Tuesday, February 28, 2012

28-Feb-12: Israel's relations with Egypt: The good, the bad and the ugly

Sinai Desert, ad agency edition
Setting aside the image conjured up by travel brochures, Post-Mubarak Egyptian Sinai is a dangerous place, and a persistent and growing headache for the Israelis in charge of our security. (For background, you might want to review our blog entry "30-Aug-11: Dark clouds over Israel's south - hard to see from most newspapers, TVs and web pages"). Last summer, a major attack involving several co-ordinated terrorist groups (we blogged about it) who crossed from Sinai into Israel resulted in the deaths of eight Israeli civilians. A BBC report at the time connected the murderous attack to what it called the "decline in security in Sinai since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February". That, from an Israeli viewpoint, is a considerable understatement. Sinai is the wild west, and the proximity of Gaza's terror-addicted, missile-rich Hamas regime right next to it makes matters pretty serious.

A week ago, an IDF patrol [source: AFP] intercepted a gang of what appeared to be smugglers working the Egypt/Israel border. One of them hurled a bag at the Israeli soldiers; it turned out to contain explosives that  fortunately  failed to detonate. Two days later on February 23, in about the same border location, an IDF patrol found another bag containing a large explosive device. A syndicated AFP report then said that similar incidents had been on the increase in recent months and that Israel was warning that "lawlessness in post-revolution Egypt is allowing militants to use Sinai to stage attacks against the Jewish state".

This morning, a further escalation in about the same place as those two incidents. The IDF says today that soldiers patrolling the Israel-Egypt border spotted several suspicious-looking individuals attempting to infiltrate across the Sinai border and into Israel. Acting according to defined procedure, the soldiers called on the intruders to stop. No response but instead a firefight broke out. Most of the suspects fled to Egyptian territory leaving behind one who was shot dead.

Israel's Project Hourglass security fence
now under accelerated construction  
The dangers from Sinai are worse but not new. Since 2005, Israel has been planning a security barrier to blunt the threat of terrorism from the Sinai Peninsula as well as drug and weapons smuggling from there. The project is called Hourglass, and a November 2011 report in Haaretz said it is planned to be completed by about October 2012. The cost, in Israeli terms, is huge: about NIS 1.35 billion (roughly US $360 million) for a fence of 240 kilometers stretching from Rafah to Ein Netafim, about 14 kilometers north of Eilat. (The cliffs in that area will be enough, it's thought, along with Israel's customary technological surveillance methods). The mission statement was defined in that Haaretz article by the head of the company doing the construction: "The fence must stop a person trying to break through for at least half an hour, until the security forces arrive".

Fences have not managed to prevent a series of sabotage attacks [we wrote about them here: "5-Feb-12: Gas pipeline is attacked and blown up for twelfth time in a year" and earlier] on the pipeline that brings gas from Egypt to both Israel and Jordan. A Reuters report getting wide coverage today calls the pipeline "an easy target for anti-Israel Islamists" and one of the "first victims" of the ongoing revolution in Egypt that brought down the Mubarak regime. Reuters quotes Israel's Energy Minister speaking of blackouts this summer: "We may not be able to keep the power switch on".

It's not all darkness and gloom. Israel made several huge offshore natural gas discoveries over the past three years (says the same Reuters report today) that will eventually ensure Israeli energy independence for decades and even make it an exporter. But that gas will not start to flow until the second quarter of 2013. And in another much less-publicized report, the supply of gas from Egypt to Israel resumed today. No one is saying for how long. And yesterday, an Israeli diplomat, Yaacov Amitai, started his official duties as ambassador to Cairo. Yitzhak Levanon who preceded him, left Egypt in September in a rush after Egyptian rioters stormed the Israeli embassy in the wake of those Sinai killings we mentioned above.

The gyrations of post-Mubarak are unlikely to settle down soon. There's a three-way power struggle underway among the military (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein who are in tight charge of government), the Islamists (now in effective control of the parliament) and the Tahrir Square liberal/student/Facebook/democratic revolutionary/activists (not in charge of anything except perhaps the mindshare of many of the Western journalists covering the turbulence).

Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011: Chaos and clashes [source]
While this resolves itself (or not), there's an unfolding story that is going to make many Americans increasingly uncomfortable as they realize this is all happening on their nickel and precisely at a time when much of Egypt is sinking into bedlam.  Egypt’s Planning and International Cooperation minister, Faiza Abou el-Naga, a holdover from the Mubarak regime, has brought charges against an array of American and European aid workers and peace activists on the grounds that they were "operating without a license and using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest". The minister has said [source] “the Egyptian government will not hesitate to expose foreign schemes that threaten the stability of the homeland.”  The names we know are:
  • Julie Ann Hughes, Egypt Country Director, National Democratic Institute. Plus Layla Gafar, Michael James, Sitia Nilhaj, Robert Becker (Political Party Trainer, Middle East and North Africa), Dana Diaconu (Senior Program Manager) and Kabir Moderibee from the same organization
  • Samuel LaHood (Country Director for Egypt), International Republican Institute (his father is US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood). Plus Elizabeth Dugan (Vice President), Hans Chris, Osama Azizi, John George Toma, Sian Mark and Sherine Nafeet from the same organization.
  • Charles Dunne (Director of Middle East and North Africa) and Sharif Mansour (Senior Program Officer of Middle East and North Africa), Freedom House
  • Natasha Tynes (Program Director) and Patrick Butler (Vice President) for the International Center for Journalists. Plus Megan Mitchell from the same organization.
An Egyptian court has adjourned their trial until April 26 after a chaotic opening session this past Sunday. Thirteen Egyptian defendants were held in a metal cage, as is customary in Egyptian trials. The case has severely strained U.S.-Egyptian relations with American officials threatening to cut off $1.5 billion in aid funds.

In Egypt, the starkly uneven distribution of poverty
 makes a bad situation truly explosive
Which brings us to the economic dimension. The New York Times says:
"An acute financial crisis could undermine Egypt’s political transition. With mounting debts, negligible economic growth and dwindling foreign reserves, the military rulers and the new Islamist-led Parliament now confront some difficult choices, beginning with an all but inevitable further devaluation of Egypt’s currency that could send the prices of food and other goods soaring."
All things considered, that Hourglass fence is looking like a good Israeli investment.

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