The view from the ground.

As Egypt Roils, Israel Watches

As the streets of Cairo erupt in chaos, Jerusalem wonders if the military can set things right again.

Getty Images News
Getty Images News
Getty Images News

TEL AVIV — A year ago, Egyptians elected their first Islamist president. Across the Red Sea, Israelis were on edge.

TEL AVIV — A year ago, Egyptians elected their first Islamist president. Across the Red Sea, Israelis were on edge.

"Israeli officials most dread the prospect of an Islamist president," I wrote in these pages in the lead-up to Mohamed Morsy’s victory, when the Muslim Brotherhood candidate appeared to be a frontrunner.

A year later, now that Egypt’s military has deposed the Islamist head of state, one might expect Israel to breathe easy. But like so much in this region, the two neighbors’ relationship is exceedingly, unendingly complex.

"It’s at once more complicated and much simpler than it seems," says Mark Heller, an Egypt expert at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies. "What’s complicated is that there’s no denying the deep hostility of every Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to Israel. But it’s also true that the other political forces in Egypt, including those simplistically described as liberal or secular, are often no less hostile."

"What makes it simpler is that as long as the army has the dominant role in foreign and security policy, it doesn’t matter so much who controls parliament or the president’s office," he says.

Several months into Morsy’s term, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials told me ties with their Egyptian military counterparts had never been better. Egypt’s Army is the beneficiary of Washington’s annual $1.6 billion aid package to the country — money dependent on it playing nice with the Jewish state. Not that there’s any love lost between the two, but at least there are shared interest. Egypt’s generals have no desire for another costly war with their neighbor, with which they shares an interest in keeping Hamas gunmen ensconced in Gaza rather than terrorizing either country’s soldiers or civilians.

And yet shortly after Morsy’s presidency began, Israel saw signals that its anxiety over Islamist rule may have been justified. Just a few months in, video footage emerged from 2010 showing him perorating: "We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." Egyptian children "must feed on hatred…. The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him."

In another video he called Israelis "bloodsuckers", "warmongers" and "descendants of apes and pigs" — all well-established anti-Semitic tropes, the last of which derives from the Quran and hadith and is a favorite of Islamists. Morsy countered that his words had been "taken out of context," but it soon was revealed that he had told a group of U.S. senators that American media is "controlled by certain forces" keen to discredit him. Even when trying to clear his own name, Morsy was unable to steer clear of anti-Semitic slurs.

And yet Israelis could not deny that this deeply flawed leader had kept the two countries’ three-decade cold peace at a chill roughly similar to that of his pro-Western predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Morsy, it seemed, might not be the monumentally destabilizing force Israeli leaders had feared. It’s true that under him, government-to-government contact was lacking to nonexistent — dealings with the Israelis were almost entirely handled by the military and intelligence. And yet when conflict predictably erupted between Israel and Hamas in last year’s eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense, Morsy’s government played a useful role mediating between the two sides, each of which refuses to talk to the other directly.

Indeed, a chief Israeli concern had long been that a Brotherhood-led government would be favorable to the Hamas statelet in the Gaza Strip. (Hamas is, after all, effectively the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch.) And yet Morsy’s government, however, did nothing to stop the Egyptian army from destroying smuggling tunnels to Gaza — in fact, with him in office, more tunnels were destroyed than Mubarak’s men had ever dreamed of. This, for Israel, was a godsend — the tunnels were conduits for consumer goods difficult for Gazans to obtain due to Israeli and Egyptian trade restrictions. Terrorists and their weapons also passed through in abundance.

Equally important, Morsy’s government clamped down hard on jihadist groups in Sinai. The vast, sparsely populated area — just half a million people in an area three times Israel’s size — is inhabited mostly by nomadic Bedouin who have historically experienced de facto semi-autonomy (or arguably neglect) from Cairo.

Post-Mubarak, Sinai quickly became a terrorist springboard for sundry jihadists including but not limited to al Qaeda. In the summer of 2011, eight Israelis were killed in a terror attack launched from Sinai, and last summer gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and stole their vehicles before Israeli troops stopped them dead in their half-tracks as they threatened the border.

Now, just a few days after Morsy’s fall, brazen acts of violence have already returned to Sinai. On Friday, July 5, six Egyptian soldiers were killed as Islamists launched a multipronged rocket and gunfire offensive on a number of army installations and an airport. Troops responded with a curfew on northern Sinai and by closing the country’s one crossing into Gaza for good measure.

It’s uncertain whether the perpetrators were Morsy supporters — angry (or paid) to exact retribution for the military coup — or garden-variety jihadists eager to hit Egyptian troops (and presumably Israelis) whenever possible. To Israel, the cause is less relevant than the effect: Sinai’s oil sands are once again ablaze.

But even if the military manages to put out the fires in Sinai, the larger problems plaguing Egypt may be too hot to touch. The Institute for National Security Studies’ Mark Heller says Egypt’s problems, chiefly its failing economy and the rootedness of political Islam, are so deep as to be fundamentally untreatable. Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Egypt is today the world’s largest wheat importer.

"No government has had the courage to charge market rates for wheat or bread — it’s political suicide to cancel those subsidies," says Heller. "The only way Egypt can keep that up is through foreign income. Unfortunately tourism is in the toilet, foreign investment has disappeared and Egyptians are pulling out their capital."

Of course, the violence isn’t limited to Sinai — 30 people were killed across Egypt on Friday alone in clashes between Morsy backers and opponents. Watching from Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his cabinet to keep mum. The Israeli premier surely knows that publicly backing either side will only hurt its cause, and that Egyptians in any case have a penchant for seeing a Zionist hand behind every domestic development. But Israel’s lawmakers are not known for their discretion, and it wasn’t long before one of them — Tzachi Hanegbi, an ex-minister close to Netanyahu — weighed in:

"Israel’s clear interest is for Egypt to remain stable, favorable to the West and the U.S., and that it does not let itself get carried away by a wave of religious extremism," he told Army Radio. "The return to prominence of the army and a secular authority capable of ensuring the stability of the country is good news."

Zvi Mazel, Israel’s former ambassador to Cairo, agrees. "What happened in Egypt is excellent, first of all for Egypt but also for the region and for Israel," says Mazel. "Imagine if the Brotherhood had stayed in power — eventually it could have taken over the army, police, and intelligence and Egypt would have found itself like Iran, with little chance of ridding itself of radical Islam."

"In the long run, the Brotherhood would have cooperated with their ally Hamas, and I believe that in a few years it would have canceled the peace treaty and maybe even attacked Israel," he said. "I’ve been monitoring the Brotherhood for 20 to 25 years, looking for signs of pragmatism. Sorry to disappoint you, but I haven’t found any."

After deposing Morsy, Egypt’s military authorities named the relatively unknown judge Adly Mansour as interim president, and the more widely known Nobel Prize-winning moderate Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister. Heller, however, says the choice of a long-term replacement is virtually irrelevant, and that the country’s essential conflict is between its only two organized forces: political Islam and the military. As long as the latter continues to run foreign and defense policy — as he expects it to — Israeli-Egyptian dynamics won’t substantively change.

Indeed, from Jerusalem’s perspective, Egypt’s revolution redux bears many of the same markers as its first. This time, as after the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolution, Israel faced growing threats from insurgents in Sinai, smugglers in Gaza, and a general unease over the erosion of that elusive term "stability."

And yet this time there is at least one difference: the phenomenon of average Egyptians relaying eyewitness reports on Israeli TV news — in fluent Hebrew.

Egypt’s 12 universities all offer Hebrew courses, and thousands of Egyptians graduate yearly with a degree in the language. Until now, most Egyptians had maintained an unofficial boycott against visiting Israel or speaking to its media. It’s unclear what caused the change, but over the past week each of Israel’s three networks have run nightly interviews with a rotating cast of anti-Morsy demonstrators.

On Thursday, it was the turn of journalist and protester Heba Hamdi Abu Saif. Appearing on Channel 2 from Tahrir Square, she declared with near-perfect diction: "Every leader in the world draws legitimacy from the people. If the people withdraw that support, he mustn’t stay any longer."

Then she added a personal note, hinting that she’s not a fan of Israel’s prime and finance ministers, and encouraging a little people power across the border: "If Bibi and Yair Lapid aren’t doing their jobs, then get rid of them and bring in leaders whom you want. They made you promises they didn’t keep, so don’t just keep silent," she enjoined. "We too were made promises that went unfulfilled, but it’s the people who must decide."

Citizens of democracies generally resent foreign nationals telling them whom to vote for, but for Israelis used to near-universal distaste from their Egyptian neighbors, it was refreshing to be treated as a normal country. Still, whoever becomes Egypt’s president, bilateral relations will remain fraught. And yet Abu Saif’s televised display of chutzpah came as a relief — a silver lining perhaps for Tel Aviv in the clouds of tear gas at Tahrir.

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv-based writer and analyst, and the former deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. His first book, “Fire Before Dawn: The First Palestinian Revolt and the Struggle for the Holy Land,” is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.

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