The situation in Sinai and Egypt-Israel relations

The events of the last week or so in Sinai have been overshadowed by the current diplomatic rift and public outrage over Israel’s shooting of at least three Egyptian border guards a few days ago. The question of security and state legitimacy in the Sinai, the attack that killed 17 Israelis in Eilat, Israel’s latest bombing campaign in Gaza (and the Palestinian rocket fire that came in response), the border incident and the future of the the Egyptian-Israel relationship has interwoven in complex ways. But there are also distinct issues worth separating to get a better understanding of the whole.

  1. The situation in Sinai: The raid on July 29 by some 100 gunmen of the al-Arish police station was a wake-up signal to the Egyptian government about how dire the situation is in North and Central Sinai. So were media reports and calls for a “Islamic Republic of Sinai” that Salafist Jihadist organizations — most notably Takfir wal Hijra, a group calling itself after the more famous group of the 1970s but that had hitherto been a low-intensity nuisance for the authorities. The security situation in Sinai is a mixture of tribal grievances and score-settling, banditry and violent ideological activity by Jihadists. Sometimes the interaction between these is uncertain.
    The military’s unleashing of Operation Eagle, aimed at breaking up violent groups, confiscating weapons and pacifying the region, is absolutely necessary. The Egyptian state has too long tolerated tribal bending of the law in Sinai, an ambiguity it used to replace legitimacy. The price it is paying is the current chaos. The question now is how to forcefully intervene (as it should, at times using force when necessary to disarm armeg groups) while repairing relations with locals. That Sami Enan, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, is holding meetings with tribal leaders is a good first step, as is the creation of a new law for Sinai and an administrative body that will focus on its development.
    For a thorough look at this complicated situation in Sinai, including the presence of Palestinians affiliated with Muhammad Dahlan’s factions and the possibility of armed groups being manipulated by regional powers, you could do no better than to read this investigation by Lina Attalah in al-Masri al-Youm.

  2. The Eilat attack: Israel both immediately claimed that the perpetrators of the Eilat had come in from Gaza through Egypt and that Hamas were responsible for them, although Hamas denies this and Israel presented scant evidence. The Netanyahu government also used them as a diversion from protests against their economic policy, and used them to justify a new bombing campaign in Gaza that has already killed at least 15. It might very well be the case that the Eilat attackers came from Gaza into Egypt and then into Israel — but much of the coverage of the issue suggests this is a new phenomenon due to the situation in Sinai post-revolution. In fact, previous attacks in Israel’s south-west were probably also conducted via Sinai. So unlike Barry Rubin1 argues, this is not just “the bitter fruit of the U.S-backed downfall of the government of President Husni Mubarak in Egypt, opening the Egypt-Israel border as a new front in the war.”
    Of course, that it’s not the first time is little consolation to Israelis. But it means that has relatively little to do with the post-revolutionary situation. Egypt has a long border with Israel that has been porous to human and drug trafficking for a long time. It has a limited ability to deploy military personnel and helicopters. And it has a situation with smuggling and other illegal activities in Eastern Sinai that has been exarcebated by the blockade on Gaza. In other words, the core problem is not a temporary reduction in Egyptian control of Sinai. It’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pressures on neighbors created by the blockade on Gaza, and the international community’s endorsement of of it.

  3. The bombing campaign in Gaza: This brings us the point that, although it has scant evidence of who was behind the Eilat attacks, Israel bombarded Gaza, killing 15 so far, including at least five civilians, three of them children. In retaliation, Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel. But the truth is there would have probably been more rockets were it not for Israeli concern over the public mood in Egypt. This is one of the positive outcomes of the revolution: Israel will think twice about whether antagonizing Egyptian public opinion is worth it now that Mubarak is no longer around to deflect it.

  4. The fallout of the border shootings: The up to six (reports differ) Egyptian border guards killed by an Israeli helicopter have provided an opportunity for those Egyptians who advocate either the revision or abbrogation of the Camp David agreement a chance to put pressure on their own government. But it has also allowed the SCAF, which clearly does not want an end to Camp David (for various reason ranging from American aid to regional stability), to leverage this pressure to extract concessions from Israel, as well as the Palestinians. The last few days have seen US, Israeli and Palestinian officials rush to Cairo (US Assistant SecState for NEA Jeffrey Feltman, former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen, senior Israeli MOD official Amos Gilad, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, and more) to handle the matter. Cairo could claim to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas, even if it’s not holding up well, and got some commitment for a relaunch of prisoner exchange talks as well as inter-Palestinian talks.
    Most importantly, Egypt has gotten more traction and public support than ever for regaining full sovereignty over Eastern Sinai, with practically every major Egyptian columnist and politician calling for this. Even some Israelis back this publicly now. And Israeli leading commentators like Zvi Barel have stressed the seriousness of the crisis and how important it will be to the future of bilateral relations.

  5. The future of Egypt-Israel relations: Camp David is not coming to end anytime soon, and the alarmism seen for instance in the NYT’s coverage is unjustified. But the Egyptian-Israeli crisis has shown that Israel’s behavior will have to take into account Egyptian public opinion (and the potential pressure it can bring on government) to a much greater extent than it ever had to under Hosni Mubarak. It is likely, given the dynamics of Israeli politics (where Kadima is now attacking Likud for being soft) that ultimately the Israelis will choose to push the Egyptians on this. If and when they do so, then Camp David and bilateral relations will be really threatened. This development is to be welcomed, because the failure of Oslo and wider Arab-Israeli peace efforts can largely be laid on the feet of Israel’s ability to get away, literally, with murder. Now, there is finally a price to pay that will be big enough.
    For the military council now in charge, and future Egyptian governments, there has also been a lesson: you can no longer simply ignore the street on Israel, and sometimes you have to get ahead of it. Reports that Field Marshall Tantawi blocked the recall of the Egyptian Ambassador in Israel, ordered by Prime Minister Sharaf, may be true. Like any government, the current one has to manage public anger and think of consequences protestors do not have in mind. But it has also offered it an opportunity to push for certain foreign policy goals and assert itself in its near-abroad. I share the analysis of the LRB’s Adam Shatz (worth reading in full) when he writes:

If all this had happened a year ago, Mubarak would have done his best to suppress the news of the killing of Egyptian security personnel, and Shahat would almost surely have wound up in jail. Instead, Mubarak is in prison, facing trial, and the SCAF has to respond to the demands of Shahat and his admirers. Threatening to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, the SCAF insisted on an official apology from Israel; it received two, the second from Shimon Peres. An apology is not a revolution in Egyptian-Israeli relations, but it is a sign of a new respect, and an indication that the balance of power in this special relationship is shifting, as it has in Israel’s relations with Erdogan’s Turkey. The SCAF has shown – or, perhaps, discovered – that it has growing leverage in its relations with Israel, and that peace does not necessarily mean fealty. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues are not looking for confrontation – quite the contrary – but they clearly expect to be treated with dignity, not as clients but as partners. And they understand that Egyptians will accept nothing less.


  1. Note to self: never trust a Rubin on Middle East analysis. ↩