The Islamist Surge in Egypt and the Peace Treaty with Israel

Israeli soldier in Africa on the road to Ismailia during Yom Kippur War-LA Times

Since 1973, Israel hasn’t faced an enemy that posed an existential threat. After the Camp David Accords, Israel fought in the 1982 Lebanon War, First Intifada, Second Intifada, Second Lebanon War, and Operation Cast Lead. All of these engagements were against an enemy that posed a strategic threat to Israel’s security and interests, however, its existence wasn’t endangered. With that being said, the changing social and political landscape in Egypt is already altering the strategic status-quo.

The peace treaty with Egypt was Israel’s greatest diplomatic achievement. Egypt was by far, Israel’s most threatening enemy. It is the largest Arab country, both in terms of population and military personnel. Peace with Egypt was a cold peace, as the two sides largely avoided normal relations. Cooperation was little more than bilateral relations between Cairo and Jerusalem. For Egyptians and Israelis, animosity and grievances remain. The military government under Sadat and Mubarak, realized the peace treaty was beneficial to Egypt’s national security interests. With a treaty, Egypt was able to ween itself from Soviet influence and focus on more pressing domestic issues, such as Egypt’s burgeoning population and economic difficulties.

Throughout the peace treaty, Mubarak’s regime routinely focused his population’s attention on their north-eastern neighbor. Propagating anti-Israel sentiment has always been an aspect of dictatorship in Egypt. Espousing an outside “threat” is a common tactic for many governments, especially dictators.

Fueled by constant anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment, Egyptians carried years of unchecked hostility against the Jewish State. The hatred was there, but Mubarak kept it in check.  Because of US funding and political support, it was in his strategic interest to do so. The peace treaty was long considered crucial for Mubarak’s regime, both in security visa vi Israel, and its ties with the United States.

Now that Mubarak is gone, the lid has come off. The military rulers, former subordinates of Mubarak, remain in power. Hosni Mubarak’s ouster isn’t the most critical element, as he was ailing and planning on transferring power. The monumental change is that his son, who was groomed to lead the country, is also out of the picture.

Egypt’s ruling military Junta faces a country immensely different from what Sadat or Mubarak experienced. Egypt, like the rest of the Muslim world, is fast-moving towards Islamist agendas. While the international media speaks of thousands of pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square, they are by no means the most powerful and influential body in Egypt. When Egypt fought its four wars with Israel, it was a predominantly secular and socialist state. This was the case for most Muslim countries during the Cold War era. However, these days are long gone. Middle Eastern civil society and economies, based around tenants of secularism and socialism, have been a complete failure. Egypt’s population retains a large percentage of under-educated, under-employed, and restive citizenry. In 2005, Egypt’s illiteracy rate stood at 29%. With the instability in Egypt today, this number is likely to increase.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally the strongest opposition party in the country, will only strengthen as instability grips the country. Despite downplaying Egyptian Islamists, they are the strongest political bodies and only strengthening. In conjunction with the Muslim Brotherhood, the rise of Salafism in Egypt is startling. Salafist influence now grows throughout the Muslim world, as its militancy is alive in Tunisia, Libya, Gaza, and in Egypt. The recent attacks on Coptic Christians and their institutions is directly related to the growing Salafist ideology in Egypt. After recent Coptic protests, the Egyptian military called on Muslim Egyptians to help defend its soldiers. The Islamists gladly answered the call, which signaled growing cooperation between SCAF and Islamists.

The more secular, affluent, and cosmopolitan Egyptians, remain divisive, weak, and leaderless against the Islamist surge. The media propagated a heroic democratic movement in Egypt, yet purposely downplayed or ignored Islamist empowerment. Just like Tunisia, Egypt’s upcoming November elections will likely see unprecedented Islamist gains.

Tunisia, once the bastion of secularism in the Middle East and North Africa, will likely witness an Islamist victory in upcoming elections. Islamists have begun street clashes and have increased their presence before elections. Many fear the rise of Islamists in Tunisia could ignite a civil war. A civil war much like the Algerian civil war of the 1990’s that killed some 200,000 people. Islamist gains in Tunisia will foreshadow what will become of Egypt. If this occurs, the geopolitical status-quo will break and the strategic backlash would be immense.

Israel and the West must accept a more assertive and Islamist Egypt. With an already hostile Arab world, Islamist sentiment will only exasperate tensions against the West and of course, Israel. For the Israeli government, the best outcome of a post-Mubarak Egypt was a stable government ruled by the military Junta. The IDF and top politicians know Egypt’s rulers and relations between the armed forces, enabled by the United States, has historically been productive. However, Egypt’s ruling Junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is having difficulties ruling the country. SCAF wants to stay in power and is willing to use force to do so. The elite members of the Egyptian military have battled the Israeli threat and in their perception, garners their legitimacy. They fought for Egypt and paid their dues against the Zionists. Among younger Egyptians, this legitimacy is running out.

SCAF, while still retaining Mubarak’s robust security forces, is having difficulty controlling the country on its own. Because they won’t cooperate, the Junta’s more immediate threats emanate from secular and moderate elements of Egypt’s population. Islamists are largely against the regime as well and always were, yet they have an incredible ability for patience and opportunism. They will wait for their time. As is the case with any ruling body, the Junta needs legitimacy. Thus, the Junta has found an unlikely ally in the Islamists.

Mubarak, the military, and American aid were all that kept Egypt’s treaty with Israel.  With Mubarak’s ouster, a weakened military, an illegitimate Junta, anti-Israel hatred, and a less assertive US, Egypt’s willingness to continue supporting this obligation is suspect. The Egyptian-Israeli wars were short, but intense and brutal. Thousands died on both sides, with Egypt paying the heaviest price; economically, socially, and strategically. Israel was on the banks of the Suez Canal, forced its closure, and ultimately devastated Egypt’s economy. In addition, Israeli planes routinely bombed strategic targets throughout Egypt, and any Israeli assault could threaten the capital, Cairo. Egyptian elders and those who fought in the these wars, remember the cost. However, Egyptian propaganda and history don’t record the costs.

Israelis aren’t ignorant of the costs in fighting Egypt. Egyptians, for instance, are only taught stories of success. The glory of Egypt’s canal crossing on the first day of Yom Kippur War is well-known, but not the war’s end. To illustrate, the main bridge in Cairo is the 6th October Bridge, the day of the crossing. Few Egyptians know what happened after the crossing or the fact the entire Egyptian 3rd Army was surrounded in the desert, enveloped, and surviving on Israeli goodwill. The Israeli successes in the last days of the war, plus its own canal crossing and thrust towards Suez and Cairo are also ignored. Egypt’s rulers choose what history they want remembered. This may seem unimportant on a grand scale, but it’s dangerous. By denying the truth of past wars, Egyptians naïvely don’t fear or dread a war with Israel. Many want it and are actively pushing for it.

Egypt’s military, despite the peace treaty, never ceased to consider Israel its number one enemy. Wikileaks documents show Egypt’s armed forces train for future wars with Israel. Training for former foes isn’t rare, however, Israel mustn’t be naïve towards the deteriorating relationship between Cairo and Jerusalem, and all that entails. The peace treaty is a primary strategic asset for the Jewish State. Maintaining the treaty should be a top priority as well, however, it takes two to hold a treaty. With that being said, Israel cannot shut its eyes and hope US pressure will force Egypt’s hand. Egypt is changing and changing fast. It’s military government may soon find that US aid, which is tied to peace with Israel, isn’t worth the domestic opposition that threatens regime stability by placating to Washington and Jerusalem.

Three trends are pushing Egypt and Israel towards further confrontation; Egypt’s Islamists are stronger than ever and growing, a majority of Egyptians want to alter the strategic status-quo with Israel, and America’s waning influence and geopolitical clout in the region will precipitate a more nationalistic Egyptian foreign policy. At the end of the day, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is hanging by a thread and Israel’s military and political establishment must act accordingly. For Israel, the costs of relying on the US to quell Egyptian ambitions are too serious to ignore.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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