Commentary Magazine


Israel and the Stakes in Egypt

Today’s report of an Israeli drone strike on a terrorist target in the northern Sinai is more than just another incident in the Jewish state’s long war of attrition against Islamists. The incident reportedly took out a missile launcher on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza in the city of Rafah and resulted in five terrorists killed. But the most important aspect of the story is the fact that according to the Associated Press, sources in the Egyptian government confirmed that the Israeli pre-emptive attack took place with the cooperation of authorities in Cairo. This comes on the heels of another reported incident during which Israeli authorities briefly closed the airport in Eilat as a result of a tip from the Egyptians that a terror cell in the Sinai was planning to launch long-range missiles that could have hit the city.

While this may seem remarkable to friends of Israel who have been made aware of the depth of anti-Semitic sentiment that seems to pervade all of Egyptian society, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who was aware of the cooperation that went on when Hosni Mubarak was in power. As cold as the peace between the two countries was, for decades Cairo was more interested in combating potential Islamist insurgents than in having another go at Israel. After Mubarak fell and especially once the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, that changed and the Sinai became an open range for all manner of Islamists. But as a result of the coup that toppled the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the military is determined to clean up the Sinai and to end any terrorist threats to the peace between Israel and Egypt. As the United States ponders what to do and say about the impending conflict between the military and the Brotherhood, an understanding of what is happening in the Sinai since the coup should influence American decision-making.

As Haaretz notes:

Egyptian security forces claimed Wednesday that it had killed 60 militants in the lawless Sinai Peninsula in the month since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Citing widening “terrorist operations” in “recent times,” the Egyptian army said it was conducting an intensified campaign in Sinai in coordination with the interior ministry to crack down on militants that “threaten Egyptian national security.”

Unlike the Brotherhood, the post-coup government in Cairo understands that the primary threats to “Egyptian national security” are Islamists that are determined to foment violence against both Israel and the Egyptian military. The goal of the Islamists, whether members of an al-Qaeda franchise or the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad group based in Gaza, is to set the border with Israel aflame in an attempt to foment a new war that will both hurt the Jewish state and undermine support for an already unpopular peace treaty in Egypt.

Were the military to be undermined in its conflict with a Brotherhood that is determined to put Morsi back in power and get a second chance to remake Egypt in the image of its Islamist beliefs, all bets are off in the Sinai as well as along the border with Gaza. The military is determined to prevent the Brotherhood from getting that chance and understands, unlike many in the United States, that it is locked in a zero-sum game with the Islamists. Though some Americans may cling to the illusion that the Arab Spring created an opening for democracy in Egypt, the choices there are not between the military and freedom but between military rule and an Islamist tyranny that represents a threat to regional stability.

Far from being minor incidents, recent events illustrate the high stakes for the West in the prevention of another Brotherhood government in Cairo. Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said the military was trying to restore democracy when it took power last month. But if the United States cuts off aid in response to more violence in the streets between the military and the Brotherhood or in any way seeks to undermine the new government in the coming weeks, it will, in effect, be voting for even worse violence in the Sinai and along the border with Israel.