The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
Few countries feared Egypt’s postrevolutionary future more than Israel. Ever since Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, in 1979, the two have enjoyed a functional, if cool, relationship. Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was one of Jerusalem’s crucial allies, and was described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the man who “kept the peace in the Middle East.” So when Mubarak and his regime were forced from power in the spring of 2011, Israel had reasons to worry about what would come next and whether Cairo’s relationship with Israel—never popular with the Egyptian public at large—would be jeopardized.
At first, these concerns seemed to be legitimate. The initial post-Mubarak governments of Egypt were less friendly to Israel than their predecessor, particularly the short-lived Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsi. But ties between the two countries have strengthened significantly since 2013, and in current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Netanyahu has found a willing partner. Sisi has taken on terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula, reined in Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and has cracked down on Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, at home. In fact, Egypt and Israel now appear to be on the brink of a renewed strategic alliance. But whether the Egyptian people will support such a move remains to be seen.
Mubarak’s first successor, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, appeared ambivalent toward Israel during his leadership of the country from 2011 to 2012, and his ruling council helped promote conspiracy theories about Israelis infiltrating Egypt’s security services in order to cause revolutionary unrest. Tantawi was slow to react after crowds attacked the Israeli embassy in Giza in September 2011, intervening only after the United States reached out to Cairo for assistance. And even then, it took a personal request from U.S. President Barack Obama to get the government to help liberate the embassy’s staff. Throughout his tenure, Tantawi did not deal with Jerusalem directly, preferring to use Washington as an intermediary. The only Egyptians given direct access to their Israeli counterparts were the military and security elite.
When Morsi came to power during Egypt’s 2012 presidential elections, heading a government based on support from Islamist parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, this dynamic continued. On the one hand, Morsi was keen to maintain ties with Israel to conserve international credibility. On the other hand, he had to please his Islamist base. During the war in Gaza in 2012, for example, Morsi helped secure a cease-fire, but he also sent Egypt’s prime minister, Hesham Qandil, to Gaza in a show of support for Hamas. Relations between Egypt and Hamas improved during Morsi’s presidency, but the cross-border tunnels with Gaza were flooded with sewage, rendering them unusable.
According to Khairat el-Shater, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Egypt’s intelligence apparatus “would remain the central conduit in relations with Israel.” This policy remained intact until 2013. In August of that year, Egypt appointed Raafat Shehata to become the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, the nation’s top intelligence post. General Nader al-Asar, an Egyptian army veteran, was promoted to head the country’s intelligence international relations branch soon after. The two figures have enjoyed close working relationships with Israel throughout their careers.
Israeli officials, at least off the record, have made no secret of their antipathy toward Morsi, who sent mixed messages about his stance on the 1978 Camp David Accords. When Morsi was elected, Dore Gold, who would go on to become the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, disclosed Israel’s concerns about the new government’s “strong ideological opposition to Israel.”
Since then, Cairo and Jerusalem have begun moving toward what appears to be a strategic alliance. There has been a steady stream of visits by Israeli officials to Egypt, including one by Gold in June 2015. The Israeli embassy in Cairo was reopened, and a new Egyptian ambassador was dispatched to Tel Aviv. In February, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of national infrastructure, energy, and water resources, said that Israeli–Egyptian ties were “stronger than ever.” He even noted that Sisi had ordered the flooding of Hamas’ illicit tunnels in Gaza at Israel’s request—only to retract the statement later that day for fear of stoking tensions in Egypt. Israel limits the publication of information about the extent of its cooperation with Egypt, according to one Israeli journalist, to prevent such things from happening. In March, during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, Steinitz met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry—one of the first cabinet-level encounters between the two countries in years—to discuss, among other things, the potential for Israel to supply Egypt with gas. And last month, Israel approved the Egyptian transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia—a move that would have been unlikely in the past, since it involved the reopening of the security annex of the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty.
As Egyptian–Israeli relations have improved, some politicians and civilians have begun to express more positive views toward Jerusalem. In July 2014, for example, Mohamed Zaki el-Shimi, a leader of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, wrote an article called “Israel Isn’t the Enemy,” which argued that radical Islam poses a greater threat to Egypt’s future than Israeli foreign policy. Naguib Sawiris, founder of the Free Egyptians Party, has been public in his support to import gas from Israel. In December 2015, Egyptian playwright Ali Salem echoed these sentiments during an interview with al Arabiya, saying, “Israel isn’t the enemy, but Hamas and ISIS are.” Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, visited Jerusalem last year and broke the travel ban imposed by his predecessor. The popular Egyptian soap opera Harat al-Yahud recently featured a plot involving a love affair between an Egyptian army officer and a young Jewish girl. And in February, Tawfiq Okasha, an Egyptian parliamentarian and television host, held a high-profile dinner with Israeli ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren. The reception marked the first public meeting between an elected member of parliament and the Israeli ambassador since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty. According to reports, Okasha and Koren discussed the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the construction of which Egypt has opposed, as well as the potential for Israel to reimburse Egypt for the 1970 bombing of a school in Bahr el-Baqar.
However open the Sisi government might be to a better relationship with Israel, the Egyptian public is still wary. Okasha’s dinner created a public uproar and led to his expulsion from parliament, and he has since been banned from leaving the country as well. And recent polling by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research indicates that most of the Egyptian public is still hostile. Israel received an 88 percent disapproval rating, making it the most disliked country in the survey.
As Sisi focuses Cairo’s attention on the fight against political Islam, there is reason to believe that Israel will have a partner in Egypt for the foreseeable future. But the state of Egyptian–Israeli relations remains a work in progress in the court of public opinion. The Egyptian–Israeli relationship is growing as their military cooperation has extended into a larger political and diplomatic alliance. Egypt’s transfer of the two Red Sea islands will help Israel open itself to its undeclared ally in Saudi Arabia. Sisi perceives Israel as a strong ally in his war against the Islamist terrorist organizations in Sinai. Both governments realize the importance of the Egyptian–Israeli alliance. Now it is up to the Egyptian public to determine that this partnership is a good one, too.