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Update – 11 July 2013 – No end in sight for unstable Egypt


11 July 2013

By Gabrielle Debinski

Disturbing footage of the brewing violence in Egypt has proliferated in the past week.

Much of the media coverage has been dense, and for many, it is hard to distinguish these events from the broader ‘Arab Spring,’ which is increasingly destabilizing the region.

Consider this a categorical breakdown of the turmoil in Egypt, and its unique implications for Israel.

Post-coup clashes erupt in Egypt:

The wave of bloodshed since Egypt’s first democratically elected leader was ousted last week has gained much traction in the global media.

Violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the Egyptian army have erupted on Egypt’s streets, resulting in a mounting death toll where close to 100 people have died and over 1,000 have been injured.

The New York Times reported that at least 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by troops in one day while trying to storm the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo where they believed Morsi was being held under arrest. The Australian has described these killings as a “massacre.”

Perhaps the most gruesome footage to emerge is that of Brotherhood adherents throwing an anti-Morsi activist from a rooftop building in Alexandria, as a huge crowd below watches him plunge to his death.

These killings came a day after the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies vowed to broaden their protests against the president’s removal.

I suggest you watch a video posted on MEMRI TV which shows Islamist supporters addressing army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi threatening an ‘intifada’ and ‘martyrdom.’

“Beware, you have created a new Taliban and a new al-Qaeda in Egypt, all these masses will split into suicide squads and will destroy you and Egypt…It is you who has created terrorism… it is you who has started a civil war in Egypt,” said one protester.

Indeed, this extremist rhetoric in is cause for grave concern.

In intervening directly as violent Islamists demand Morsi’s reinstatement, the military runs the risk of being seen as siding against Islam and its virtues. This vindicates many Egyptians’ fears of a looming civil war.

Israel and Egypt; a ‘cold peace’:

In recent decades, a mutual goal to maintain stability and avert terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula has seen the two countries enjoy close tactical co-operation.

Morsi’s brief tenure, however, saw a distancing between Israel and Egypt. Despite upholding the 1979 peace treaty with Israel during his year in office, Morsi had a rule that neither he nor any government official would maintain any contact with Israel or its ‘half-embassy’ in Cairo. Rather, the relationship would remain the domain of the military and intelligence services.

Additionally, the Brotherhood’s warm relations with other Islamist governments, which include Hamas, heralded tension between the countries.

Leading Israeli Middle East expert, Ehud Yaari, says that in the year of Morsi’s presidency, co-operation between Israel and Egyptian intelligence and military services “was probably the best it has ever been, both in coordinating policies on the Gaza strip and especially in the Sinai.”

Zvi Mazel, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt in the late 1990s says that for decades Israel and Egypt have enjoyed ‘a cold peace’ which has been pushed to the brink of collapse with the Brotherhood’s ascendance to power. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post he states that “to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood is great for Egypt and for the region.” He continues, “It’s the best thing that has happened this year. One of their central goals is to destroy Israel.”

In this regard, Morsi’s ousting seems to be cause for optimism for Israel. Fettered by its only perils, however, the Egyptian military may be less able to maintain its role as the barometer of stability in the Arab world, or step in as a mediator between Israel and its adversaries.

Fall of the Brotherhood deflates Hamas:

As an offshoot of the Brotherhood, Hamas has seen a surge in stature while its parent organization held power in Egypt.

The coup has resulted in the weakening of Hamas as the Egyptian army has already cracked down on smuggling tunnels linking the Gaza strip to Sinai, flooding over 40 tunnels with sewerage water in recent days.

This blow to Hamas comes after it has already lost, to differing degrees, most of its supporters after choosing to back the rebel fighters in Syria. Iran has significantly cut funding to the terrorist organization as a result of its siding against the Assad regime.

If the Egyptian military further tightens its embargo, and clamps down on weapons transfers in the Sinai and underground tunnels to Gaza, it could severely hinder Hamas’s supply chain.

Sinai; Terrorist elements grow:

Whilst security cooperation between the IDF and the Egyptian military has been strong, since Morsi came to power the Sinai has become an increasing hotspot for terrorist activity.

Reports coming out of Egypt describe the situation in Sinai as grave, and perceived by the top echelon of Egyptian military to be very dangerous.

The growing number of al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Sinai is seeking to create a provocation aimed at undermining the treaty that has held relatively strong since 1979. There are different militias of Salafi Jihadists, Bedouins and volunteers from abroad. These elements are attacking, at will, Egyptian military and security positions in different areas of the Sinai. Not all attacks are being reported by the media.

These radical groups include factions like the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes, which claimed responsibility over the weekend for Thursday’s double rocket attack on Eilat and the bombing of an Egyptian gas pipeline to Jordan.

Even as Egypt grapples with political upheaval, tactical cooperation between the IDF and the Egyptian military is constant.  Last week, Israel allowed Egypt to move troops into the Sinai (a move prohibited by their peace treaty) as an added security measure.

The Egyptians are now cracking down on tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai in a more determined manner than before. These measures aim to obstruct infiltration from Gaza of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as well as the smuggling of weapons into Egypt.

Israel remains tight lipped

Israel has not said much in response to the coup, nor has the IDF significantly increased its military presence in the South. Netanyahu has neither praised the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood, nor reached out publically to the new government in formation.

In an interview last week with the Italian newspaper La Corriere Della Sera, Netanyahu said only that “Israel is watching events in Egypt very carefully.” Netanyahu made only passing reference to Egypt in his weekly speech to the Cabinet on Sunday.

The vacuum of power remains…

Tony Blair wrote a great article in The Guardian detailing the implications of the Egyptian uprising.

“Across the Middle East, for the first time, there is open debate about the role of religion in politics. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s superior organization, there is probably a majority for an intrinsically secular approach to government in the region,” he says.

It may be true that a majority of Egyptians seek a secular approach to government. Yet the deterioration of the situation in Sinai, coupled with the call for ‘martyrdom’ on Egypt’s streets, highlights the growing presence of extremist Islamists in Egypt, warranting deep concern.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who may soon take up a leadership position in Egypt’s interim government, is known in the West as a moderate. In Israel, however, the former International Atomic Energy Agency head is remembered for a ‘weakness’ on Iran that enabled it to make huge strides toward a nuclear weapon. See an article about El Baradei’s political history here.

Essentially, as the bloodshed increases no one really knows who will seize the vacuum of power, or when. One thing is certain though- a highly volatile neighbour poses many risks.