Israel has, uncharacteristically, increased the number of reports about the increasing strength of the Egyptian army and its fears about the end of the rule of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in case weapons and military equipment fall into the hands of hostile forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That is what happened after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, which increased Israeli support for Sisi in Washington.
The military and strategists in Tel Aviv are asking questions about the possibility of Egypt and Israel facing each other on the battlefield in the long run, because four decades after signing a peace treaty, significant political changes have taken place in Egypt — plus its massive rearmament — which has increased concern in Israel. Egypt has gone through a lot in recent years: the Arab Spring, the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to which the late President Mohamed Morsi belonged, and who was toppled by a military coup carried out by Sisi.
The Israelis agreed to let Sisi fight Daesh-affiliated extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, and allowed him to send tens of thousands of soldiers there, equipped with up-to-date helicopters, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. The number of Egyptian troops in Sinai is dictated by the peace treaty with Israel.
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Moreover, Israeli security and military circles have noted that in recent years the Egyptian army has purchased hundreds of Abrams tanks, anti-tank vehicles, artillery and combat systems, and acquired new ground-to-air missiles with a range of hundreds of kilometres. The air force has acquired even more F-16 fighters, and as part of the improved infrastructure the armed forces have paved highways in Sinai and dug tunnels under the Suez Canal, renovating military posts on each side and building new ones, as well as preparing fuel and ammunition depots.
Meanwhile, Israel is convinced that the peace agreement with Egypt is weakened because the latter is governed by a military dictatorship and the treaty is neither accepted by the Egyptian elite nor the Egyptian people. Most are still hostile towards Israel, even denying its existence and, therefore, in terms of the political geography of the Middle East, Israel is a thorn in Egypt’s side.
What’s more, the Israelis do not hesitate to say that Sisi betrayed Morsi, who appointed him as his Minister of Defence and commander of the army, and went on to imprison and prosecute him. They hope that he will not betray Israel.
Opinion in Israel is divided about the growing capabilities of the Egyptian armed forces, especially the navy. The concern is the possibility of Sisi’s removal from the scene and replacement by a leader who does not like Israel.
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The increase in the strength of the Egyptian armed forces coincides with the importance that Egypt attaches to natural gas projects; the expansion of the navy may be to defend its gas fields and pipelines. Egypt is currently moving forward with huge deals to purchase advanced weapons to enhance its naval strength and its need to defend its gas exports, whether by tankers or through pipelines.
How should Israel respond? That too divides opinion. There is a very tangible concern that if the Egyptian army becomes “very strong” it could be used against Israel. Hence the criticism directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he agreed to Germany selling advanced submarines to Egypt.
Aside from such concerns, there is also relief about Egypt’s apparent silence regarding the Israeli annexation plan. Today, Egypt is facing an economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and competition with Turkey in Libya, as well as the possible effects on water supplies from the River Nile due to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Palestinian issue is no longer a priority in Sisi’s foreign policy; he would be happy to resolve matters in a way that is consistent with his interests. Hence, he supports the deal of the century, because if it is implemented, Egypt would receive $10 billion in aid.
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Israel continues to lobby for the annual renewal of US support to Egypt. In 2013, after the coup, Washington suspended its military aid to Cairo worth $1.3 billion annually, but Israel helped Egypt to obtain US recognition of the Sisi coup, although the word “coup” was never mentioned.
Economic relations between Israel and Egypt were strengthened and, together with other countries in the region, they signed an agreement for the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline. This boosted cooperation in the development of natural gas resources; indeed, Egypt started to import natural gas from Israel.
According to diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Egypt does not want a direct confrontation with the US over Israel’s annexation plan. Since the military coup in 2013, Sisi has sought closer relations with Israel, because he needs it. He cannot fight the armed groups in Sinai without Israel, despite his growing army, the efforts of which in this respect have been in vain. Soldiers are still attacked by the extremists.
It seems, therefore, that Egypt and Israel have a shared interest in maintaining their relationship. Whether or not that can outlive the concerns about Sisi’s growing instability, though, remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.