Talk of an all-out confrontation between the IDF and the Egyptian army following the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is an unnecessary and harmful journalistic spin. Heavy armored combat is a thing of the past. So no, military intelligence and the IDF General Staff did not pull all-nighters this week.
Had it been an economic event of similar proportions, you would expect we would have heard about all-nighters in the halls of the Treasury. But Mohamed Morsi’s victory in the Egyptian presidential elections, which saw a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood reach the top of the pyramid in the biggest and strongest state bordering Israel, didn’t prompt similar imagery from within the security establishment. It would be much more accurate to describe the atmosphere in the halls of Military Intelligence and the IDF General Staff in the terms of the well-known statement made by Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the 70s what he thought about the French revolution and answered that it was “too early to say.”
The regional shake-up also changes Israel’s security picture. During recent budgetary talks, it was claimed repeatedly that the political developments require additional resources, invoking security events that we have become accustomed to viewing as impossible. But a scenario of an all-out confrontation between the IDF and the Egyptian Army, in terms that recall images we have not foreseen in decades, is still nothing more than an unnecessary and harmful media spin. It is very hard to know what awaits relations between Jerusalem and Cairo. But only those who seek to profit from horror scenarios are painting what awaits in terms of 1967 and 1973.
The Egyptian Army is indeed big and strong. According to international figures, it is comprised of some half a million conscript soldiers, and a similar number of reservists. It has F-16 jets, American Abrams tanks, and a fleet that is bigger than the Israel Navy, at least in terms of the number of its ships. But even in terms of ability, the gap between the Egyptian Army and the IDF is significant. In the absence of an objective standard to quantify this qualitative gap, one can describe it in budgetary terms: According to the Jane’s quarterly, Egypt’s defense budget in 2010 stood at $4.6 billion, or NIS 17 billion. That amounts to roughly one-third of Israel’s security budget.
Modern conscript armies can no longer be measured in terms of people or platforms. Iraq had a massive army, one of the largest in the world in terms of tanks and soldiers, and it was defeated without so much as a battle by the American forces in 2003. In that war, there was not even one armored battle. Saddam’s tank formations were destroyed and finished through means they couldn’t see and against which they couldn’t defend themselves. The command and control systems of the Iraqi Army were paralyzed. In fact, the most effective means against the Americans were actually the most primitive: “Fedayeen” [Guerilla troops] who snuck up and attacked advancing troops, and above all, the protracted war and attrition of the occupying army through terror and chaos.
The Sinai Peninsula is spread out between Israel and Egypt. In 1967, Nasser expelled UN inspectors and brought his troops close to the border with Israel, causing the outbreak of the Six-Day War. Such a scenario today is unimaginable to the extreme; an Israeli-Egyptian confrontation would begin under conditions, temporal and otherwise, that meet the long-range destructive capabilities preferable to the IDF. Anyone speaking of a return to 1973 — even just in military-technical terms, is dealing in pure intimidation.
And another thing: Egypt is second only to Israel in the list of U.S. foreign aid recipients. It receives direct military aid from the Americans amounting to $1.3 billion (as opposed to $3 billion per year to Israel). A simple calculation shows that this aid accounts for almost 30% of the Egyptian security budget. Morsi now needs to deal with the difficulty of feeding 85 million Egyptians against the backdrop of a collapsing economy, and it would therefore be insane for him to go near a military conflict with Israel, and to fund it from the shrinking pocket of the local economy.
These are the basic figures on which the prime minister relied this week, when he reminded us that the peace agreement is a strategic asset for Egypt, as much as it is for Israel. The IDF and Military Intelligence have sustained enough harm from talk of “unlikelihoods,” so you didn’t and won’t hear from them. But it’s doubtful whether the real likelihood of an all-out confrontation with Egypt justifies increasing the IDF’s forces or the security budget. What we need is to prepare for something else altogether.
Wanted: A Garrison Force
There are disagreements over what Morsi truly thinks, but there is no disagreement over the fact that he won’t be able to implement everything in which he believes. The relationship between the new president and the Egyptian Army is still undetermined. As of now, Morsi stands before a parliament that was dissolved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Some of his authority, especially that dealing with the diplomatic and security realm, was appropriated by the Supreme Council before he was even elected. In the last 30 years, the heads of the Egyptian Army amassed many hours worth of talks and meetings with their IDF counterparts; in the first days of the Tahrir revolution, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi spoke quite a bit with counterpart Sami Anan, who holds the position to this day.
Either way, the Egyptian Army will from now on be busier with the domestic front. If you neutralize justified Israeli fears about the future, Egypt in the last year and a half underwent an impressive democratic process, which relied first and foremost on the power and prestige of the army. The army didn’t help Mubarak fight to keep power, a fateful decision that prevented Egypt from turning into Syria. And the army is what provides the infrastructure of stability on which democratic elections were held for parliament, and later for the presidency.
At the same time, Egypt lost part of its control over Sinai, which was always a frontier zone in which many things happen that remain hidden from the eyes of the regime.
There’s no point in repeating what was already written here last week regarding what can be expected on the southern border: it’s clear that the IDF will need to keep more troops there, in a deployment based on presence on the ground, not necessarily on sophisticated means and intelligence dominance meant to provide cover for a lack in manpower.
Confrontations near the border fence — not always clear whether they stem from criminality (human and drug trafficking) or hostile activity — will require no small number of military personnel of the traditional type, who gather field intelligence and whose presence constitutes a deterrence. A garrison force of this type may not require people who have been trained in elite unites or top infantry divisions, but who understand the uniqueness of the area and the type of activity with which they were sent to cope.
Instead of the tectonic shock in Egypt just requiring the reestablishment of armored divisions or additional fighter planes, it seems it calls for an increase in forces in the “regular army.” That means battalions that patrol the borders – not just Egypt but also Jordan, which intelligence officials warn will become an alternative smuggling and infiltration route as long as the Egyptian border is sealed by the barrier – and will stop not just tanks and armored personnel carriers, but also migrant workers and hostile groups. What the “Edom” division did in the last decades, having the biggest responsibility of any IDF spatial division with the help of very limited manpower, will now need to be carried out by new versions of the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Brigade (part of the Kfir Brigade) or the mixed Caracal Brigade [a brigade originally intended to guard Israel’s southern border from terrorist infiltration from the Sinai Peninsula ; it consists of a majority of women, trained for either border patrols or ambushing enemy forces].