Strife in the Sinai: Is Egypt’s and Israel’s Peace at an End?

“The Egyptians do not accept what has happened, and it means that Israel should take care. If they continue their behavior toward the Palestinians and the peace process, it means that the situation will escalate more.”

Mohamed Bassiouni, a former Egyptian ambassador to Israel

In February, I predicted that Egypt’s democratic revolution would lead to a rise in regional instability, particularly between Egypt and Israel.

This past week, the two countries’ three-decade peace experienced a major setback after Israeli warplanes inadvertently killed three Egyptian security personnel in the Sinai. The warplanes were responding to Gaza-based militant attacks that killed eight Israelis earlier this week.

Increased Attacks Indicative of Egyptian Security Vacuum

In my February piece, I argued that “Hamas may also judge that now is the best time to strike while Israel’s attention is focused on Egypt, with Iranian helpers eager to provide weapons, training, and advice.” There does not seem to be any overt evidence that the Iranians are supporting Hamas in this case. However, it appears that Gaza-based militants have become more active recently. This increased activity may be a result of Egypt’s preoccupation with its own democratic transition, and reduced focus on stabilizing its border with Israel. In fact, according to The New York Times, Israel’s defense minister, “seemed on Thursday to blame lax Egyptian security for allowing the attacks near the border.”

Aggressive But Reasonable Israeli Response Leads to More Instability

Today, the Egyptian government announced that it would be recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv. The statement then mysteriously disappeared from the Egyptian cabinet’s website, after which the Israeli government offered a rare statement of regret for the three Egyptian deaths.

Israeli apology or not, the Arab street in Egypt is livid, and it wants blood. Thousands of protestors have surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo for the second night in a row, demanding the ambassador’s expulsion.

David Kirkpatrick and Isabel Kershner at The New Times sum up the situation rather cogently:

“By removing Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian but dependably loyal government, the revolution has stripped away a bulwark of Israel’s position in the region, unleashing the Egyptian public’s pent-up anger at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians at a time when a transitional government is scrambling to maintain its own legitimacy in the streets.”

The bottom line is that Egypt’s transition to democracy is entering an extremely unstable phase. The probability of a conventional war between the two states has increased dramatically — something that would have been unthinkable under Mubarak.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, International Security, Media, Middle East, Peak Oil, Policy, Politics, War and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Strife in the Sinai: Is Egypt’s and Israel’s Peace at an End?

  1. AB says:

    When the newly democratic arab regimes all declare genocidal war on Israel it will be a pleasure to observe the Progressive and Neocon cognitive dissonance. I predict the elites will learn nothing, as usual.

    “B-but…democratic peace theory…Tom Friedman said…best form of government…suitable for all people everywhere…end of history…we’ll just have to try harder next time.”

  2. Scott Erb says:

    I think President Bush’s neo-cons and President Obama’s liberals are both right in assessing one thing about the Mideast — the dictatorships there cannot last. They are anachronisms in a globalizing world. Sooner or later they will fall. President Bush thought if the US spearheaded the effort for change we could shape the results — that failed. President Obama is trying multi-lateral support with efforts to work with the new regimes. That might work. But supporting the dictators is not an option that will have long term success (even if it may be short term stability). Most of the population in the Arab world is under 22. They will not tolerate lack of opportunity and continued repression, they are not as subservient as the generation before them. Change is coming whether we like it or not. Against that backdrop one has to have some sympathy for both Presidents Bush and Obama in trying to figure out how to manage this in a way that is in line with US interests.

    • Scott,

      I hope you are right. I just personally think that a democratized Middle East will work against our interests in the long-term, because radical Islamists will likely subvert democracy to obtain power. Again, I hope I am proved wrong. Only time will tell.

      By the way, to provide some context, the previous commentor spent several years in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so many of his views are colored for better or worse by the grim realities he’s seen in that part of the world.

      • Scott Erb says:

        I guess my question for you or the previous commenter is what the best alternative is. My argument is different than that of Thomas Friedman, I’m not saying we should support democracy because it will lead to peace, only that the old dictatorships are going to fall due to demographics and globalization, and that we need to try to end up in the best position possible should that happen. If one thinks that Arab dictatorships are stable and can last generations, then of course it isn’t a problem. If the youth are going to rise up, then it is.

        I’d also ask if an all out Arab war against Israel is really the biggest threat. They’ve tried that and failed each time. It seems to me the biggest threat facing Israel is non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah (the latter supported mostly by Iran, which is not Arab). It seems to me that Israel has a better chance fighting states that declare war than dealing with the rise of terror organizations.

    • I disagree. Dictatorships have persisted for over three millennia in the Middle East. I think the only reason continued repression won’t work is because of outside intervention. I am fully confident that Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia will continue to have dictatorships for as long as outsiders don’t intervene.

      Furthermore, I think that the democracies will get in the Middle East will be far worse for our interests than maintaining dictatorships. I fully expect further bouts of instability. Again, I hope I am wrong, but it is tough to be optimistic.

  3. AB says:


    We are coming at this problem from such distant points that it is hard to know how to trespond to your questions.

    Our bombing campaign in Libya is nakedly illegal and constitutes aggression against a regime with which we had previously made peace. The UN resolution which justifies NATO involvement mandates a limited operation to protect Libyan civilians from reprisals. NATO and the US have moved well beyond that mandate and have been attempting to assassinate or overthrow Khadafi for months. Thus, the operation is illegal even on its own terms. It is also blatantly unconstitutional and a clear violation of the War Powers Act.

    You imply that because arab governments are “going to fall due to demographics and globalization,” we should speed things along with a few cruise missiles. This Whig reading of history is detrimental to good thinking. Frankly it seems like ex post facto justification, not cogent strategy. Of course these governments will fall if we insist on making relentless war on them. This should surprise no one. The “youth” in the UK are “rising up” as well. Should we assist them with a few bombing sorties? If not, why not?

    I see no reason that one form or another of government is “inevitable” anywhere. The Syrians showed at Hama that they know just what to do with revolutionaries. Their solution was cheap, elegant, and effective. It could easily be applied again.

    You ask for alternatives to our current activities. I would ask you to identify US regional interests and our desired end state. Once we do that, it should be relatively simple to generate options for how we should achieve our goals. Absent this type of organized thought, we are simply flailing.

    You say Hizb’allah and other non-state actors are the greatest threat to Israel. I doubt that. Though Hizb’allah was able to defeat the IDF in 2006 it is difficult to imagine them doing so in offensive operations inside Israel.

    I suspect the biggest threat to Israel is demographics. Israeli arabs are vastly outbreeding Israeli jews. As a result, in the not-too-distant future, Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democratic state. This dilemma is potentially much more fatal than arab guerrillas.

    Also, don’t sell arab conventional militaries short. They very nearly defeated Israel in 1973 and absolutely would have done so if not for US intervention.

  4. Scott Erb says:

    Fair points, though I think we’re entering a new era of global politics, whereby both sovereignty and the bureaucratic state (including dictatorships) is becoming obsolete. That is not a common view, and clearly could be wrong. But with the information revolution allowing connections across borders, most of the population of the Arab world being under 22, and globalization bringing new technologies and ideas across borders, to me the Arab dictatorships look like anachronistic remnants of the Ottoman Empire, holding on to the 20th Century but losing their grip in the 21st. The Saudi Royal family’s shock at events strikes me as equivalent to the Austrian Empire entering the 20th Century, unable to comprehend the changing nature of European politics.

    Yes, they can hold on — arguably the Ottoman, Austrian and Russian Empires held on for 50 years after their empires had become out of date. But how long, and at what price in this era? Given our dependence on oil, how aloof can we be from the changes sweeping the region? I share skepticism about Libya or Syria (though the US acting illegally in hardly anything new — the UN resolution was vague enough to allow an interpretation to be made justifying it, and when you have three participants on the Security Council, well, legality becomes irrelevant).

    Our interests are pretty clear: regional stability and avoiding significant disruptions to oil exports. In the past maintaining stability meant accepting existing regimes. I think that’s changing and existing regimes are not going to last long — and I also do think at some point there is a moral question of whether support for brutal dictatorships is acceptable. After all, support for Israel is hard to justify in purely self-interested terms — that relationship causes us more difficulty than good in the region.

    • Scott,

      Your theory is interesting. You should coin it something like neo pre-Westphalia, the time prior to 1648, when the concept of the nation state did not really exist. However, if memory serves, that period of history was a rather dark one. We may indeed be heading in the direction you describe, but I fear it will be a double-edged sword.

      • Scott Erb says:

        All transitions tend to be difficult and deadly! However, I don’t think the past is the future. I think what we’ll see is a decentralizing tendency as power shifts to local/regional entities. However, this won’t be like the Holy Roman Empire in that all these entities will be interconnected, and I suspect will be cooperating within pretty clear rules. The EU is sort of going that route — still dominated by the bureaucratic central state, but especially with the current crisis old political arrangements are under fire. When I try to take a ‘bird’s eye view’ to changes taking place, and try not to be open to the idea that major change could be coming, it seems to me that the technology revolution and communications revolution make the bureaucratic state both obsolete and relatively inefficient. The state won’t give up without a fight, and in the Mideast it’s clear the dictators are willing to fight. I wonder, though, if the economic crisis facing the industrialized West may not be the mechanism which starts the transformation of political order. We’re so used to the Westphalian state, but it could be a phenomenon of a roughly 350-400 year stretch of history.

  5. Pingback: Arab Spring Fallout: Egyptian Mob Overruns Israeli Embassy | Reflections of a Rational Republican

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