Egyptian terror attack on IDF highlights problems with Cairo's army

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: The terror attack does not have implications for Israeli-Egyptian ties. But it does raise a question: Have Islamists penetrated Egypt's military?

 FRIENDS AND family mourn at the funeral in Rishon Lezion on Sunday of Sgt. Lia Ben-Nun, who, along with two other soldiers, was killed a day earlier by a member of the Egyptian security services near Israel’s border with Egypt. (photo credit: SHIR TOREM/FLASH90)
FRIENDS AND family mourn at the funeral in Rishon Lezion on Sunday of Sgt. Lia Ben-Nun, who, along with two other soldiers, was killed a day earlier by a member of the Egyptian security services near Israel’s border with Egypt.
(photo credit: SHIR TOREM/FLASH90)

The deadly infiltration last Saturday of an Egyptian border guard who killed three IDF soldiers inside Israel leaves many questions to be answered – both on the Israeli and Egyptian sides.

In Israel, the questions are primarily operational: How did the border guard, Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, slip in undetected through one of the gates in the border wall separating Egypt and Israel that was not properly locked?

Why did it take so long before anyone realized that two IDF soldiers were killed when radio contact with sentries is supposed to take place every hour? How did the terrorist remain so long undetected inside Israeli territory? And how did the hot pursuit of the terrorist lead to the death of another IDF soldier?

Operational questions also need to be asked in Egypt: How was a border guard with Islamic leanings evidenced in social media posts stationed on the border with Israel? Why was a red flag not raised for his commanders when he complained about the conditions of his service along the border?

While, for the Egyptians, a much larger and more significant question needs to be asked – does this incident indicate that Islamists have penetrated the Egyptian security forces? – it need not necessarily raise questions about the overall health, strength and viability of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, a relationship strategically important and beneficial to both countries.

 Members of the South Yamas special forces counter-terrorist unit seen during a military operation on the southern Israeli border with Egypt on July 12, 2022. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Members of the South Yamas special forces counter-terrorist unit seen during a military operation on the southern Israeli border with Egypt on July 12, 2022. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

The Egypt-Israel relationship remains strong, viable, and strategically important

The relationship is vitally important for both countries for a myriad of security and economic reasons, including allowing them to focus resources and energies elsewhere, and not on planning and preparing for major war with each other.

Moreover, since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Egypt has played a constructive role as an interlocutor between Israel and Hamas and has been the go-to address, during the intermittent rounds of fighting there, in bringing those rounds to an end.

Yitzhak Levanon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Cairo from 2009 to 2011 – and who was Israel’s envoy when mobs ransacked the embassy following the Arab Spring in 2011 – said that Saturday’s incident and the way it is being handled shed some light on the state of Israeli-Egyptian ties as well as what is going on inside the Egyptian military.

Regarding the bilateral ties, Levanon said the fact that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Zaki, spoke on Saturday night and agreed to cooperate in investigating the attack attests to a good, open communication channel. The direct and open communication was further evident when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone on Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, according to the Israeli readout of the call – though not the Egyptian one – expressed his condolences.

“The Egyptians need to investigate this for their own good,” Levanon said. “Something like this, where a border guard acting in a premeditated fashion and with a Koran in his possession, crosses the border and kills three soldiers, is not something that can just pass as if nothing happened.”

While Levanon said the telephone conversations by the countries’ leaders show that there has not been damage to the countries’ strategic ties, he said that the incident needs to greatly concern the Egyptian Army because it cannot ignore its own history: it was Islamists who infiltrated into the Egyptian military who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Immediately after Saturday’s incident, the Egyptian Army put out a statement that infuriated many in Israel, saying that Ibrahim was killed after chasing drug smugglers across the border, a false narrative that was later dropped amid Egyptian acknowledgment that he was a border guard who went “rogue.”

The initial statement was an attempt by the army to “save face,” Levanon said, as the Egyptian Army did not want to admit that it could have such soldiers in its ranks.

“My concern is that the Egyptians won’t want to open a Pandora’s box regarding what degree Islamists have penetrated the army,” he added.

“Sisi has had a policy of chasing down Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad elements, and the Egyptians do not want now, all of a sudden, to discover Islamists inside the army. But it is important for the Egyptians to know if this is one person or whether there are other people like him who have spread out throughout the army.”

This knowledge is also very important for Israel, given that about a decade ago – following a multistage terrorist raid into Israel from Sinai and in light of evidence of a significant ISIS presence there – Jerusalem agreed to an Egyptian request to deploy more troops to northern Sinai.

Under the terms of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord, the number of troops allowed on both sides of the border was strictly limited, though it allowed Egypt to increase forces in Sinai with Israel’s consent. According to Levanon, about 18 months ago, Sisi said that his country has some 25,000 soldiers in Sinai, many of them along the border.

“Listen, 25,000 soldiers on our border is substantial,” Levanon said, adding that the Egyptian Army needs to check what is happening within its ranks.

Asked if he thought, in retrospect, it was a mistake for Israel to agree to this, Levanon replied that Israel decided at the time that in the fight against growing terrorism in Sinai, against smuggling, and in enlisting Egyptian help in dealing with Gaza, it was preferable that those Egyptian troops be there. If the situation with Egypt deteriorated, he added, this troop level is something that Israel could cope with.

Eran Lerman, a former deputy director at the National Security Council and presently vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said that Saturday’s incident and its aftermath “does not challenge the basic assumptions about what the Israel-Egyptian relationship is all about.”

Among those basic assumptions, he said, is “a growing sense of common interest in the Eastern Mediterranean, including in terms of cooperation on energy.”

To illustrate this, he pointed to how, in 2021, Sisi – at an energy conference in Cairo – spotted then-Yesh Atid energy minister Karin Elharrar and made a “beeline to greet her,” giving her a warm and gracious welcome.

“This was a political act, as well as a gentlemanly gesture,” he said of the gesture, widely seen as symbolic of a thawing of the “cold peace” between the two countries.

Lerman said Israel-Egyptian common interests are also evident in how Egypt warmly welcomed the Abraham Accords and the country’s participation in the Negev Forum, comprised so far of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt. This forum is scheduled to meet in Morocco at the end of the month.

The embrace of the Abraham Accords and the public recognition of Elharrar are the opposite of how former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa would have acted during the days of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Lerman said.

“There are many positive changes in our interactions with Egypt compared to the case 12-15 years ago,” he said. Though the peace with Egypt continues to be cold, Lerman said it is warmer than it used to be, and that in the public domain, the atmosphere toward Israel is less poisonous than it was under Mubarak.

An indication of this can be seen in the Egyptian public reaction to this attack, as opposed to how the Egyptian public responded when in 1985 another Egyptian soldier opened fire and killed seven Israeli tourists at the Ras Burka resort in Sinai.

The soldier who carried out that attack was hailed as a national hero in the Egyptian opposition press, and Mubarak did little to counteract efforts to cast him as such.

Ibrahim, by contrast, has not been lionized in the papers, although his action has been praised by some on social media.

“This is not the first time we had a berserk Egyptian soldier,” Lerman said. But unlike the Ras Burka case, “at least he was not lionized, not made into a hero for killing Jews.... It was simply whitewashed as a local incident resulting from an exchange of fire rather than an act of terrorism perpetrated by an Egyptian border guard.”

Lerman said that, all in all, the Egyptian press today is somewhat less poisonous, “a notch less than it used to be. The starkly antisemitic cartoons that we used to see day after day in Mubarak’s time, there is a bit less of that now coming from the government-controlled media.”

Lerman said that while this incident need not cast a shadow over Israeli-Egyptian ties, it does shed light on specific problems, first and foremost, the quality of the Egyptian security personnel on the border. •