Israel Could Help Egypt Bolster Security in the Sinai Peninsula

Egypt's Morsi moved to oust Tantawi and another military chief Sunday following the Sinai terror attack. Yoram Meital writes that Egyptians have been calling for a review of the treaty with Israel to let their military deploy in the Sinai, and Israel should take the initiative on this before Morsi sets new facts on the ground.

al-monitor Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi sits with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, left, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan at a meeting Aug. 10, 2012. He ordered them both to retire Sunday. and canceled a constitutional declaration aiming to limit presidential powers which the ruling army council issued in June.  Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

sinai peninsula, sinai, peace agreement, peace, israel, egypt, deployments, army

Aug 12, 2012

The severe terror attack near the Kerem Shalom border crossing [on the Israel-Egypt-Gaza border on Aug. 5] is an indication of the sharp deterioration in the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula; however, its implications should be examined in the broader context of the power struggle over the leadership in Egypt and the reformulation of its policy with respect to Israel. In the year and a half since the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the civilian society in Egypt has recorded to its credit a number of outstanding achievements, but at the same time, it has to cope with an array of serious problems and tough challenges, first and foremost, the unprecedented deterioration in the internal security in the country and the escalating economic plight. In the political arena, power struggles are waged among the various political parties and between the political parties and the strong security establishment. In this respect, public opinion in Egypt is playing a significant role, for the first time in the history of Egyptian politics. Egypt's military leadership, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is still holding vast governmental powers and influencing the developments in many areas. In the [recent] presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood nominee, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidential seat; however, the constitution-drafting committee [Egypt's Constituent Assembly] that is to define the presidential authorities [among other constitutional issues] has not completed its work yet. [According to reports citing the Constituent Assembly secretary-general, the constitution is to be drafted by week's end.]

Against this backdrop a complex struggle is carried on over the reformulation of the Egyptian policy in a variety of areas, including national security, one of whose major pillars is the peace treaty with Israel [signed in March 1979 by then-Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin]. Egypt's leaders have publicly reiterated the commitment of their country to the peace treaty with Israel. In practice, however, there have been indications of a certain change of policy in Cairo with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian arena, specifically concerning the Gaza Strip and the Hamas movement. Since he was sworn in as president of Egypt, Morsi has refrained from political declarations on the Israeli issue. At the same time, he has made a series of gestures vis-à-vis Hamas. Thus, he announced some time ago that Egypt planned to open shortly the Rafah border crossing to free movement of the Gaza Strip residents. [The Rafah border crossing was closed by the Egyptian authorities after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and partially reopened on May 28, 2011, for Palestinians to cross into Egypt. However, following the terror attack on Aug. 5, the Rafah Crossing has been shut for an indefinite period and President Morsi may fear a domestic backlash if he reopens it any time soon.]

These announcements by Morsi [with regard to Gaza and Hamas] met with mixed reactions. The political rivals of the Egyptian president claimed that his policy in relation to Hamas testified to his commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda. Far harsher criticism was voiced during the military funeral for the [16] soldiers killed in the Sunday [Aug. 5] terror attack on the Egyptian border post. Various political spokespersons openly charged that the positions held by the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi served the Hamas interests to the detriment of Egypt's interests.

In recent days, there have been growing calls in Egypt to reopen the addendum to the [1979] Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, which stipulates strict conditions for the demilitarization of the Sinai. For long years now, it has been claimed in Egypt that these conditions infringe on Egyptian sovereignty and impede control and security throughout the Sinai Peninsula. In deliberations on the issue held in Israel in recent years, it has been decided to comply with the Egyptian requests for the reinforcement of its troops in certain areas [in the Sinai] and for specified time intervals, and to reject in principle [the Egyptian demand for] negotiations on the demilitarization conditions stipulated in the addendum [of the peace treaty — Organization of Movements in the Sinai].

Following the heavy blow to Egypt [in the terror attack], its leaders are resolved to take unprecedented measures to stamp out the militant groups that have gained control, particularly in the central region of the Sinai Peninsula. Such action may take quite some time and it would require the involvement of military forces on a scale far in excess of that specified in the addendum to the peace treaty. Under the circumstances currently prevailing in Egypt, a large-scale military operation of this kind may indeed give rise to a new security reality in the Sinai. However, given the current state of affairs in Egypt, it stands to reason that the Egyptian leadership would find it difficult to order the evacuation of its forces from the Sinai once the operation is over. Egyptian public opinion would no doubt demand that the troops remain in the Sinai, as a testimony to Egypt's control over its entire sovereign territory.

Alternatively, Israel may take the initiative and announce already today that it is willing to reconsider and amend the security arrangements in the Sinai in mutual agreement with Egypt, under Article IV of the peace treaty. Achieving a renewed agreement on the size of Egyptian military forces in the Sinai Peninsula, their deployment and armament may turn out to be the preferred alternative to a situation that is liable to confront Israel with a fait accompli and undermine one of the major pillars of the peace treaty between the two countries.

The author is chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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