Analysis: Egypt - The blame game

The Supreme Military Council wants to cover its failure to keep the peace in Sinai by throwing the blame on Israel.

By
August 21, 2011 03:05
Mohamed ElBaradei

Mohamed ElBaradei 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

Egypt accuses Israel of not doing enough to keep the border safe; it hints at its intention to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv to protest the casualties suffered in the course of Thursday’s terrorist attack on the road to Eilat.

Indeed a sorry attempt by the Supreme Military Council, which has been ruling Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, to cover its failure to keep the peace in Sinai by throwing the blame on someone else – Israel of course – in a time honored Egyptian practice. It would have been too much to expect from the country whence the terrorists who carried out the attack came to say: “We are sorry; let us jointly investigate what happened so that it never happens again.”

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A bare week ago, retired Egyptian generals were accusing that same Supreme Military Council of dangerously neglecting the situation in the Sinai Peninsula. They told the press that Egypt no longer controlled the area and that a state of emergency had to be declared immediately in Sinai in order to impose a curfew and facilitate the necessary steps by the army. What is happening in Sinai, said one of them, has crossed a red line and is threatening the security of Egypt. They added that a number of extremist Islamic organizations were acting with complete impunity and that the peninsula was in a state of anarchy.

These harsh accusations came in the wake of an increasing number of attacks carried out by unidentified forces on state institutions such as police stations, as well as no less than five attacks on the pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Jordan and to Israel. The fifth attempt stopped the flow indefinitely, causing heavy financial losses to Egypt. It had became obvious to all that with the fall of Mubarak the central government had lost its grip on Sinai, and that the void had immediately been filled by elements hostile to Egypt and to Israel.

It took two startling developments to force the Supreme Military Council to finally act: a disciplined attack mounted on the El-Arish police station by a group of Islamist extremists (it failed) and the proclamation by the Salafist organizations of northern Sinai of their intention to set up Islamic courts to supplant state courts, and to use their armed militias numbering some 6,000 young members to enforce their decisions.

Taking the measure of the danger, the Supreme Military Council first tightened security around the Suez Canal and then, in coordination with Israel, sent troops to the area to restore order.

What happened Thursday on the road to Eilat is yet another demonstration of the state of anarchy in the peninsula. A group of some 20 terrorists from Gaza, equipped with large quantities of weapons and explosives, made its way to Sinai, probably through the smuggling tunnels, and was able to circulate on sovereign Egyptian soil for a week or more. What is clear is that the terrorists must have had logistic support from one or more extremist organizations active in Sinai. They had to obtain vehicles, food and water as well as to set up observation points on the road to Eilat which they intended to attack.

One can well ask how it was possible for them to do so without being seen by the Egyptians. There are thousands of members of the Mukhabarat and of the other security services in Sinai; how come the movements of such an large terrorist group, having to cover some 240 kilometers over several days, escaped their notice? What about the soldiers manning positions all along the border? How come they saw nothing? Could it be that there were some who decided to close their eyes – and maybe others who decided to help? That there was a massive failure on the Egyptian side is glaringly obvious – but the Supreme Military Council is busy trying to shift the blame.

Unfortunately, as was to be expected, there were demonstrations against Israel in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Calls were heard to expel the ambassador of Israel and even to sever relations between the two countries. It does seem as these demonstrations were primarily organized by the Muslim Brothers, who are now a legitimate political force in Egypt. Their spokesmen called for the severing of relations.

But two leading contenders for the presidency, former Arab League head Amr Moussa and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, jumped on the bandwagon. Moussa demanded a “fitting reaction” and Baradei called for a suspension of relations. The Supreme Council appeared to have been swayed by the protests.

On a more promising note, the same Egyptian military commentators cautioned against listening to the mob and suggested strongly a more responsible attitude to avoid an open crisis with Israel. Gen. (ret.) Abdelmoneim Kato called for an immediate inquiry into the events, and for a measured reaction limited to diplomatic protests. He added that the Egyptian Army had to pursue its fight against troublemakers and to restore order in Sinai.

Another military commentator, Mohamed Gamal Edin Mazloum, said that in the present situation Egypt had no interest whatsoever in a crisis with Israel, a country which had done nothing more than to defend itself against an attack on the road to Eilat.

Egypt today is facing a major hurdle in Sinai, where there are many more Islamist extremists than in the past. Some come from Gaza, but there is a strong Iranian influence. There are elaborate smuggling networks bringing weapons, explosives and missiles from Iran and from Hezbollah to Gaza via Sudan and Sinai. Now that the central government is so weak, there is talk of setting up a “free Islamic zone” – similar to what happened in Afghanistan with al- Qaida – which would be a base for attacks against Israel as well as against Egypt itself and other neighboring nations.

Neither Israel nor Egypt has an interest in escalating the present incident. What must be done now is to refrain from inflammatory statements and to thoroughly investigate what happened and how it happened through coordinated, efforts. More than ever in these troubled times, peace is of paramount importance both to Egypt and to Israel.

Zvi Mazel is a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.


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