By Danielle Avel
Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, has capitalized on a recent terror attack in Sinai and exploited it to re-militarize the Peninsula and to amass near-dictatorial powers in Cairo. His manipulation of this tragedy for such sweeping and unpredictable power plays gives insight into how his Islamist government will reshape Egypt and the region.
Start with Sinai: its rearmament is occurring with troops, heavy artillery, air power, and even with U.S. manufactured surface-to-air missiles. Much of this is taking place in defiance of the 1979 Camp David Accords.
These actions affirm recent official statements indicating that Morsi is considering amending the treaty to give Egypt full sovereignty over the region. They also track with polling that consistently shows 92% of Egyptians seeing Israel as an enemy and unfavorable. Morsi, who comes out of the anti-Western and antisemitic Muslim Brotherhood, may be testing the limits of the agreement with the grander goal of eroding the peace treaty with Israel and challenging Israel militarily.
Some history: In 1979, in the hopes of obtaining peace, Israel agreed to return to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, an area it had conquered in the 1967 Six Day War. In exchange for territory, the Israelis received assurances from Anwar el-Sadat that Sinai would remain nearly demilitarized. The agreement benefited both sides; until terrorist attacks recently began, Israel remained relatively secure on its southwestern border, while Egypt received billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. taxpayer, much of it for military purposes.
In 2011, to combat an upsurge in terrorism, the Netanyahu government agreed to an increased Egyptian troop presence and a restricted number of armored vehicles in the region for a limited period of time. The peace treaty remained intact, with both governments adhering to its guidelines. Indeed, the treaty stayed unchallenged until August 5, 2012.
On that date, terrorists reportedly murdered 16 Egyptian guards while in the process of attempting an attack on Israelis. In response, the Egyptian military sent Apache helicopters to the peninsula without advance agreement from Israel under the guise of conducting urgent airstrikes that Egypt claimed killed 20 terrorists. The use of helicopters in this area is strictly prohibited by the 1979 treaty, and although Egypt sent airpower to Sinai without prior approval, it appears the Israeli government retroactively agreed to the temporary use of airpower – after all, 20 terrorists were reported killed
In the aftermath of the August 5 attack, and still under the auspices of combatting terrorism, Egypt initiated its largest deployment in Sinai since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Some of the deployments fall within the 2011 parameters but others, Ha’aretz notes, were “deployed without Israel’s prior approval.” Al-Quds Al-Arabi reports that Cairo only informed Israel of the presence of armored vehicles after they were already deployed – another violation of the peace accords. In this case, Israel did not retroactively approve the armored vehicles and has asked Egypt to remove them from the region. As for the newly deployed surface-to-air missiles in Sinai, the only purpose of these weapons is to shoot down fighter planes. Since the Jihadists in Sinai do not possess fighter planes it makes the concept of deploying these missiles to combat terrorism laughable – their presence is to intimidate Israel.
As for the Cairo power play: President Morsi used the August 5 incident as a catalyst to fire top military officials and to seize executive and legislative control for himself, swiftly transforming his government from democratically elected to potentially dictatorial. In a few short weeks, Morsi amassed power that could be greater than his predecessor’s, Hosni Mubarak. Unlike Mubarak, however, Morsi’s ideology is firmly based in radical Islam as preached by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization credited with spawning terrorist groups such as Hamas.
To summarize, the attack on August 5 caused a domino effect that benefited Egypt’s Islamist government by permitting it to deploy military assets in the Sinai and effect a quiet revolution by ousting the military and seizing power for itself.
What seemed like a perfect storm of events for the Islamists, however, is now coming into question. A new report suggests that three of the terrorists in the August 5 incident were released from prison by none other than Morsi. Further, the initial deployment of helicopters to Sinai may never have involved airstrikes against terrorists at all. The Daily News Egypt quotes a Bedouin tribesman: “Nothing happened here; the military never attacked.” Referring to the alleged Egyptian airstrikes, another local Bedouin responded, “It’s not true. It’s just to calm down the people.” National Public Radio also reports that “evidence of the clashes has not been found.” Agence France Press notes that Bedouin tribal leaders doubt the military claims and demand that Cairo show bodies to prove that airstrikes had occurred.
This whole incident raises concerns about the veracity of the Egyptian military account. Was it a fabrication to deploy unauthorized aircraft to Sinai and to grab dictatorial powers?
It remains to be seen how far Israel will allow the 1979 agreement to be tested and whether the Egyptian people will quietly acquiesce to an Islamist dictator. In the meantime, Morsi, who campaigned on a Muslim Brotherhood platform of Sharia and jihad, appears confident in his role as president. Since taking office, he has continually reaffirmed his support of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated terrorist groups, such as Hamas, whose repeated stated goal is the destruction of Israel. Recently, Morsi told Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, that “Egypt and Palestine are one entity.”
At the time of the Egypt-Israel treaty signing, then-PLO leader Yasir Arafat dismissed it, saying: “Let them sign what they like. False peace will not last.” Perhaps he was right and that “false peace” is finally crumbling.
Danielle Avel is an analyst formerly affiliated with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
© 2012 All rights reserved by Danielle Avel.