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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: Israel, beware Egypt's ambitious General al-Sisi

Garvan Walshe was the Conservative Party's National and International Security Policy Adviser until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-16 at 17.05.19It’s been 40 years since the Yom Kippur war, when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel, which came close to threatening the state’s existence. Golda Meir’s government had received plenty of intelligence that an attack was coming. Like all intelligence, it was far from conclusive. The Israelis chose to discount it, and mobilised only hours before the Arab attack came.

At least in 1973 Israel had no reason to doubt Egypt’s strategic intentions. Jerusalem knew she might deter war through deft diplomacy and by keeping a keen watch on her borders but there was no doubt about Cairo’s hostility.  Things are different now.

There may not have been dancing in the streets of Ashkelon as news of Mohammed Morsi’s ouster spread, but there was certainly relief, if not a certain amount of satisfaction, that the Muslim Brotherhood, begetter of Hamas, had been cut down to size. Thus a friend, whose views reflect the exact centre of informed Israeli public opinion so closely that she could serve as a one-woman focus group, punned to me on July 2nd, as tanks sealed off Cairo’s streets and security forces at last got a chance to put their ample stocks of tear gas to use: “He’s certainly proved he’s no sissy.”

Egypt’s liberals too thought that he seemed a good idea at the time. Mohammed el-Baradei even offered himself up the coup’s Official Mannequin (then Deputy Official Mannequin after the Islamic fundamentalists of the Nour party objected to him), only to resign, shocked — SHOCKED! — that the security forces had started shooting people.

Now those liberals and human rights activists are being rounded up and journalists are being tried. The Brotherhood’s sit-ins were dispersed, and its leaders put in jail with much less fuss than many (including me) had expected. For all I know, radicals may be gathering in cellars and in encrypted internet chat-rooms to plot their revenge, but so far there’s little evidence they are capable of posing a serious threat outside the Sinai peninsula. It looks as though Egypt has avoided civil war, but the cowing of the Brotherhood could well have come at an extremely high price: the inflation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ego.

Al-Sisi had seemed a modest man. Mohammed Morsi saw him as the ideal replacement for the Mubarak-era generals he had swept aside. Cautious and pious, he would surely be the last person to play Zia ul-Haq to Morsi’s own Zufikar Ali Bhutto (that Pakistani comparison can still be said to be exaggerated: al-Sisi has yet to have Morsi put to death). And even if, perhaps, he has been persuaded somewhat reluctantly to intervene by the huge popular unrest he could see, by the Islamists’ mismanagement of the economy, and, not uncrucially, by their intent to replace the military’s economic empire with the Brotherhood’s own; even if, at the time, he planned to apply no more than a gentle nudge to Egypt’s political system after which he could return to his well-appointed barracks, admire his reflection in his perfectly polished boots, pose in his numberless hats, and drive around in the latest American-made supplied vehicles...all those crowds holding up your picture, chanting “We love Sisi” and “the Army and the people are one hand,” are bound to go to a chap’s head.

Now it looks as though he’s consolidating power with impressive ruthlessness and skill. Once he’s done, where is he likely to go next? What could be better than to bid for leadership of the Arab world? What could be better, in fact, than to succeed where Nasser, Sadat, Assade père and even Hamas had failed?

Serious Israeli heads dismiss the idea. Since the coup, Egypt and Israel have co-operated extremely closely in fighting terrorists in Sinai and making life so difficult for Hamas that the Islamists even considered asking Fatah back to help control border crossings. Under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel always gets more aid, and is guaranteed a “qualitative edge” in equipment: a war would be foolhardy in the extreme.  And besides, a war would cut off revenue from the Suez Canal that Egypt can ill afford to miss and damage the tourism sector, receipt of the dividends from which has become a chief preoccupation of Egypt’s military.

Yet, as it reorganises its own amed forces, and plans the forces it intends to maintain over the next couple of decades, Israel should bear in mind that though wars are almost always economically irrational, they still somehow start. It should recall Israel’s qualitative edge is there to balance Egypt’s inevitable quantitative one, and as good as co-operation is now, plans can change swiftly. After all, it was in March 1939 that Poland’s Foreign Minister could confidently assert: “I trust Hitler. He has some large ambitions for Europe."


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