Egypt's Mishandling of Sinai Could Risk Unwanted Confrontation With Israel

Security on the Egyptian peninsula should be an issue of U.S.-Egyptian-Israel cooperation.

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An Egyptian soldier stands guard on a watchtower near the border with Israel. / Reuters

I remember in 2008 sitting in the office of Abdel Monem Said Aly who at the time was the director of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies when the subject of the Sinai came up. It was a few months' time after Hamas had blown a hole in the wall that separates Gaza from the Egyptian frontier, resulting in thousands of Palestinians rushing into the Sinai to buy supplies and seek medical care.  Abdel Monem was not unmoved by the plight of the Palestinians, but he was clearly worried about Egyptian security.  He asked me what I thought would happen if a Palestinian extremist group were able to infiltrate Israel from the Sinai and carry out some sort of deadly attack.  "How would Israel respond?" Abdel Monem asked rhetorically.  He knew that the Israelis would respond, but how, where, and to what extent were unknowns that clearly unsettled him.  At one end of the escalation ladder, the Israelis military might try to push into the Sinai much like the Israel Defense Force's periodic advances in Lebanon or the Turkish military's incursions into northern Iraq.  This would no doubt put the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and thus Egyptian security in jeopardy. Perhaps the Israelis would use some other tactic, but either way this would create a terrible security dilemma for Egypt's leaders.  The Egyptians could absorb the blow and be forced to confront additional opprobrium of their people or they could respond and risk a conflict with Israel that they would likely lose.

Abdel Monem later became the chairman of the board of the government-controlled al Ahram Foundation and was thus by definition part of the regime.  He was pushed out of that lofty position after the uprising, though he continues to have a column at the daily newspaper, al Ahram.  Abdel Monem is a member of the widely detested felool--remnants--but he was and still is a very good strategic analyst.   Why the meditation on a meeting that happened four years ago?  You would never know it from the msm, twitter, or anywhere else, but Abdel Monem's Sinai scenarios could become a reality soon.  On Wednesday, the IDF mobilized six reserve battalions (an additional 16 were authorized and will be mobilized, if necessary) as a precautionary measure given the potential for instability in the Syria and Egypt to affect Israeli security.

This issue has been simmering for since last summer, but it seems to be heating up now.  On April 24, the Israeli prime minister called the Sinai the "Wild West."  Netanyahu was responding the bombing of the el Arish -Ashkelon pipeline--the fourteenth--but Israel's concerns run deeper than a commercial deal that is now in jeopardy.  As I wrote last August, the Sinai is a haven for drug smuggling, human trafficking, gun running, and extremists of all types, ranging from Egyptian takfiris and Palestinian jihadists to al Qaeda sympathizers.  The obvious answer to the problem of security in the Sinai is to deploy more Egyptian forces in the area, a step that is subject to Israeli approval under the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  The Israelis have actually been forward leaning on the issue, giving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the green light for Operation Eagle last summer and Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, signaled that Jerusalem might be willing to revisit the restrictions on Egyptian forces in the Sinai.

So if the problem is not necessarily the Israelis, what is it?  In a word, Egypt. The reason for Israel's mobilization is not only because the IDF does not believe that the Egyptian armed forces are up to the task of cleaning up the mess in the Sinai, but the Egyptian military happens to share that view.  By all measures, Operation Eagle failed and the Egyptian have no capacity to plan and execute a sustained military effort in the Sinai that would improve the security environment there.  As a result, Israeli leaders have clearly determined that if the next rocket to land on Eilat kills someone, they are going to have to deal with the problem themselves.  The Israelis have every right to defend themselves, but an Israeli attack on Egypt soil would not end well for anyone.  I guarantee it.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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