotherhood’s enemies,” including the ruling military junta.

**

In the hours after Friday’s embassy incident, Egypt’s ruling military council reiterated its commitment to the 1978 Camp David Accords. Egyptian Information Minister Osama Heikal quickly spoke out against the riot, calling it “a gross violation of the law,” adding that “one cannot call the perpetrators … either brave or patriotic.” And Egypt yesterday reinstated some of the emergency measures lifted after Mubarak’s ouster in February, including laws that limit protesters’ ability to gather in public. A spokesperson for the Egyptian Cabinet told Reuters that “returning to normalcy is the objective for both sides” after the Israeli Embassy conflagration.

No doubt this measure will enrage some elements of the protest movement. But this only shows how badly Egypt’s current military rulers want to stabilize the country’s affairs, including its now-strained relationship with Israel. As soon as the military realized that there was a real possibility of foreign diplomats being seriously hurt or even killed on Egyptian soil, they “realized that the external price they would pay [for inaction] is higher than the internal one for stopping the protest,” Sam Tadros, an Egypt expert at the Hudson Institute told me yesterday. David Schenker of the Washington Instutite for Near East Policy agrees that in the aftermath of Friday’s incident, the military’s top priority is bringing some stability back to the country’s internal and foreign affairs. “What happened with the embassy demonstrates not only that the [ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] is the leading supporter of the peace treaty, but I’d say it’s indicative of the ongoing situation in the country,” he says. “They feel that there has to be a red line. There has to be some semblance of order.”

Egyptian attitudes toward Israel aren’t going to improve. And Egyptian voters, through popular protest and, eventually, through the ballot box, are capable of reversing the kind of close official cooperation that Mubarak pursued. But for the time being, at least, it’s the military that matters. And in the months since the revolution, its calculations toward the Jewish state haven’t changed.

 

 

 

 

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Where did we hear this before? Turkey. The military was in charge there too. Now they aren’t and look at the situation. The point that you made about the Egyptian fantasy victory in the October war just proves the point that you can’t trust people in Moslem middle eastern countries to think in a way that people in the West would view as logical. They have, shall we say, a logic of their own

Paul Lilling says:

As an American and of the Jewish faith with relatives in Israel, I would suggest that visiting Eygpt on cruises and all sorts of tours is not on my agenda. I would rather spend my travel and tours in Israel and/or in the U.S.A.

Then why, pray tell have the authoities all but abandoned security on the Iraeli border? This could not have happened under Mubarek.
This is about leadership in the Islamic world. AS recent events in Turky have shown-It’s all about Jew hatred. A basic tenent of Islam! If you want to lead the Islamic world, you have to demonstrate hatred of Israel!

I agree with Gamal Soltan that the Egyptian people, while anti-Israel, have no interest in another conflict. My concern is that the Egyptian military, in an effort to direct attention and criticism away from itself, would continue to blame “foreign influences” including Israel for the nation’s internal unrest. Fanning the flames of the people’s already strong anti-Israel sentiment could prove dangerous especially during popular elections when the people may try to mandate a conflict. Hopefully the youthful population realizes that an outside war will not bring them the rights and liberties they seek inside their own borders.

Egypt needs a Pharaoh, democracy is not working. The Israelis will need an Egyptian
Jew to deal with the Egyptians. We are back to the days of Pharaoh and Moses.

Yehuda Riemer says:

They protected the diplomats and their families, but apparently had no scruples about letting the mob lynch the security detail. That would have evened the score. It took pressure from Obama to save them.

There are a few points not raised in this article, and their omission makes it quite flawed. First, to use the author’s analogy, the military itself now rides two horses simultaneously. Catering to the unruly thugs masquerading as protesters and the peace treaty. The military is trying to appease the thugs as evidenced by the military’s refusal to do anything about the ongoing attempted lynching of the 6 Israelis inside. The thugs were jealous of Iranians because “they could support the Palestinians”. So the military suppports the PAlestinians by virtue of opening Gaza.

Second, by opening Gaza, the military opened the door for terrorists to occupy the Sinai. Now the military can appease the street, avoid its responisibilities to Israel regarding peace, and use Gazan-based terrorists as surrogates against Israel.

Now this is a peace treaty hardly worth the paper it is printed on. It is worth $2.5BILLION a year lined in the Egyptian military’s pockets by the USA. The bribe for peace is worth morre than the treaty.

Shalom Freedman says:

This argument applies to present conditions which already are not that.
Egypt and Turkey are now in some kind of military alliance. Against whom I wonder?
Hizbollah, Hamas, the Palestinians of the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Iran. With all their internal problems with each other there is one focus for their hatred. And all broadcast such hatred of Israel on a daily basis.
So it is impossible to be certain what the Egyptians would do in certain circumstances. Certainly trusting simply that they would not use their forces against Israel is a major mistake.
Israel’s military planners are facing a more burdensome and difficult situation now than ever before. Let’s pray we will know how to deter , and the war of all against one will not take place.

jacob arnon says:

The problem with Egypt which is occasioned by a state of anarchy there is very different from the problems Israel is having with Turkey a moderate Islamic State with a stable government.

I put most of the blame for the rift on the Turkish government but Netanyahu could have handled the affair more diplomatically than letting the loose canon Lieberman talk about helping the Kurds.

The Turks are trying to set up a sphere of influence which is why they are challenging Israel.

They also don’t want Cyprus to benefit from the discovery of Gas in Israel’s territorial waters.

It’s all about power and some compromise could and should be found.

Egypt is all about ideology and Islamic antisemitism. I see little chance of compromise.

When Erdogan talked in Egypt he said that they should not be afraid to set up a secular State. The Muslim Brotherhood objected.

These tells us a lot about the differences between these States.

James Price says:

Judith Miller’s article on the embassy attack mentioned televised coverage of the event and Netanyahu’s inability to contact high-level Egyptian officials for help. Perhaps they were too busy enjoying the images on t.v. to stop the show.

Since shortly after Sadat’s assassination, top level officials in Mubark’s government and in the Egyptian army have publicly repudiated the peace treaty and advocated another war with Israel. These comments were ignored by the foreign mass media and had no apparent influence on U. S. support, which has greatly enhanced Egypt’s capacity to go to war relative to the strength of Israel. The Egyptian navy is significantly larger than Israel’s as are their number of tanks, which are modern equivalents to Israel’s. The Egyptians can field a million-man army , trained in modern warfare by American military advisers. That plus the fact that the average Egyptian does indeed understand that they won in 1973, implies that another war with Israel is not at all off the tables, especially to the likely winners of the next election.

If Hamas and their al Qaida and Iranian allies threaten the secular Egyptian government as they have to a degree already, the generals in charge now will likely put some kind of lid on the little-impeded weapons flow through the Sinai. If they merely attack Israel, the generals are fine with that as they were under Mubarak’s leadership. A coalition government comprising an Islamist majority (The Brotherhood and like-minded others), a proxy war using Hamas et al. is likely and all-out war using the enhanced and motivated Egyptian army is a real prospect.

Tablet magazine management and contributors can afford to believe otherwise. Israel cannot.

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Mirage

Egyptian-Israeli relations reached a low point this weekend. But Egypt’s military, secure in its power, has no interest in undermining the 1979 peace treaty.

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