An intelligence analyst on the ground in the Mideast discusses the turmoil in Egypt – and what it means for Israel
In 2011, popular protests in Egypt ousted Hosni Mubarak from his 20-year post as president and sparked uprisings throughout the Arab world. Two years later, on July 3, in response to mass demonstrations, the Egyptian military deposed Morsi, cancelled the Islamist-based constitution, and appointed an interim administration, promising to hold new elections within a year.
During this transition period, as Egypt erupts with deadly protests, both for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel has remained silent.
Jeremy Jacobson is an intelligence analyst working for a private intelligence firm located in the Middle East. A native of West Hartford, where he attended the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy and Hall High School, he holds a Bachelors degree in international affairs and Middle East studies from the Elliot School of international Affairs of The George Washington University, and a Master’s degree in security and diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
Recently, he offered the Ledger his perspective on the political upheaval in Egypt and what it means for Israel’s security. All comments and opinions expressed here are solely his own.
Q: What are the implications of the overthrow of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for Israel?
A: Although most developments in the Middle East are generally met with a degree of cautious cynicism here in Israel, in my opinion the entire episode is positive for Israel. Here’s why. Mohammed Morsi had begun, as far back as November, taking significant steps to systematically marginalize and exert his control over the military. Even his choice of defense minister, Abdul Fatah al-Sissi, was meant as a means to this end. Al-Sissi, who now effectively controls the country, served as liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military during the initial revolution against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and was expected to be more sympathetic to Morsi’s rule. Moreover, militant Islamists from throughout the world, including Gaza, saw Mubarak’s ouster as a golden opportunity to set up shop in the Sinai, and began attacking not only Israel but the military as well – including one attack that killed 16 soldiers (the military believed the militants were members of Hamas). In each case, Morsi told the Egyptian people he would pursue the militants, but in reality he restrained the army from doing its job, and forced al-Sissi to withdraw his forces and cancel operations to root out jihadists.
And so, the overthrow of Morsi is good for a few reasons. First, the only Egyptian institution that has a positive disposition towards the Jewish state is the military. That will remain so as long as the Egyptian military remains a strong, independent institution, and continues to receive aid from the U.S. as a reward for peace. The generals do not want to lose those extra funds, nor do they want to sacrifice the intelligence cooperation between Egypt and Israel. In addition, the overthrow of Morsi sends a clear message to any other political group that may attempt to marginalize or exert its own ideological position over the military. It ensures that Israel will remain safe no matter who comes to power.
It also allows the military to unleash its full might against Islamists in the Sinai, after a year of being restrained by Morsi. Already, since Morsi’s ouster, the military has killed dozens of militants, including more than 30 Hamas members, and has destroyed more than 90 percent of the smuggling tunnels leading into Gaza. The military relationship between the two countries has never been stronger, and will likely remain so in the foreseeable future. Of course, that doesn’t mean the everyday soldiers like each other, and I’ve heard some funny stories of Egyptian and Israeli soldiers on guard duty hurling insults across the border.
Ultimately, whether or not the “coup” leads to a new or better democracy, or whether or not even more extreme Islamists are elected, the military has sent a strong message that it will always act to maintain its independence, and that it values peace and security along Israel’s southern border.
Q: Can you describe what happened in Sinai since Morsi and the Brotherhood took control – and what the military is doing to rectify the situation?
A: The fall of Hosni Mubarak signaled to many militant groups open season on the Egyptian desert. This was not unique to Egypt, as the political and military upheaval in other countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Mali previously had resulted in similar situations. Moreover, the Sinai had always been home to a large cadre of Bedouin smugglers, making it a prime area for weapons (as well as human and drug) trafficking, which is generally essential to jihadist operations. The addition of a consistent jihadist presence in the area, due to infiltrations from Gaza, also made it a logical base for militants from around the globe.
Once Morsi came to power, as I previously mentioned, he systematically restrained the military from conducting operations against the jihadists in the Sinai. On multiple occasions he personally cancelled operations the military had planned to root out jihadists suspected of attacking Egyptian forces and, after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in a particularly deadly attack, forbade the military from pursuing those responsible. This resulted in a buildup of jihadist elements in the region, an increase in smuggling, and an increased threat to Israel as well.
The military believed that, in addition to Morsi’s attempts to consolidate power over the armed forces, this was due to Morsi’s belief in a global Islamist movement, known in academic circles as “pan-Islamism”. They believed this was evidenced by Morsi’s willingness to accede to President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on longstanding border disputes. Al-Bashir is an Islamist, and they saw the move as Morsi’s silent way of advancing the cause of pan-Islamism.
The military crackdown in Sinai was predictable following Morsi’s fall. First, one should realize that the entire time Morsi was in power, the military was gathering intelligence, both its own and that shared with Israel, on the positions and makeup of the jihadist organizations in Sinai. Now unfettered in their operational abilities, the military worked quickly to first shut down the flow of Islamists into the peninsula from Gaza by destroying the smuggling tunnels and temporarily closing the Rafah crossing. It subsequently asked Israel for permission to send two additional armored battalions into the Sinai, so as to not violate the terms of the 1979 peace agreement. It is now – likely in cooperation with Israeli military intelligence – carrying out operations to seek out and destroy the remaining Jihadist cells throughout the Sinai. As previously mentioned, one such operation resulted in the deaths of over 30 Hamas members, and dozens of other militants have been killed or captured as well.
Q: Is the Muslim Brotherhood seriously wounded by the overthrow of Morsi?
A: It’s too early to tell how crippled the Muslim Brotherhood truly is in Egypt. For certain, the Ikhwan [Arabic for “brotherhood”] has been abandoned by its allies abroad, such as Qatar. However, thousands of protestors continue to demand Morsi be reinstated. Estimates maintain that the Ikhwan are supported by roughly 20 percent of the population, but it is unclear whether they will be readmitted to the democratic process or not. What is certain, though, is that there can be no real democracy in Egypt if they are excluded, and those preparing the new constitution know that. Furthermore, more extreme Salafist elements, such as the al-Nour party, which supported Morsi’s ouster, will likely be allowed to participate, and would likely garner the votes of otherwise disenfranchised Brotherhood members, amplifying their significance. Therefore, as long as the process is truly democratic, it is likely there will be a significant Islamist presence in the future Egyptian government.
Q: Has the displacement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt weakened Hamas in Gaza?
A: Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have always been extremely close, the former being a 1980s offshoot of the latter. This has had both positive and negative implications for Israel. On the one hand, it gave Jerusalem a direct line of negotiation with Gaza through Cairo, which is how a ceasefire agreement was reached in November 2012, ending Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, Morsi restrained the military from combating smuggling and jihadist operations in the Sinai, allowing Hamas to flourish. Recently, reports indicate that Hamas has switched completely to constructing its rockets domestically, in part due to the military’s crackdown on tunnels. Therefore, in my opinion, the fall of the Ikhwan has definitely weakened Hamas, at least temporarily.
It should be noted that such a blow could not come at a worse time for Hamas. The group’s finances have constricted significantly since Iran, formerly the group’s biggest patron, ceased funding the organization after Hamas renounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hamas is also draining its own resources in Syria, where its operatives are aiding and training the rebels. Compounding this is the fact that Hamas’ rival, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller and even more militant group operating in Gaza, has replaced Hamas as the focal point of Iran’s main patronage in the Palestinian theater, making it the wealthiest militant group in Gaza. That, coupled with the loss of Morsi, make the subsequent crackdown all the more painful.
Q: Several Coptic Christians have been brutally murdered in Egypt in recent days, reportedly by radical Islamists. Is the Muslim Brotherhood targeting Coptics?
A: Persecution of Coptic Christians increased significantly following the fall of Mubarak, who largely protected them. In addition, the Coptics were seen as complicit in the overthrow of Morsi’s government, further drawing the ire of Islamists in Egypt. Coptic clerics played a huge role in the formulation of an interim agreement following the fall of Morsi, and the Coptic pope gave a speech following General al-Sissi’s announcement that President Morsi had been ousted. The recent inclusion of multiple Coptic Christians in the new government is likely to increase those tensions, and attacks on Christians and Coptic churches are likely to continue.
Q: What do we know about the interim president, Adly Mansour?
A: Adly Mansour was a pretty low-key hold over from the Mubarak era when the military appointed him interim president. He was appointed the deputy head of the Supreme Court in 1992, and only recently became its head. Not much is really known about him personally. In 2012, Mansour led a judicial council that eventually struck down a law barring members of the former regime to hold office. This opened the elections to Ahmad Shafiq, a former prime minister during the Mubarak era, who narrowly lost to Morsi in the runoff election for president. Mansour’s name had been circulated as a possible person to be an interim leader by protestors before Morsi was even overthrown. Mansour is a lawyer and a judge of the highest court, and therefore it made sense for him to head an interim government that would be charged with forming a new constitution. It was likely the military agreed to his appointment because of the 2012 council decision, and that all other parties, including the liberal protestors, the Salafists, the Coptics, agreed because he was relatively unknown.
It’s too early to tell what this will mean for Egypt in the future. Mansour has promised elections to be held within the next six or seven months, and the cabinet he appointed and recently swore in is almost entirely liberal, headed by an economist and including women and Coptic members. However, Islamists were conspicuously absent from the list of ministers. This could be a sign that Islamists will be forbidden to run in future elections, which could disenfranchise a large portion of Egypt’s population and possibly call the legitimacy of any future government into question.
Regardless, I find it hard to believe Mansour will retain power in the long run. He is not from the military, and therefore cannot be compared to Mubarak, Anwar al-Saddat or Gammal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s only presidents prior to Morsi. Moreover, if the military really wanted to retain complete control over the government, it would have put one of its own in power, not a constitution-minded lawyer.
As far as Israel is concerned, as I noted before, the military’s actions in overthrowing President Morsi have rendered the leanings of any future president, Mansour or otherwise, inconsequential.
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