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Is there much love lost between Israel and Egypt today?

  • paula_slier
During this time of year, I am reminded of Pesach 2011, when I was in Cairo covering the Arab Spring. After three decades in power, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had just resigned and there was a joke going around that the then president of Israel, Shimon Peres, had invited him for Pesach Seder so that together they could celebrate their exodus from Egypt.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 29, 2018

But there’s not much laughing and celebrations today in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Since the heady, early days of the revolution, when young Egyptians excitedly told me of how they were ushering in a new democracy, Egypt has come full circle. This week saw three days of presidential polls held across the country with a foregone result. The current president and former army general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took over during a military coup in 2013, will remain in power. The only question was how many would turn out in what was widely seen as a sham election.

It reminds me of another joke. Former US president Bill Clinton was so astounded at how, after every election held in Egypt, Mubarak would win that he invited his advisers to the US to help him with his re-election campaign. They did so and when the results were announced, it was found that the next president of the US would be… Hosni Mubarak.

El-Sisi is cut from the same cloth. His security crackdown, which initially won him much support at home, has left thousands dead and thousands more imprisoned. He has repressed free speech and political opposition, and in the run-up to this week’s election, approved the arrest of potential candidates who were intimidated and/or coerced to stand down.

It left a relatively unknown politician, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, to put himself forward just two hours before nominations closed. Critics insist he was a stooge, sanctioned by the regime to give the elections a veneer of legitimacy and prevent them from turning into a referendum with an embarrassingly low turnout. After all, it isn’t every day that a president has only one challenger at the polls – and one who supports him – as Moussa does.

On the flip side, however, the fact that el-Sisi went so far above and beyond to clear the field of competitors indicates he’s not as secure as he looks.

For while his iron rule may be intact, his popularity has declined. This is due to severe austerity measures, repressive tactics, the ceding of two islands under Egyptian control to Saudi Arabia and a prolonged anti-terror campaign in the Sinai Peninsula that is failing.

This last point is most important for Israel. The Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty places strict limits on the numbers of Egyptian and Israeli troops that can be stationed on either side of the Sinai desert border. This agreement was signed 39 years ago this week, and was the first such treaty between Jerusalem and an Arab capital. Over the past year, Israel has approved an increase in the number of Egyptian soldiers to fight the Islamic State (IS) threat.

Home to several Bedouin tribes, the Sinai is an historically neglected, poor and lawless part of Egypt, which has made it relatively easy for militant groups to operate from there.

Since el-Sisi came to power, the situation has deteriorated and while Egyptians face the brunt of the threat, there are rockets that have been fired from the Peninsula towards the Israeli port city of Eilat.

For this reason, Jerusalem and Washington have been willing to turn a blind eye to el-Sisi’s shortcomings and prop him up with military assistance and support. Cairo receives $1.3 billion (R15 billion) annually from the US.

But Israelis would do well to remember that many of the Egyptian activists who took to the streets in the 2011 Arab Spring cut their political teeth by participating in anti-Israel protests during the Second Intifada (2000-2004).

When I interview ordinary Egyptians on the streets about their feelings regarding the peace deal, there is no love lost for Israel. Israel is still seen as an enemy, and the wars that Egypt fought against the Jewish State from 1948 to 1973 receive much more attention in public discourse than the 1979 peace treaty.

A museum and a memorial in Cairo to the 1973 war recounts how the Egyptians won that war. I remember the taxi driver who drove me there telling me how he, as a soldier, came to the outskirts of Tel Aviv during the war, before being told to turn back.

For nearly four decades, the two countries have been exchanging ambassadors and co-ordinating on security and other issues, but full normalisation has never happened.

After US President Donald Trump announced that he was moving his embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Egyptians, like other Arab populations, staged protests across the country.

Public sentiment will always be an important consideration in Arab governments’ dealings with Jerusalem. A case in point is the secret partnership, since 2015, reported on last month by The New York Times, between el-Sisi and Jerusalem to carry out a sustained air campaign against militants in the Sinai. According to several anonymous British and American officials, Israel sent drones, jets and helicopters to conduct about 100 airstrikes in Egyptian territory in an effort to turn the tide against IS-affiliated groups. The secrecy needed to be maintained so as not to upset public opinion.

This leaves Israel in a very vulnerable position. The country’s co-operation with Cairo is vital to its security needs, but el-Sisi’s growing unpopularity and the lack of outlets in Egypt for people to express legitimate dissenting political views creates the perfect environment for another political showdown.

Many are left wondering when the next Egyptian revolution will happen. And who will be invited to join us around the Pesach Seder table then?

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers

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