Israel’s main concern with regard to Egypt has been the border between Gaza and Egypt that has been used as a corridor for arms flowing into Gaza. Israel is also very sensitive to the security of its border with the Sinai, both for military reasons, given the use of Sinai by terrorist groups to attack both Israel and Egypt, as well as Sinai serving as the main transit route for refugees from Africa seeking a haven in Israel. Israel seems disinterested in the military overthrow of democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government by the current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Sisi), who was then head of the Egyptian armed forces, the subsequent repression of that Brotherhood, and, more generally, the widespread denial of human rights within Egypt.
Before we turn to the Egyptian border and terrorism issues, it is helpful if we sketch some examples of media repression within Egypt. Popular singer, Hamza Namira, who became famous three years ago because of his songs celebrating the hope and freedom of the 2011 Arab Spring, has been banned from radio and television because of his “critical” songs. Those songs cannot be broadcast by others. Khaled Abol Naga, a famous Egyptian actor, has been accused of treason because of his outspoken opinions; his job options have dried up. Within one week, two top TV talk hosts were dismissed from their positions –Wael Ibrashi from the TV Dream Channel after Ibrashi criticized some ministers in the Sisi government, in particular the Education Minister for the poor state of Egyptian schools (see later), and Mahmoud Saad of Al-Nahar TV simply because one of his guests referred of Egypt’s “defeat” in the 1967 war. These were two privately-owned stations. The government already tightly controls Egyptian-owned media.
More recently, the attacks on private media outlets have become more comprehensive. Owners of both private and public media were recently summoned to a “self-criticism” meeting. The seventeen heads were forced to sign a statement that the outlets they ran would not criticize the army, police or the judiciary lest ‘these governmental institutions be discredited in the eyes of the public’. In reality, the freedom to publish applied to any article or statement that may be deemed to be offering ‘support to terrorism’ and, therefore, ‘provocative’ in the eyes of the government. Khaled al-Balshi, a prominent left-wing Egyptian journalist, who had steadfastly opposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and who founded the Front to Defend Journalists and the Rights of Citizens, suggested that the actions of the Sisi government have been far more repressive that those of its predecessor. Under this regime, six journalists have been killed, and eleven remain in prison.
Internationally, the most notorious has been the arrest eleven months ago and subsequent conviction and jailing of three journalists reporting for English al-Jazeera. Unlike the latter’s English language media reports, the Egypt-focused channel of al-Jazeera, Mubashir Misr, is viewed by many Egyptians as well as the government as favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, though this was likely because the Egyptian bureau was pro-democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood has been blamed for inciting anti-government protests. Thousands of their members have been rounded up and imprisoned. The government concern with security has been used to prosecute both the Muslim Brotherhood as well as pro-democracy activists and even the three journalists who worked for English al-Jazeera. In reading their dispatches, they come across as neutral professional foreign correspondents.
Which is what they are. Egyptian-Canadian Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, formerly a CNN and New York Times foreign correspondent, Australian Peter Greste, formerly a foreign correspondent of BBC and Reuters, and Egyptian producer, Baher Mohamed, the youngest of the three and only employed seven months before he was arrested, were accused of spreading false news (defamation) and supporting and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood. The two foreign Canadian and Australian journalists were sentenced to seven years each, though Sisi may be on the verge of pardoning them. Bader received an extra three year sentence for weapons possession and, as an Egyptian whose father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood though the son apparently was not, seems unlikely to be pardoned in spite of the apparent trumped-up nature of the charges against all three.
His treatment poses the greatest chill on Egyptian journalism, though he might eventually be released if the Saudi Arabia’s effort in mediating the dispute between Qatar and Egypt develops favourably. The arrests of the three journalists from English al-Jazeera in Egypt seem to have had as much to do with Qatar’s ownership of al-Jazeera as with media repression. Though Qatar denies it, the country has been widely accused of funding terrorists. Though Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, in addition to its financial support for Hamas in Gaza, Qatar is supposedly the largest private source of donations both to the Islamic State as well as other al-Qaeda affiliates. But on 27 September, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar declared that, “What is happening in Iraq and Syria is extremism and such organizations are partly financed from abroad, but Qatar has never supported and will never support terrorist organizations”. This statement was made in spite of well-known Qatar financial support for al-Qaeda in Mali and Chechnya. The statement was also made in spite of Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, a fiery antisemitic Muslim leading scholar in the Muslim Brotherhood with a pro-terrorist as well as fundamentalist Islamic message, given free reign in Doha.
Whatever its support for terrorism, Qatar openly supports the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly labeled the overthrow of the Morsi regime on 3 July 2013 a military coup. The Brotherhood leadership was given sanctuary in Qatar where it retains an outlet to the media. Egypt removed its ambassador from Doha. Qatar is a tiny state with only 278,000 citizens, though it is host to 1.5 million resident foreigners. However, Qatar is also very wealthy with an enormous sovereign wealth fund and holds the third largest natural gas reserves. Qatar is the sole remaining source of international support for the Brotherhood. A rapprochement between Qatar and Egypt would be a mortal blow to the Muslim Brotherhood. The arrest in Qatar of on 20 November of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Ali Beshr may be a first public indicator that a reconciliation between Qatar and Egypt is in process. A rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar facilitated through Saudi mediation could lead to limiting the ability of the Brotherhood to communicate to its supporters and, for Israel, cutting off a very important source of terrorist funding for Hamas. Qatar could then serve to mediate between the Sisi government and the latter’s efforts to tame the Brotherhood and Israel’s efforts to tame Hamas.
Egypt has also been reluctant to repay a $3 billion dollar loan owed to Qatar and this may also be a factor in the Egyptian-Qatar deteriorating relationship even more significant than the imprisonment of the three journalists. That debt is the remaining part of an $8 billion dollar aid loan made to Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s government when Morsi was still president after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rejected a $4.8 billion dollar loan when the government refused to form a broader-based government. The latter development would have released a further $12 billion in bilateral aid. In some sense, Qatar’s release of pressure on the Morsi regime because of its loan could be blamed for allowing President Morsi to form a narrow-based government. A broad-based government might have side-tracked the military coup. If so, the Sisi government should, ironically, be grateful to Qatar.
For internationals, the major concern has not been the anti-democracy agenda of the Sisi government, but the security of Egypt and how that security is being ensured by the government. Many countries, especially Turkey, have been very critical of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, but those same countries seem to have been indifferent to the Egyptian repression of human rights as well as its blockade on the thirteen mile border with Gaza. Recently, Egypt doubled the size of its corridor along the Gaza border from a 500 metre no-man’s land to one 1,000 metres wide once military officials discovered that some of the tunnels were almost 800 metres long. Immediately after the last Israeli-Gaza war, Egypt claimed it had discovered a myriad of tunnels. Like the ones from Gaza into Israel, these tunnels went into the Egyptian town of Rafah and were used to smuggle both civilian goods and armaments into Gaza, and, possibly more important to Egypt, to smuggle arms and terrorists back into Egypt. Unlike Israel which built its buffer on Gazan land, Egypt constructed its buffer on Egyptian land and confiscated over a thousand Egyptian houses in the urban areas along the Gaza border.
I suggested above that a main reason for Egypt destroying the tunnels was to prevent terrorists and munitions getting back into Egypt to practice guerilla war against the new military dictatorship. A week ago, jihadists released a video of their attack in Sinai that took place in the previous month in which jihadists killed 31soldiers in the terrorist attack against the Karam-al-Kawadis military base on 24 October. Two days before the release of the video of that terrorist attack – which showed a tank running from the battle and soldiers surrendering without firing a shot after a truck loaded with two tons of explosives penetrated the military perimeter of the base and blew up – jihadists killed another 5 soldiers and police after the terrorists set up roadblocks and scoured cars so they could drag out and execute soldiers and police officers. What chutzpa! Setting up roadblocks within a military zone! At the same time, eight seamen had been captured and killed when presumed jihadists in a flotilla of small boats attacked a naval vessel.
The Muslim Brotherhood and even Hamas were now child’s play compared to the audacity, boldness and discipline of Egypt’s most militant jihadists, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Hamas has been explicit in disassociating itself from both Islamic State and the Egyptian Ansar Beit al-Maqdis terrorist group lest its relationship with Egypt be destroyed altogether as if its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood were not enough. Hamas openly condemned ISIS tactics and use of religion to support terrorism.
Three weeks ago, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared its allegiance and affiliation with Islamic State, presumably in an effort to further enhance its recruitment and fund raising as well as exclusivity for possession of the jihadist and terrorist brand. According to government spokesmen, the real reason was because the Egyptian military had effectively targeted its munitions supplies and had cut off the source of reinforcements. After all, the Egyptian military was ranked thirteenth in the world. Nevertheless, the militant jihadists already had a terrifying record of killing hundreds of soldiers and police officers from the Sinai to the Western desert, often using the same signature as Islamic State – beheading their captives. Like Islamic State, there was a high likelihood that they would now turn to targeting civilians in an effort to destroy Egypt’s lucrative tourist industry.
The competition against the Islamic State for the Islamist brand is being initiated by the Sufis who were incensed by the 14 October car-bombing of the Sufi Ahmad Al-Badawi mosque and shrine of Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi, founder of the Badawiyyah Sufi order. Would the politicization of the Sufi order, a powerful force within Egypt, provide short term support for Sisi but undermine that support in the long run?
The sense of desperation of ordinary Egyptians in the face of such fiery militants, on the one hand, and the determined repression of the new military regime, on the other hand, is indicated by the lack of any significant protest in creating the 1,000 metre wide border corridor with Gaza and the displacement of over a thousand families in Rafah. The military might boast from time to time that ten militants had been killed here, that a munitions warehouse had been discovered and blown up there, but in spite of the heavy censorship of the press, the threat of the militants grew by leaps and bounds compared to fears of the military authorities, especially when the military had boasted a year earlier that the jihadists were on the verge of extinction in the face of the military campaign against them. Empty boasts stood beside repeated audacious military actions to embarrass the military government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was finally elected to office in May of this year.
If civilian fears grew along with the decline in faith in the military government for providing security, what happened in the American Congress that was responsible for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Egyptian regime? The January 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Law had set aside $1.3 billion for Egyptian military aid, but only 44% of that sum had been released pending certain benchmark achievements in the military regime’s move to “restore” democracy. With a new Republican majority in both houses, concerns over human rights and democratic progress were unlikely to stand in the way of such limitations on allocations if remarks last week by the Chair of the State and Operations Panel, Kay Granger, a Republican Congressional representative from Texas, are any indication. Since the administration failed to label the overthrow of the democratically-elected Morsi regime as a coup, the handwriting of the decline of those stalwarts in support of democracy in Egypt has been apparent.
American fears that Sisi was not up to the task of destroying the militants, as well as a fear that the military aid would fall into the hands of the jihadists, made even Republicans hesitate. Nevertheless, Americans, and the Israelis as well, seem to have no other option than supporting the Sisi regime since both had by and large sacrificed their commitment to democracy and human rights in Egypt for their security concerns. The question now was whether the Obama administration orders, which had held up delivery of Apache helicopters, F-6 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks and Harpoon missiles, would remain in place or would be surrendered in exchange for Congressional approval on an issue more central to the administration’s agenda.
Egypt, of course, has a myriad of other problems that undermine faith in a government even as determined and repressive as the Sisi regime, such as maintenance of its infrastructure even as its schools continue to deteriorate at risk to both teachers and students. Last month, Youssef Mohamed, a primary school student at Ammar ibn Yasir public school in rural El-Matareya region (markaz) in the northeastern Dakahlia Governorate on Lake Manzala, died when a window fell out of its frame and the broken pane of glass severed the student’s throat. The student might have survived if his teacher had been in the room at the time and if that teacher had taken prompt action – which he did not do even when he was disturbed from having a snack – or if several hospitals had not refused to admit the badly-injured student given his precarious state and their refusal to assume responsibility. A week later, almost exactly a month ago, seven-year-old Youssef Soltan Zaki died when the iron school gate fell off its rusty hinges onto him at the Zaghyrat public primary school in the Matrouh Governorate 500 kilometres from Cairo. At the end of October, a high school student, Peter Magdy, was skewered by a fence stake at Ahmed Bahgat Secondary School in Giza.
These sample incidents – which do not include the numerous students killed in bus accidents (18 students dead on 5 November on the Cairo-Alexandria agricultural road) – were not only tragic, but seemed symbolic in a country where the government had assumed all authority and there was a widespread fear of individuals standing out and assuming responsibility lest they be held accountable in a system that was not subject to the rule of law designed to protect the people. If individuals act and something untoward occurs, they are held responsible. If they fail to act, they are held responsible. And if they are in lower positions of authority, they are sacrificed to save the skin of the government that fails to supply to funds to maintain the schools. Thus, the principals at the affected schools were suspended and brought to police headquarters for questioning.
If the government continually appears incompetent to manage its infrastructure let alone handle militants who directly assault the military, the government’s ability even to protect government buildings seems to be in question. Sisi’s government felt compelled last month to enact a special law against civilians who “assault” government facilities and to refer all those charged to military rather than civilian courts for judgment. Though the instigation for such a law seemed not to be just about protests but actual physical violence against public property – a roadside bomb near the Foreign Ministry offices in Cairo, an explosion in downtown Cairo near a subway station and another at Cairo University – the real impetus to the militarization of the rule of law seems to have arisen not so much from a spate of such incidents as from the panic that set into the government when the 31 soldiers mentioned above were killed last month.
And what about developing new infrastructure? Development projects in the Sinai – primarily the twenty-five-year-old Al-Salam Canal project to irrigate and recover 620,000 acres in Sinai for the benefit of Sinai tribes and resettlement of three million Egyptians in a well-planned new city and a number of towns with both an industrial area and surrounding agricultural land properly serviced by roads, electricity, schools and hospitals – were based on the principle that economic development is the primary way to combat the jihadi militants rather than relying primarily of the military. This priority seems to have been postponed for the ostensible reason that the water for the reclamation of the land was polluted by the heavy amount of untreated sewage that has been flowing into the Suez Canal. Decades since the plan was originally conceived, progress has been further delayed and construction related to the development has been abandoned. Priority has evidently been given to building water treatment plants.
Priority has also been given to shifting the economy to one governed by the School of Chicago economic principles opposed to the myriad of government subsidies. However, the abandonment of those subsides may make the overall economy function better – it could hardly function much worse – but the result will inevitably be at the cost of those at the bottom of the Egyptian economy and for the benefit of those at the top. Further, key military figures are certain to become rich in this shift. Thus, corruption will replace subsidies in undermining the efficiency of the economy.
Egypt inadvertently and only implicitly has become Israel’s most important unacknowledged ally in the Middle East but, in the long run, may prove simply to be Israel’s most dangerous Achilles’ heel.