“El-Sissi leading a Churchillian fight against Hamas,” was The Times of Israel front-page headlines of March 1, 2015, which is an accurate and on point assessment of the declaration of war against the Gaza enclave and its current leadership, and illustrative of the changes under way in Egypt since the 2013 coup. In the article, Avi Issacharoff declares “that there is only one leader in the Middle East who can be compared to Winston Churchill, and he sits in Cairo.” The reason for this declaration is because an Egyptian court defined Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, as a terrorist organization and the implication of commencing an actual state of war against the organization governing the enclave and by extension the Palestinian population in Gaza.
The designation of Hamas’s military wing as a terrorist organization was followed by a further, more sweeping Egyptian court ruling declaring the whole of Hamas a terrorist organization. This ruling went on to outlaw any dealings with Hamas and, during the proceeding, charged President Morsi of conspiring with the Palestinian group throughout his short tenure in office. In the Issacharoff article, he correctly observes, “as far as Cairo is concerned, the real enemy sits in Gaza, while Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are home to partners in the fight against terror.” In this context, the change and transformation in Egypt and the region becomes far clearer and the new post-Arab Spring alignment that witness cooperation and coordination between El-Sissi, Israel and Gulf countries is indicative of the causes behind the military coup on the one hand and the current set of pursued policies by regional actors. The lines of cooperation and the new strategic alliance formed since 2013 point to a monumental shift, the results of which continue to unfold; thus, it will take some time before we are able to give a complete assessment of the local and regional impact. Israel’s embrace by Egypt and Arab Gulf elites is not surprising considering the re-shaping of the region in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring and the fear of possible democratic change led by Islamist. Furthermore, the collapse of three regimes in North Africa, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya n a short period of time left many unknowns in the region and brought new and popularly mandated political forces into play that raised concerns in Tel Aviv and Arab capitals. Political survival of the old order dictated cementing a new regional alliance with Israel embedded in it. Israel’s role is to provide needed security cooperation but more importantly honed skills at placating through lobbying European leaders and the US who were not too keen at reversing course with their embrace of the Arab Spring.
In this context, the new alignment reconstituted the old “behind closed-door secret service” relations with Israel and made it into a public and total embrace by El-Sissi and Gulf States under the rubric of fighting a common enemy. Who is this common enemy, how should we understand the new regional alignment and what factors led to its emergence at this particular time? More importantly, what are the reasons behind Egypt’s aggressive policies toward Hamas and participation in Israel’s siege of Gaza? Answering these questions and others require us first to give a quick overview of post-WWII Arab world political order focusing on relations and engagement with Israel and then examine the changes brought about by El-Sissi in Egypt since the 2013 coup.
Palestine and Arab Strategic Landscape
El-Sissi’s Egypt has set a siege on Gaza that is as devastating as the one put in place by Israel since 2006, if not actually an extension of it. Immediately after the 2013 coup to oust Morsi the Egyptian military moved swiftly to close the border with Gaza, deployed the military on the border to track, find and destroy the tunnels that serve as the lifeline for the 1.4 million imprisoned population of Gaza. Furthermore, el-Sissi took the next step of creating a buffer zone by forcefully removing and depopulating the Egyptian side of the border and the city of Rafah. The New York Times ran the headline, “Egypt Flattens Neighborhoods to Create a Buffer With Gaza” on October 29, 2014, which was accompanied by images of blown-up houses, destroyed business and war zone-like conditions. El-Sissi’s aggressive actions are undertaken so as to isolate and punish Hamas for its close relations with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Movement as well as a maneuver to strike a stronger alliance with Israel. The operations on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border have targeted some 800 houses and led thus far to the displacement of 10,000 residents, which undoubtedly has further fueled anti-government sentiments in the area.
The agitating campaign against Hamas and the Gaza Strip was initiated immediately after the 2013 coup and was coupled with systematic destruction of hundreds of tunnels that operated as an informal economy and lifeline for the besieged Palestinians. As if the destruction of the tunnels was not enough, the Egyptian military went further by pumping sea water into them so as to flood whatever remains of the an important source of supplies to the besieged Strip. Added to the violent military crackdown and destruction of the tunnels was an Egyptian media waging an “incitement campaign against Palestinians as Gaza burns,” during the summer 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. Hossam al-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist, explained in an Al-Akhbar article, “The support of Palestinians has dramatically waned and the Egyptian silence in the face of Israel’s latest offensive is expected amid an unprecedented and coordinated media smear campaign against Hamas.” The article also mentions Azza Sami, deputy editor Al-Ahram newspaper, tweet saying, “Thank you (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and may God give us more [people] like you to destroy Hamas, the base of corruption and treachery.” Hostile statement included Egypt’s cable channel CBC’s official Facebook page posting that “Israeli air force bombarded 12 terrorist sites in Gaza.” Likewise, the aggressive declaration of Hayat al-Dardiri, a TV presenter of Egypt Today, claiming, “the Egyptian people know exactly who they are facing, and understand that there is no alternative to employing the Egyptian army to strike terror cells in Gaza and destroy Hamas in a military operation. We will never forget what Hamas did.” Additionally, Toufic Akasha, the owner of the pro-Sissi Faraeen TV channel, had the most hawkish, most pro-Israel position during the Summer 2014 assault, arguing that “Hamas and Hamas’ men go to hell” and demanding “Gazans must rebel against Hamas today. If they don’t, then they deserve to be bombed. If Gazans revolt against Hamas, Israel will stop bombing them and the Egyptian army would support them militarily to eliminate this terror movement.” More anti-Palestinian rhetoric followed; for example, in a twitter post, former MP Mohammed Abu Hamed wrote that “Egypt should treat Palestinians at the terminal and not allow them in” while Al-Bashayer newspaper took issue with the Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi’s decision to dispatch 500 tons of food and medical aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by saying that “the standard of living for a Gazan citizen is much higher than that of an Egyptian citizen. The poor in Egypt are more in need than the poor in the Gaza Strip. Let Qatar spend as much as it wants on the Gaza Strip. We should not send anything that Egyptians are in need of.”  The low point in this orchestrated media attack was that of Gamal Fahmy who said that “the Israeli occupation is better than the rule of Hamas in Gaza.” Following Fahmy’s statement was one by television presenter Ahmad Moussa, who said that Hamas and al-Qassam Brigades “are not our brothers, neither Muslims, they are the enemy…strike every place in Gaza, it is the right of our children” and opposing entry for those seeking medical attention, maintaining that “we don’t want anyone of them, those who are dying, let them die there.” It is clear, as Egyptian journalist and activist Wael Eskander explained, that the media campaign and “Hatred against Hamas has turned into a justification for the deadly blows delivered by Israelis against Palestinians in Gaza,” and in essence fits into El-Sissi’s decision to move toward a stronger alliance with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. For the most comprehensive understanding of these events, the actions undertaken by El-Sissi should be examined, not in isolation, but rather in the broader and historical developments of relations between Israel and Egypt and Israel and other key Arab states in the region.
While Israel lunched three military assaults on Gaza to force its will on the population and extract the needed terms of surrender from the Palestinians, the Arab world and the Egyptian government in particular played a decisive role at each turn. It might be then argued that what Israel failed to achieve with its shock and awe strategy and slaughter of civilians was remedied by Egypt and Arab States policies toward Gaza and Hamas, which made sure to impose Israeli terms by prolonging the fighting initially and then through the structure of the ceasefire agreements. Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz correctly observed that “war is the mere continuation of policy by other means” but in this case the Egyptian government is helping Israel to continue a policy of oppression, collective punishment, and the killing of civilians in order to extract concessions from the Palestinians favoring Israel at every turn.”
Through destroying the tunnels and establishing a buffer zone, El-Sissi is helping Israel realize the military goals it was seeking by attacking Gaza but failed to achieve against the Palestinians in a 51-day war. This latest approach of using Egypt to extract a victory in the face of a defeat on the battlefield was the same that Mubarak undertook following the 2008/09 Israeli attacks on Gaza, which witnessed the building of a subterranean steal wall to stop all supplies coming into the Gaza Strip. In that endeavor, the US Army Core of Engineers supervised the project and Congress allocated funds and dispatched the Iron Dome to provide for Israel’s security. No one bothered to provide protection for the Palestinians who are an occupied, refugee population in their own land, though, in theory, subject to protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Egyptian government under Mubarak went out of its way to make sure that Hamas continued to be pinned-in and barred from any claim of victory even after withstanding a devastating Israeli military attack and not buckling in the process. Released wikileaks documents relating to the 2008/09 attacks show that both the Egyptian Government and the Palestinian Authority were in total coordination with Israel. One leaked cable dated December 29, 2008 from US Embassy in Tel Aviv states:
“At 16:00 on December 28, the IDF bombed the Phiadelphi corridor along the Gaza-Egypt border, destroying 39-40 smuggling tunnels. No Egyptian border guards were harmed. IDF contacts have repeatedly told DATT that the targeting of the tunnels was coordinated with Egypt, and that they had passed the coordinates of the attack points to the Egyptians to enable them to ensure the safety of their border forces.”
Another cable from January 4, 2009 likewise illustrates the Egyptian Government’s complicity in Israel’s war on Gaza:
As of 1500 hrs. local on January 4, Egyptian military contacts said Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing on January 4 after the Israelis gave advanced warning of their ground invasion and additional air strikes on the smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Rafah border.”
For its part, the PA in the West Bank coordinated its security with Israel during the assault on Gaza so as to prevent and control protest and violence in the area. In a leaked cable from December 30, 2008:
“PA commanders said they told IDF officers that President Abbas and PM Fayyad both directed them to avoid situations that could develop into confrontations with the IDF. The security chiefs said Abbas and Fayyad passed a message to all Palestinian factions, at a PLO Executive Committee meeting on December 29, that only peaceful marches away from flashpoints would be permitted. PA commanders noted they have no control on over B/C areas such as Qalandiya and Nil’in, and would need IDF approval to move PA forces to those areas to prevent clashes between protesters and the IDF…
PA commanders said their IDF counterparts agreed to expedite coordination and movement requests and exchange information on possible disturbances, as both sides have an interest in preventing West Bank violence. They said both sides also agreed not to leak substantive discussions about the meeting to the press, given the sensitivity of security coordination in a time of Palestinian outrage over events in Gaza.”
The PA’s interest in coordination with Israel concerning Gaza is straight forward, as the rivalry with Hamas might have motivated Fatah’s leadership to use the opportunity to claim power in the Strip. Yet, the important questions that must be asked are what is Egypt’s interest in participating in Israel’s siege on Gaza and how did we get to this point? How could it be that Israel is a partner and the Palestinians in Gaza are deemed a hostile regime and subject to restrictions? In order to answer these question properly, we must trace the history of Palestine and examine the regional picture that led to the current circumstances since these are structural issues and not incidental.
Palestine throughout the 20th century has been subject to and affected by the global and regional strategic balance of power, the foremost of which is Israel’s security and hegemony. In an interview with the Washington Post El-Sissi’s answer to a question on the current state of affairs in Egypt was indicative of the focus on Israel’s security: “Egypt has a population of 90 million. If this country fails, the whole region will slide into a cycle of anarchy that will represent a grave danger to all countries in this region, including Israel, and would extend to Europe.” El-Sissi’s answer addresses the dangers to other countries but deliberately makes specific reference to Israel as if it is the only country of importance and the one worthy of direct reference by name. El-Sissi makes no mention of the Egyptians themselves and what the failure of Egypt might mean to its 90 million inhabitants. El-Sissi’s failure to mention Egypt was not an accidental omission, rather it is firmly located in a structured epistemic that was set in place to govern and regulate the regional balance of power which dictates that Israel is at its center.
Indeed, from the end of WWII up to the present the strategic balance favored Israel from its inception and support was extended to it by Western and regional allies. Israel’s power is a function of internal and external factors that allows this young state to project a greater power than its geographic or demographic size provides. Being a foreign implant into the region, Israel, from its inception, needed the political and military cover of a large power to carry its settler colonial project; Britain served the role leading up to the founding of the state while America inherited the role after WWII. On the regional strategic plain, two elements needed to be brought under control: the Arab countries that have the potential or the ability to constitute a military threat to Israel and those that have the economic resources to fund long term confrontation with the newly formed state.
In this context, the balance of power was set in Israel’s favor and continually assisted by successive US administration, which viewed the state as an important strategic ally, especially during the Cold War. Israel, as a Western implant in Palestine, was used to strike a balance of power in the region and played a critical role in the conflict between Arab nationalist and the monarchies in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Additionally, the US with its strong economic, political and security relations with oil-producing Gulf States managed to influence Arab policies toward Israel, affirming an acceptance of the regional balance of power despite frequent, controlled and short-lived military confrontations. On the surface and through public pronouncements Arab governments expressed solidarity with the Palestinians while at the same time conducted secret diplomatic relations with Israel. The double-dealing of the Arab and Gulf States was the norm rather than the exception. It was understood throughout the region that Israel’s power is irrefutable and Arab governments operated accordingly, which often meant pressuring Palestinians and limiting their expressions of resistance and calls for political power. This suppression of the Palestinian voice was the case as early as the post-1948 Nekba with Egypt’s control of Gaza, Jordan’s domination of the West Bank and the funding of the civil wars in Lebanon and Jordan in the 1970s. Palestinian’s expression of resistance and political organization ran contrary to the accepted regional balance of power with Israel at the helm. Israel’s attacks on Gaza are paradigmatic of this constituted balance of power and the consent–if not actual participation–of Arab governments is part of this historically forged security structure.
In confronting internal Palestinian problems and, prior to 1993, the PLO externally, Israel has sought to contain and limit the wider ring of strategic support extended to the Palestinian cause in political, economic, social, religious and military terms. It is commonly argued that due to its lack of strategic depth and landmass, Israel must engage in security-oriented activities beyond its borders in order to prevent a possible consolidation of hostile forces that would be allied with Palestinian aspirations. To this end, Israel pursued a heartland and periphery strategies to structure its security goals around its immediate borders with Arab states and the outer ring of countries that might extend support to Palestinians aspirations.
During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s the focal point for Israel was arresting and disrupting forces ideologically identified with Arab Nationalism, particularly those of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. During Nasser’s era, Israel coordinated with Saudi Arabia, which successfully managed to entangle Egypt in a protracted war in Yemen, the result of which weakened and distracted Nasser from internal projects and external policies. Nasser fighting a protracted war in Yemen cost many Egyptian lives and resources, which otherwise could have been used inside the country. This involvement had a profound effect on the preparation of the Egyptian military and their lack of readiness during the decisive 1967 Six Day War and the massive losses suffered. Nasser was defeated first in Yemen through the Arab-Arab Cold War, where Israel was a factor supporting and working secretly with Arab monarchies to contain Egypt and its potential as an emerging post-colonial state.
Likewise, Israel worked closely with Jordan to thwart Palestinian aspirations in mounting a steady border resistance against the occupation in the West Bank immediately after Palestinians expulsion. At the time Israel assisted King Hussein in preventing possible Syrian assistance to the PLO during the 1970 Black September Civil War and threatened Syrian troops that entered from the North with airpower, causing them to immediately withdraw, thus leaving the Palestinian without any support or cover as they were slaughtered in the north of the Jordan. Relations between the Jordanian royal family and Israel go back to the early 1920s, before either state was in existence, and were further strengthened from the 1960s onward. Jordan was a key ally against Arab Nationalism and closely coordinated with Israel to thwart Nasser’s agenda in the region and any possibility of Arab unity.
A similar assistance and cooperation was extended to Morocco’s royal family in countering a rising leftist political movement. This assistance included targeting activists who opposed the king abroad in Europe and France, in particular. Israel’s main challenge was to counter the rising strength of the PLO with the extensive international support enjoyed by the Palestinians across the world. The convergence of Israeli interests with Arab monarchies made it possible to limit and counter the PLO’s popular success at the grassroots level and global support through the non-aligned movement and post-colonial independent states. Looking back, one can conclude that the alliance of Israel and the various Arab monarchies was a successful strategy on the military front as the PLO’s power was degraded by force and the organization was physically removed from both Jordan and Lebanon, thus hindering its ability to mount any type of security threat from outside occupied Palestine. Likewise, the campaign was successful on the economic and social fronts as the PLO and Palestinian financial base was undermined as it became subject to greater levels of control in countries that were secretly cooperating with Israel for their own domestic and regional interests.
Egypt role in the post-Nasser’s era was decisive as the signing of the Camp David Accords altered the strategic landscape in the region as the largest and most populace Arab state was neutralized and further integrated into Israel’s security structure. The removal of Egypt as a possible threat gave Israel freedom in the north, which contributed to the invasion of Lebanon in order to oust the PLO from the country and thus further away from the Israel’s northern borders. The Camp David Accords provided the needed tools and covers as the US managed to consolidate its influence in the country by bringing it under its regional security umbrella while at the same time opening a wide door for Israel to develop military and economic relations with the Egyptian elite that constituted the pillars of the deep state. In pursuing its strategic interests, Israel had to neutralize some regional threats by means of bilateral peace treaties, as the case with Egypt and Jordan, while others were contained through participation in internal conflicts and fragmentation, i.e. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and possibly Iran, in the future. The Camp David Accords have to be understood from within the Israeli strategic vantage point and the importance of removing the largest Arab country from the conflict. A similar outcome was achieved with the Jordanian treaty, which also provided the needed economic bridge into Arab and Muslim markets. The Egyptian and Jordanian elites entered into peace treaties with Israel that facilitated military and economic aid from the West but more importantly integrated their security and intelligence infrastructure to that of Israel’s so as to consolidate power internally. As long as Egypt and Jordan maintain relations with Israel and make steps toward normalization, all avenues and relations with the US and Europe will remain open, and probably strengthen.
Beginning with the 1987 Palestinian uprising, the strategic balance in the region slowly shifted and the balance of power was no longer as clear as it had been during the Cold War. Perhaps an unexpected result of the 1987 Palestinian uprising was the erosion of Israel’s uncontested freedom of operations and the increasingly limited acceptable use of force in the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon, two areas that were directly under immediate Israeli military Occupation. The 1987 Intifada (uprising) exposed the weaknesses of Israel and the impotence of Arab governments in the struggle for ending the Occupation. One must remember that the Intifada started after the 1987 Arab Summit meetings in Baghdad failed to include Palestine as the key struggle facing the region and instead the text focused on the Iranian threat. As such, the Intifada was as much a corrective measure to amend the Arab political map as much as it was a challenge to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The intifada mobilized the Arab and Muslim street like never before and Israel’s security concerns extended far beyond Palestine. Thus, not only was the fear of an immediate, post-Intifada Palestinian threat a concern for Israel at this time, but Israel had to face a major challenge in the rapidly changing region and consideration for the larger context of the Arab and Muslim world and how best to maintain the balance of power in its favor. It is certain that the intifada damaged the psychological fear barrier and the constructed-Israeli superiority that kept the structure in Israel’s favor intact.
The intifada made it possible for a new Palestinian leadership to emerge inside the Occupied Territories that was not subject to regional Arab control and pressure, which altered the basis of existing relations. The Palestinian decision making process in conducting their resistance against Israel’s Occupation was outside Arab states control and images and TV coverage of the daily clashes impacted the public opinion across the region and the world. As a consequence of the Palestinian intifada, both Egypt and Jordan had to relinquish claims of custodianship and consented to an independent trajectory for Palestinian political aspirations. Since the 1948 Nekba Palestinians were constantly subject to Arab custodianship and limited freedom of operations because of their designation as refugees in neighboring states. These states, which took in displaced Palestinians, accepted Israel’s role in the region and wanted to control all activities that might challenge the existing structure. The emergence of a leadership and the intensification of peaceful resistance brought to an end the previous era and ushered a new direction for the Palestinians’ but this time it is coming from the population under Occupation.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait disrupted the process and caused a collapse in Arab consensus on the PLO because of Yasser Arafat’s strategic decision during the crisis and expressing open-support for Iraq. The Palestinians paid a heavy price in the process that was the primary engine behind the 1992 Madrid Conference that opened the door to Oslo’s secret negotiations with Israel. Madrid and Oslo would not have been possible without Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which brought about direct US military intervention in the Gulf and the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
In the current context, Israel’s strategic security borders extend to Iran, considering the containment of Jordan and Egypt by means of peace treaties and a deep-state strategic cooperation at all levels with both countries’ elites. Israel’s security reaches beyond Egypt and Jordan: Iraq is neutralized for the next 20 years, if not more, through fragmentation and internal strife, and Syria is in no position to constitute a threat for many years to come because of their present lack of internal cohesion (a minority constituted government at odds with a revolting majority population supported by regional actors fighting a sectarian proxy war on Syria’s soil). The Gulf resources are being neutralized by over-extending them to fight a containment proxy war in Syria and Iraq that will end-up supplanting Saudi Arabia’s financial strength and might lead to an internal strife in the kingdom itself, which would ultimately benefit Israel’s security structure and interests. The Saudi Kingdom will eventually find itself depending on Israel for its security needs if the proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen continue and internal strife becomes unmanageable.
Arab and Muslim leadership certainly have served American interests well in the region, at least since the end of WWII; however, in a unipolar world, regional states have to compete for the attention of the power center and jettison or reduce the effectiveness of possible competitors rendering similar services. The Israelis understand that the US commitment to its security is relative to domestic pressure generated by the American Jewish community on the one hand and considerations for the long-standing strategic interests in the Middle East region on the other. As such, Israel’s attempt at defining its security in American terms brings us back to Islamist organizations that are contesting the political arena and the immediate connection to El-Sissi’s attempt to crush his main opposition in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. At this stage in the region, the Islamists are the enemy of choice for Israeli planners and PR machine, both of which work constantly to assert and manufacture links between the Palestinian Islamic-oriented groups and those waging the war on the US in other parts of the world. It is this particular link that is at the heart of the Israeli-Egyptian alliance and both countries have been able to make their case to policy makers in Washington, DC, with great assistance rendered by the Saudi Arabia, UAE and, to a lesser extent, Jordan.
Indeed, the more the threat in the region is crafted around Islam the more Israel’s utility increases and the long-term relations with the US are affirmed by a mix of lobbying and real involvement on the ground. What Israel is constructing is its own regional security box wedded to US strategic outlook confronting “global terrorism,” the more pernicious and violent, the more Israel’s services and know-how are needed and rationalized. Israel has been successful in casting its fight with the Palestinians in similar terms as the US confrontation with al-Qaeda making it possible to engage in systematic assassination campaigns and massive attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2008/09, 2012 and 2014. In this context, the strategy allows for an epistemic fusion between Israel’s local Occupation strategy and the global war on terrorism, as well as involvement in every regional conflict, with Egypt being a key arena in which to prevent a consolidation of Islamist rule in the country.
The conflict with Israel–aside from its day-to-day land-based struggle–is directly linked to the global strategic position of states vis-à-vis the sole remaining superpower. As such, the casting of the conflict around the axis of terrorism makes Israel a much needed ally for the US in its fight, while the Palestinians, through a strong Zionist PR campaign, can be identified as an al-Qaeda-like threat, which is also built upon many earlier years of demonization of the PLO and its leadership. The missing card for Israel in all of this was the success or failure of the US and Arab elites in maintaining power and keeping Islamist like the MBM away from governance. Immediately after the coup in Egypt in 2013, a brief state of diplomatic freeze was in place against the Egyptian government as Europe and the US awaited the settling of the dust before returning to business as usual. The emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and violence in Yemen and Libya made El-Sissi seem a good choice to work with to counter the rising tide of terrorism in the region.
More broadly, the current regional public cooperation with Israel is connected to the global alignment behind and in support of El-Sissi and the Egyptian coup, which was readily on display immediately before and after the 2014 annual UN General Assembly meetings in New York. The US’s public distance from El-Sissi came to end and the Obama administration as well as European leaders made conscious moves to embrace the new military ‘strong man’ in Cairo and began to include him in the current counter-ISIS and counterterrorism strategies. The machinery that brought about Western and regional support for El-Sissi and the tacit acceptance of the military coup in Egypt was in place long before the unfolding events. The deep state in Egypt has been in the making for over 30 years and was supported militarily and economically by the US since the signing of the Camp David Accords. The Egyptian deep state, with the military at its pinnacle, is further supported by a neo-liberal economic order that has been nurtured, first through Sadat’s infetah (opening) program and followed by Mubarak’s crony capitalism and privatization that made major headway in connecting Cairo’s economy to that of Israel and the US.
From Weapons of Mass Destruction to Democracy!
After the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, European leaders and the US wanted to counter the rising tide of opposition and negative sentiments in the Arab and Muslim world through promotion of a democratic initiative. The invasion of Iraq was carried out on the supposed basis of preventing Saddam Hussein from continued possession of weapons of mass destruction. After an extensive search for the weapons in post-invasion Iraq, none where found. Only after the failure to locate any weapons or evidence thereof, the claims of their existence proved to have originated from “faulty” intelligence, which was traced to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. The promotion of democracy in the region was adopted as a public relations campaign to rehabilitate Bush’s and US’s image considering the colossal failures faced in Iraq and the lack of any weapons of mass destruction to display on TV screens to the world. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster that continues to unfold up to the present day. The Bush Administration’s shift into the democracy theme likewise has proven to be just as calamitous considering the outcomes in the region. The critique of Bush’s democracy promotion policies should not be taken to mean an opposition to democracy itself as a principle and a need to have an open and inclusive political system in the region. On the contrary, instrumentalizing democracy to cover up shortcomings in Iraq led to greater crisis and fragmentation in the region with a considerable discrediting of democracy itself. Indeed, Bush and his co-conspirators may have made democracy impossible in Iraq and the wider region since change was once again mandated and stage-managed from outside rather than internally driven and developed. Furthermore, people in the region, from the start, understood the promotion of democracy campaign to be nothing more than a tool to turn attention away from policy failures in Iraq rather than fundamentally altering the status quo.
Consequently, the first testing ground for Bush’s promoted democracy initiative was the Occupied Territories and the 2006 Palestinian elections, which delivered all the “wrong” outcomes from the US, Israel and Arab governments’ perspectives as Hamas won a decisive victory. All parties involved were planning for a Fatah victory while wanting to bring Hamas into the controlled political game so they would have an incentive to work out a solution through the Oslo framework with Israel in the long run. The basis of participation was accepting the Oslo agreement and adhering to the political realities achieved since Arafat’s signing in 1993. Hamas, for its part, crafted a position that committed it to not oppose Fatah’s engagement in and, if possible, procurement of a two-state peace agreement, while preferring to use the term hudnah (a term that means cessation of hostilities) for such a deal. The election was only made possible through the Oslo framework and created debates within Hamas as to the meaning of participation and whether it conveys an indirect recognition of Israel without an end to the Occupation.
Indeed, as long as Hamas remained outside the political game the possibility of controlling and inducing cooperation would been impossible; thus, Israel’s acceptance for Hamas inclusion allowed for the Palestinian group’s participation in the elections. Israel removed its objection for Hamas’ participation in the 2006 election. No one expected Hamas’s overwhelming success at the ballot box, attaining a nearly two-thirds majority of the seats in Parliament. To a certain extent, the current dynamics around the siege on Gaza and regional alignments related to it is a direct outcome of the US democratization initiative that was put in place to cover failures from the invasion of Iraq and mollify the rising popular opposition. The same type of thinking was behind the democratization program adopted by President Obama as a way to employ US soft power to bring about change in the region that can begin to squash the rising tide of militant opposition to America’s policies in the region.
The critical questions to be asked is why were the US and Europe so eager to embrace El-Sissi and turn against President Morsi, the first democratically elected president? Why did these outside powers completely ditch the first-ever leadership change in Egypt by means of the ballot box? The American policy was to support peaceful democratic change, which was the case in Egypt; yet, what caused the supplementary change that made El-Sissi the preferred alternative to an elected Morsi? What were the key factors that caused the abandonment of the American democratic project that focused on inclusion of Islamist in the political process? Was this shift independently arrived at or did the Gulf States and Israel play a decisive role in bringing about this change in Washington’s policy? Furthermore, what are the key factors behind El-Sissi’s shift toward Israel while undertaking a public and military campaign against Hamas and accusing the movement of fomenting violence on the Egyptian side of the border and the further allegation of smuggling weapons into the Sinai Desert? Answering these questions requires keeping in mind the above discussion about the regional background on Palestine and Israel’s strategic considerations so as to understand the immediate development under El-Sissi, since the on-going drastic shifts are build upon the existing regional alignment that has been in the making for at least the past 30 years.
I maintain that the 2013 Egyptian military coup and subsequent shifts toward an alignment with Israel was shaped by existing political alliances and understandings and that the election of Morsi and the acquisition of political power by the Brotherhood Movement was seen to be a threat to these alliances if they were to consolidate their rule over time. The Egyptian ruling elite from Mubarak’s days felt vulnerable to the possible loss of influence and privilege if the election results and the revolution outcomes became permanent. As an institution, the Egyptian military directly controlled some 40% of the country’s economy while having its hands in every industry and market. A local military crony capitalist complex was running the country. The choice of a coup was undertaken to preserve economic and political interests, which then set in motion a zero-sum approach toward the MBM domestically, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The US and Europe followed the local lead and were influenced by Israel and Gulf States’ role in supporting the Egyptian military coup against Morsi. Both Europe and the US were dragging their feet on how to respond to the coup and were even reluctant to refer to it in those terms. In the US, an initial split developed early on with some congressional figures expressing their opposition to the coup while the White House and State Department were keen to avoid referring to it as a military coup while calling on all sides to negotiate and reach a compromise.
Immediately after the coup the Israeli, UAE and Saudi Arabian governments invested considerable diplomatic muscle to influence European and US policy makers on Egypt in order to make sure that international pressure was not employed against the military take-over. Israeli emissaries traveled to Washington on several occasions, urging policy makers and the White House to embrace El-Sissi, forget the Islamist and Morsi as well as a call for the resumption of badly needed military aid. The Ynet news site declared in a headline, “Al-Sissi is not Israel’s friend, he’s a partner” and stressed that, “coordination between Cairo and Jerusalem is intimate and tight.” The article mentions that “a cartoonist from the bad guys’ side drew al-Sissi wrapped with a flag of Israel, dialing the red phone to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem to receive instructions for the negotiations with the Hamas delegation,” a reference to the negative role played by the Egyptian dictator during summer 2014 assault on Gaza.
Critically, a leaked recording from a June 2013 meeting provides a smoking gun as El-Sissi and the military are directly connected to managing the Tamarod account and tracing the available funds to the UAE. Another recording sheds more light on the regional financing for organizing the coup as El-Sissi is heard saying, “We need 10 to be deposited in the army’s account … These 10, when we succeed, will be used for what? For the state. We want another 10 like them from the UAE and we want from Kuwait another 10 like them.” The point to be made is that the coup itself was a regional undertaking intended to rescue the existing order after the sudden and massive change brought about by the Arab Spring. Egypt, Israel and Gulf States were keen to reverse the outcomes of the Arab Spring and re-constitute the old order.
We can speak of an Israeli-Egyptian-Gulf alliance that is set against Iran and situated to protect the existing old dictatorial order and regional monarchies at all costs. Israeli interests are easier to identify since Morsi was close to Hamas and Gaza and displayed a readiness to engage with Iran, two key strategic elements for the Zionist state. For the Gulf States, the early success of the Arab Spring created internal pressures from a population that was increasingly restless and desiring more freedom and movement toward democratic forms of governance. The pressure was clearly visible among the youth who took to social media and articulated similar hopes and aspiration that mobilized their counter parts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. On another front, the rise of Islamist political power through a democratic process undermined Saudi Arabia’s claim to uncontested Islamic authority and old rivalries between the Wahabbi and Muslim Brotherhood Movement came to the fore and was utilized by the government to oppose and work on reversing the revolution. The third key element related to Morsi’s position on Iran and his resistance to join the existing alliance seeking to contain Iranian influence in the region and was a decisive factor in his ousting.
Embracing El-Sissi and Endorsing the Coup
The Waldorf Astoria in New York has been the scene for many conferences, parties, weddings and memorable films, however, on September 25th, 2014 the hotel witnessed the Obama Administration’s public embrace of Abdul Fattah El-Sissi, the then newly “elected” president of Egypt. The United Nations General Assembly’s 69th session in New York served as a perfect backdrop for President Obama and key US leaders to begin the public and diplomatic cuddle of Abdul Fattah el-Sissi and affirming the long-standing relationship and vital American and Israeli interests in Egypt. The embrace brings back US policy to one of its favorite and oft-tested strategies in the Middle East: the embrace of military dictators in the hope of keeping stability and access to regional resources and markets.
In welcoming El-Sissi to the US, President Obama described Egypt as a “cornerstone of our security policy and … policy in the Middle East” while the meeting was deemed as “first opportunity” for a “face-to-face” encounter “to discuss a wide range of issues—everything from the Palestinian-Israeli situation in Gaza, to Libya, to the issues of ISIL, Iraq and Syria.” Omitted from the list of issues discussed at the meeting were el-Sissi’s atrocious human rights record, gulag-type prisons and the massive oppressive structure set in place since the July 2013 Coup; there was, however, a minor request for the release of Al-Jazeera’s three journalists being held in Egypt. Glaringly absent from the meeting was any discussions of the Palestine file and more critically el-Sissi’s onslaught on the Gaza Strip and his joining the Israeli siege and undertaking a massive military campaign to demolish the tunnels on the Egyptian side of the border, thus cutting the lifeline for 1.2 million Palestinians.
President Obama’s embrace of el-Sissi came on the heels of earlier meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Bill and Hilary Clinton as well as former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Collectively, the meetings are intended to rehabilitate el-Sissi’s image and begin a new process that can recentralize Egypt’s role within current US foreign policy and Middle Eastern regional interests with heavy emphasis on Israel’s security. Certainly, reality is the theater of the absurd when it comes to politics since the “price is worth it” as former Secretary Madeleine Abright and Kissinger’s corroborated responsibility in a series of war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor are themselves needing image rehabilitation. But don’t hold your breath waiting for any serious investigations on this front. El-Sissi in NY was meeting the right people and in terms of deaths and atrocities, indeed, he would be considered a rookie in an all pro-league.
In addition to the meetings, the Washington Institute, a US think tank closely associated with Israeli interests, issued a policy alert titled, “President Obama Should Meet with Sissi,” and specifically calling on the President “to get one policy issue right—and at a very low price”, and to publically embrace the Egyptian president as a matter of urgent strategy. The Egyptian’s presidential team in NY likewise set-up meetings with the Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, and a number of key business leaders in the hope of kick-starting the country’s dead economy.
A similar European embrace of el-Sissi was underway immediately after the coup with an urgent message to the opposition to accept the military’s forced change and work toward resolving the existing political conflict. The embrace took a very public turn with congratulations messages sent to el-Sissi on winning the elections with 96.9% and a readiness to work for “constructive partnership” in the future. Immediately after the elections a number of European, American and Arab leaders made sure to visit and give support to the coronation of the strong man in Cairo with Gulf States extending grants, loans and investments to prop up the post-coup ‘elected’ government.
While meetings with US and world leaders were important, just as critical is a media strategy situating el-Sissi as the bulwark in the region for the fight against ISIS and terrorism in general. Published as “a first interview with a foreign media,” the Associated Press published a long interview with el-Sissi on September 21st, 2014, just days before the UN General Assembly session and intended to preempt any possible negative coverage during the visit.
The media rehabilitation strategy was clearly evident in Bryan Walsh’s Time Magazine interview using the passive voice in reference to el-Sissi’s human rights record and political repression. The Time Magazine article failed to mention the names of imprisoned Al-Jazeera journalists, 25,000 political prisoners and more than 1000 protestors murdered in a single day, obliquely stating that el-Sissi had “been criticized for his crackdowns.” Where are Time Magazine’s ethical concerns and journalistic integrity? Furthermore, why can’t we have direct, active voiced criticism of al-Sissi based on the facts and his human rights record? The human rights record was a not a deal breaker for Mubarak in the past and so far it has not been prohibitive in reconnecting with Egypt’s top leadership and view of them as a strategic asset in the region. The passive voice in Time Magazine carries with it a favorable outlook and once again puts limited political considerations above the total erosion of the democratic process and unfolding human rights disaster.
“Al-Sisi Ascendant” was the celebratory title in the September 20th edition of The Economist reporting on “the general’s” first 100 days” in office. But the article added in the subtitle that though El-Sissi had a “good first 100 days,” it was “at the cost of political freedom”. The article is a tour de force celebrating el-Sissi’s economic and investment plans calling them “some good first steps,” and offering praise for “tackling ruinously large energy subsidies.” The Economist completely omitted the details that made this supposed ascension possible, including the massive infusion of cash from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to keep the country operating and averting an economic collapse. The Economist article gave an approving nod toward el-Sissi and the coup because it possibly averted changes that would have been unwelcomed by the multinational corporations and global interests of the US, Israel and the Gulf States.
El-Sissi’s efforts to present himself as a world leader included a May 2015 visit to Germany in the lead-up to the G7 summit where he would meet with world and economic leaders and attempt to garner further investments and loans to bolster Egypt’s economy.” Initially, the visit went without a hitch until a young brave woman was able to expose el-Sissi during a press conference and re-center the discussion–in the German press at least—around human rights abuses and the repression underway in Egypt. Critical to this confrontation was the German press reporting on el-Sissi bringing with him to Germany a plane full of supporters to clap and cheer for him during public events so as to fake Egyptian migrants’ support for him. This manufactured support was, in reality, the complete opposite of what was taking place outside these events as large protests were organized against El-Sissi’s visit. Germany, Europe and the remaining G7 are all eager to embrace el-Sissi and have welcomed these political developments in Egypt because they were not pleased with the success of Morsi’s election and the possible disruption or dissolution of the established regional alignments.
In retrospect, the US and European campaigns to embrace el-Sissi has been underway for quite some time and can be dated perhaps to the pre-Coup period but certainly after the military takeover. Immediately after the 2013 Coup, American and European leaders and diplomats, while expressing rhetorical support for democracy, nevertheless moved swiftly to engage el-Sissi, the Coup plotters and the generals.
The embrace of el-Sissi is built upon key factors related to the region itself with crucial players exerting needed pressure and creating appropriate conditions for bringing into the fold–if not actual central role of–the Egyptian dictator and his military. The key factors include Israel’s confrontation with Hamas and the inability up to this point of eliminating Palestinian resistance; additionally, the threats/fear of possible democratization in countries that experienced mass movements during the Arab Spring; and finally, the possible receding to the background of the Iranian-Shia threat to the region, an important element in Gulf and Israeli planning since the 1979 Revolution. The three factors combined influenced decisions in the US and Europe to embrace el-Sissi at a time of increasing instability brought about by the protracted Syrian war and the emergence of ISIS in the region, thus putting a heavy premium on bringing a key state, Egypt, into the regional and global alliance.
Consequently, constraints on the Arab Spring and, in particular, of Egypt were set in place over a long period of time and cemented with Anwar Sadat’s shift toward the US, first, and Israel, with the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. The rush to embrace el-Sissi has to be considered within the existing order with the US, Europe, Gulf States and Israel, who were facing a possible collapse or a transformation that might produce antagonistic political structures on the Southern Israeli border that over time would provide a much needed opening for Gaza and Hamas as well as re-focusing of the region away from a confrontation with Iran.