Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sinai terror attack

Egyptians Reevaluate Their Real Enemies

As I noted yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood is busily propagating conspiracy theories about Israeli guilt for Sunday’s terror attack in Sinai, which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. But there’s a bright side to this story: For the first time ever, many Egyptians aren’t buying it.

True, dozens of demonstrators converged on the Israeli ambassador’s house Monday to demand his expulsion, asserting that Israel was to blame. But the real mob scene occurred at the slain soldiers’ funerals – where crowds chanted slogans denouncing not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood, and physically attacked a representative of the Brotherhood-led government, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.

Nor did the media blindly regurgitate the usual conspiracy theories of Israeli guilt: They duly reported the Egyptian military’s assertion that the attack was perpetrated by terrorists from Sinai aided by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Prominent Egyptian commentators even criticized the army for ignoring the intelligence warning Israel had shared, and President Mohammed Morsi for pardoning thousands of radical Islamists and freeing them from jail. And both in television interviews and on social media sites, many ordinary Egyptians blamed the attack not on Israel, but on Morsi, for having reopened the Gaza-Egypt border.

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As I noted yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood is busily propagating conspiracy theories about Israeli guilt for Sunday’s terror attack in Sinai, which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. But there’s a bright side to this story: For the first time ever, many Egyptians aren’t buying it.

True, dozens of demonstrators converged on the Israeli ambassador’s house Monday to demand his expulsion, asserting that Israel was to blame. But the real mob scene occurred at the slain soldiers’ funerals – where crowds chanted slogans denouncing not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood, and physically attacked a representative of the Brotherhood-led government, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.

Nor did the media blindly regurgitate the usual conspiracy theories of Israeli guilt: They duly reported the Egyptian military’s assertion that the attack was perpetrated by terrorists from Sinai aided by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Prominent Egyptian commentators even criticized the army for ignoring the intelligence warning Israel had shared, and President Mohammed Morsi for pardoning thousands of radical Islamists and freeing them from jail. And both in television interviews and on social media sites, many ordinary Egyptians blamed the attack not on Israel, but on Morsi, for having reopened the Gaza-Egypt border.

Moreover, the outrage shifted the balance of power between the army and the Brotherhood in the cabinet, enabling the army’s representative, Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, to force Morsi to seal the Egypt-Gaza border “indefinitely,” just days after having triumphantly reopened it. The army also poured troops accompanied by bulldozers into the Gaza border region to begin sealing the Gaza-Sinai smuggling tunnels – a step Israel had long pleaded for in vain. It even launched its first-ever air strikes on suspected terrorists in Sinai.

Finally, the public outrage seems to have emboldened Egyptian liberals: Former parliamentarian Mohammed Abu Hamed, for instance, launched a blistering attack on Morsi in which he even took the courageous step of defending the peace with Israel.

“The president bears responsibility for this [Sunday’s attack], which was caused by actions his government has taken recently, such as opening the crossings and giving amnesty for Islamist detainees,” Abu Hamed told his followers via Facebook.

“These exceptional measures, which allowed the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip without any security measures, allowed the entry of a large number of extremist religious groups from al-Qaeda and others to Sinai in addition to the elements of Hamas,” Abu Hamed charged. “It is known that these groups have beliefs and ideas of jihadists who are seeking to involve Egypt in a new conflict with Israel. This is in addition to the president-elect’s decision to release a number of extremists, some of them facing death sentences… which is spreading extremist ideas again in breach of the peace agreement, something that is not in the public interest.”

There’s no guarantee any of this will last: Anti-Israel incitement has been the norm in Egypt for decades, and anti-Israel sentiment runs deep. But if Sunday’s attack proves the start of a process that leads ordinary Egyptians to reevaluate who their real enemies are, that would be an enormous boon not only for Israel, but for the prospects of a lasting Middle East peace.

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In the New Egypt, Israel is the Enemy

If anyone still harbored illusions that power would moderate the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunday’s attack in Sinai should have shattered it. Heavily armed jihadis stormed an Egyptian army outpost, slaughtered 16 Egyptian solders, stole two APCs and raced toward the Israeli border, where the Israeli army finally stopped them. As Jonathan optimistically wrote yesterday, this is one crime “that cannot be blamed on Israel.”

Except, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood proceeded to do exactly that: As the Jerusalem Post reported, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on its website that the attack ‘can be attributed to Mossad’ and was an attempt to thwart” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s man in Cairo.

According to the Brotherhood statement, the Mossad “has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.” The group added: “(It) also draws our attention to the fact that our forces in Sinai are not enough to protect it and our borders, which makes it imperative to review clauses in the signed agreement between us and the Zionist entity.”

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If anyone still harbored illusions that power would moderate the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunday’s attack in Sinai should have shattered it. Heavily armed jihadis stormed an Egyptian army outpost, slaughtered 16 Egyptian solders, stole two APCs and raced toward the Israeli border, where the Israeli army finally stopped them. As Jonathan optimistically wrote yesterday, this is one crime “that cannot be blamed on Israel.”

Except, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood proceeded to do exactly that: As the Jerusalem Post reported, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on its website that the attack ‘can be attributed to Mossad’ and was an attempt to thwart” Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s man in Cairo.

According to the Brotherhood statement, the Mossad “has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago.” The group added: “(It) also draws our attention to the fact that our forces in Sinai are not enough to protect it and our borders, which makes it imperative to review clauses in the signed agreement between us and the Zionist entity.”

But it gets even worse. Israel had advance intelligence of the attack – hence its warning that Israelis should leave Sinai, and the heightened alert along the border that enabled it to stop the terrorists with no Israeli casualties. And like a good neighbor, it shared some of this intelligence with the Egyptian army.

Egypt, however, evidently ignored the information: There’s no sign that it beefed up security along the border or placed its soldiers on heightened alert.

In short, the new Egypt is so unwilling to cooperate with Israel that it wouldn’t even act on Israeli intelligence about a threat to its own security. And given the Brotherhood’s subsequent statement, one can see why: It doubtless viewed the warning as a devious Mossad plot aimed at weakening Egypt in some unknown fashion.

All this confirms the impression left by last week’s fiasco, when Morsi replied to Israeli President Shimon Peres’s Ramadan greeting. The reply was faxed from the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv with a cover note on embassy letterhead. But when the eternally optimistic Peres publicized it, deeming it a “hopeful” sign, both Morsi’s spokesman and his top aide flatly denied that any letter was ever sent. His spokesman even termed the media reports a “slander.”

In short, Morsi is willing to throw occasional bones like the Peres letter, so that Western countries whose money he needs to rescue Egypt’s economy can keep deluding themselves of his moderation. But back home, where it counts, accusing him of any contact with Israel – even something as banal as acknowledging a Ramadan greeting – constitutes “slander.”

There’s a clear lesson for Israel in all this: If, as expected, Egypt seeks to bring more troops into Sinai (which requires Israel’s permission under the peace treaty), Jerusalem should say no. Because given the Morsi government’s attitude to date, those troops won’t cooperate with Israel; they’ll at best stand idly by whenever the jihadis attack Israeli targets, and at worst may target Israel themselves.

Israel already has enough problems in Sinai; it doesn’t need even more Egyptian troops standing around and doing nothing to solve them. That just means more soldiers who could get caught in the cross-fire – thereby increasing the risk of an Israeli-Egyptian war.

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Hamas a Threat to Egypt as Well as Israel

The outcome of the latest terrorist attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border leaves the two nations with a confusing situation. Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip entered Egyptian territory at sundown from the smuggling tunnels run by Hamas and then proceeded to attack an Egyptian military post. They killed 16 Egyptian soldiers who were settling down to their Ramadan feast, stole vehicles which they then loaded with explosives, and headed to the Israeli border with the apparent goal of kidnapping and/or killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Fortunately, the Israel army reacted swiftly, blowing up one vehicle, killing several of the terrorists and forcing the others to flee into the Sinai. No Israelis were harmed.

The attack is an embarrassment in more than one way for the Egyptian government that is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is allied with Hamas, which along with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, condemned the incident. But the lax security in the Sinai since the fall of the Mubarak regime has led not only to Sinai becoming a lawless region where terrorists roam freely. Even more important, the attack, which is just the latest attempt by Gaza-based Palestinians to assault Israel via the Sinai, makes it clear the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza has made it a terrorist enclave that presents a danger to Egypt as well as Israel. Though Israel is the boogeyman of Egyptian popular culture and the focus of a relentless hate campaign in the media there, it may turn out that the Palestinians are the real threat. The question is whether the slaughter of their soldiers — a crime that cannot be blamed on Israel — willl motivate the Egyptian army and the government in Cairo to crack down on both Sinai and Hamas-run Gaza.

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The outcome of the latest terrorist attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border leaves the two nations with a confusing situation. Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip entered Egyptian territory at sundown from the smuggling tunnels run by Hamas and then proceeded to attack an Egyptian military post. They killed 16 Egyptian soldiers who were settling down to their Ramadan feast, stole vehicles which they then loaded with explosives, and headed to the Israeli border with the apparent goal of kidnapping and/or killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Fortunately, the Israel army reacted swiftly, blowing up one vehicle, killing several of the terrorists and forcing the others to flee into the Sinai. No Israelis were harmed.

The attack is an embarrassment in more than one way for the Egyptian government that is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is allied with Hamas, which along with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, condemned the incident. But the lax security in the Sinai since the fall of the Mubarak regime has led not only to Sinai becoming a lawless region where terrorists roam freely. Even more important, the attack, which is just the latest attempt by Gaza-based Palestinians to assault Israel via the Sinai, makes it clear the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza has made it a terrorist enclave that presents a danger to Egypt as well as Israel. Though Israel is the boogeyman of Egyptian popular culture and the focus of a relentless hate campaign in the media there, it may turn out that the Palestinians are the real threat. The question is whether the slaughter of their soldiers — a crime that cannot be blamed on Israel — willl motivate the Egyptian army and the government in Cairo to crack down on both Sinai and Hamas-run Gaza.

The Israeli government has been calling for Egypt to police Sinai more thoroughly. Their neighbors have said this would require the two countries to renegotiate the 1979 peace treaty that calls for Egypt to keep its main forces away from the border. But the problem is not really limited to the Sinai. The danger stems from the fact that Gaza has become a haven not just for every armed Palestinian terrorist group but also global jihadis who may not be willing to take orders from Hamas.

In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, Egypt largely dropped its enforcement of the blockade of Gaza, making it easier for terrorists as well as arms and material to enter the Hamas-run statelet. But the majority of Egyptians who support the Brotherhood must now reckon with the fact that having an Islamist terror state on their border presents a danger to them as well as to Israel. It may be asking a lot of a country where anti-Semitism is so deeply engrained in popular culture and where hatred of Israel is endemic to realize that keeping the border with the Jewish state quiet is in their interest. But as ordinary Egyptians as well as the new government begin to realize that what they have nurtured in Gaza is a danger akin to Afghanistan prior to 9/11, traditional Egyptian antipathy for the Palestinians could begin to rein in a reckless policy of antagonizing Israel.

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