Rob Lattin is Jspace News' Foreign Affairs Correspondent. In addition to covering foreign affairs for Jspace, Rob is a blogger on Israeli and Middle Eastern foreign policy for the Foreign Policy Association, as well as a freelance writer. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the last week, Egyptian-Israeli relations have grown increasingly uncomfortable. As Eric Trager, a US expert on Egyptian affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stated, “Egypt’s ‘full transition to civilian rule,’ long sought by the Obama administration, has finally come to fruition. But it is neither liberal nor democratic.”
This past Sunday newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi surprised the world when he sacked his defense minister Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff General Sami Anan. They have since been given the roles as presidential advisers and awarded the country’s highest honors, propaganda consolation prizes. Morsi also ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense and air force.
Perhaps most importantly, Mosri cancelled a decree issued by the military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that barred him from dealing with military appointments. According to Trager, Mosri has “claimed unprecedented executive power, including complete authority over legislation, public budgets, foreign affairs, pardons, and political and military appointments.”
“Mr. Morsi’s declaration also gives him the power to select a new assembly for writing Egypt’s constitution. And since the new constitution must be approved by popular referendum before new parliamentary elections can be held, Mr. Morsi can intervene in the constitution-writing process to delay legislative election—and thereby remain Egypt’s sole legislator—indefinitely” wrote Trager.
These moves come on the heels of the large-scale attack in the Sinai Peninsula in which 15 Egyptian soldiers were killed by jihadi terrorists. It provided the new government an excuse to get rid of some of the key military strong men who had ties to Hosni Mubarak, as well as send a message to the military and general public that the Muslim Brotherhood is very much in charge.
It is not difficult to see how the unfolding situation in Egypt would be troubling to Israel and the US. The Muslim Brotherhood has stated on previous occasions that it is committed to Egypt’s democratic progress, but that is proving to be a folly. What more can be expected in Morsi’s foreign policy stances when he becomes even more empowered?
The Jewish Press is reporting that Morsi’s legal advisor on Monday told Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm that the President is currently weighing whether to amend the Egypt-Israel peace treaty by reintroducing full Egyptian sovereignty and control over the Sinai Peninsula. Such a movie would likely be under the guise of needing to calm down the lawlessness and violence that have plagued the area since Mubarak’s fall. While re-claiming rule of law in the Peninsula is necessary, it should be done in coordination with Israel and with respect to the Camp David Accords.
Since the attack on the Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai the Egyptian military has been deploying large anti-terrorist forces. Some were sent with Israel’s consent, but Haaretz has reported that some were sent without letting the Jewish state know. Under the peace treaty, Egypt is not allowed to introduce tanks into certain areas of Sinai, including the vicinity of Al-Arish, but dozens have been transported over the past several days.
Being cautious, Israel has not released a statement on the unilateral Egyptian move or the breaking of the terms of the accord. In the short-term, this is a good thing. Egypt is appearing to finally take the Sinai problem seriously. The area has been a hub of weapons and human trafficking, and a hot spot for jihadis and Palestinian militants.
However, if Egypt remains in the region and out of touch with both Israel and the US, it could mean trouble. A quick way to gain regional credibility and support in the Middle East is to stand up to Israel. A 2011 Arab Public Opinion poll run by the Brookings Institute, a Washington DC based think-tank, found that the three most popular leaders in the Middle East were Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who upped his animosity towards Israel following the flotilla incident; Hassan Nasrallah, who led a war against Israel in 2006 and based much of his party’s ideology on the defeat of Israel; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the controversial Iranian President who called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
This doesn’t mean that Morsi will necessarily cancel Egypt’s peace accord with Israel all together. Turkey has not done so following a very tense period following the flotilla incident. But he could simply end all relations and coordination, successfully rendering the agreement moot. As one can imagine, Israel’s leaders and military officials are nervous, unsure of what the future holds, and hoping that the worst-case scenario doesn’t play out.
Many political pundits believed that Egypt’s “revolution” was never going to lead to long-term democracy, recognizing the organizational capacity, readiness, and Islamist drive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel and the US are hoping those pundits are wrong, but so far they have been disturbingly right.