As it turns out, the terrorist gunmen who killed sixteen Egyptian border guards some two weeks ago in northern Sinai presented a gift to the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.
The attack electrified most Egyptians, who assigned blame to the old-line military establishment and gave Mr. Morsi cover to dismantle the powerful council the generals had set up to run the country. Indeed, despite Mr. Morsi’s election several months ago as head of the Muslim Brotherhood Party, the generals have wielded effective control over the country, sharply limiting his day-to-day authority.
So President Morsi moved swiftly after the Ramadan attack, sending his powerful defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who also headed the military council, and the army chief, Gen. Sami Enan, into retirement. He also fired several leading entrenched intelligence and political officials and issued a constitutional decree to restore many of the presidential powers that had been limited by the army, including his authority to declare war.
For Israel, these events present a particular challenge, in terms of both the terrorist threats emanating from the Sinai and the place of the Sinai in the overall Middle East balance of power. Back in June there was a string of deadly infiltrations along Israel’s southern border with the Sinai, resulting in several Israeli deaths. There was also an upsurge in the number of rockets launched from the Sinai into Israel. And following the onset of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, terrorist elements ratcheted up their presence in the Sinai, taking advantage of the deterioration of the Mubarak regime.
At the time, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said:
We see here a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control in the Sinai. We are waiting for the results of the election. Whoever wins, we expect them to take responsibility for all of Egypt’s international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai [and] swiftly putting an end to these attacks.
And therein lies the rub.
Key to the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula and the creation of a buffer zone between the two countries. Neither nation has an interest in having substantial foreign military forces on its border.
For Israel, always under a siege, this demilitarization was fundamental to its security planning and the perception of the military balance of power in the region; it was the sine qua non for its decision to sign the treaty in the fist place.
The Egyptians, however, while benefiting from the long period of peace, have always chafed at having to accept restrictions on what they could or could not do in their sovereign territory. Of course, the uncontrolled activities of the terrorists presents an entirely new dilemma for them.
There are reports that Egyptian troops, light tanks, armored vehicles and attack helicopters have been moving into the Sinai in order to take down the growing terrorist infrastructure. Though Israel initially understood the necessity, despite the treaty restrictions, of a certain level of military buildup on the Egyptian side, the Cairo government seem to be going overboard.
There was always the possibility – probability, actually – that Mr. Morsi and his virulently anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood colleagues would try to figure out a way to assume unfettered rights in the Sinai, and now they may have hit on the terrorist threat as an opportunity to do just that.
Indeed, there were reports earlier this week that the Israeli government was already asking the Egyptians to remove some of their heavy equipment on the grounds that they were not needed to deal with the terrorists in the Sinai.
Though far from a perfect analogy, this calls mind the ancient story of the Trojan Horse. Following an indecisive ten-year Greek siege of the city of Troy, the Greeks built a huge wooden horse and hid a number of soldiers inside. They then drew it up to the city wall and left. The Trojans took the horse inside the city. After nightfall, the soldiers inside the horse came out of the horse and opened the city gates, allowing the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of darkness, to enter and destroy Troy.
Israel can’t afford to let its guard down until the Sinai returns to the demilitarized status of the past three decades.