The Sinai Powderkeg
Jan 23, 2013 | Ehud Yaari
Egypt is the country that counts [in the Middle East]. I lived for years in Egypt but I cannot tell you – and the same goes for my friends in Egypt and I have many – whether Mr. Morsi, the President, sees himself as the ‘Mr. Morsi elected to be President’ or as the errand boy of the Muslim Brotherhood. My inclination so far is to suspect that he has been tamed by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. When you look at the room allocation in the Presidential Palace in northern Cairo you will see that next door to the President are the rooms allocated for the old party thugs of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m not sure the President is calling the shots.
Egypt is bankrupt. They have foreign currency reserves of US$14 billion for a country of 85 million people. They are being kept just above water by Qatar, the banker of the Muslim Brotherhood movement anywhere. They are keeping them going with injections of US$4 billion in deposits in the Central Bank at a time. But a country like Egypt cannot survive like this for long.
We see that the Muslim Brotherhood is having difficulty in asserting their monopoly on power. There is a very strong coalition of opposition parties that keeps returning to [Cairo’s Tahrir] square. The regime in Egypt is what I call ‘Squareocracy’. It is ‘rule by the Square’. Every time different people go to [Tahrir] square after Friday Prayers and now it’s the anti-Muslim Brotherhood people. So the government is not really governing.
Which leads me to the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt, which is strategically very important, has lost control over the Sinai Peninsula. The Sinai Peninsula is the size of Tasmania – three times bigger than the State of Israel. The Egyptian Government has become an absentee landlord. They send their army and they have what they call ‘Operation Eagle’ to root out the terrorist safe havens all over the Peninsula. I call it ‘Operation Clipped Winged Eagle’ because they are doing nothing except showing their flag and having a roadblock here and a roadblock there.
The Sinai now is a base for a growing number of terrorist factions, particularly Salafis; Muslim Jihadists coming from mainland Egypt or recruited from the local Bedouin population. Many are also coming from other Muslim countries especially from Libya. We have seen Libyan and Saudi suicide bombers on the border of Israel for the first time ever. The collapse of the Sinai can ignite a major confrontation.
They have the best weapons you can think of, better than the Syrian rebels by the way, much better. They have anti-aircraft manpads – shoulder-launched missiles – up to the SA24 – Russian made weapons. They have third and fourth generation anti-tank missiles – Coronet, Matisse, whatever you can think of – coming from all over the place, mainly Libya but also Iran and the Balkans.
I’ve been saying for a year now, because I make it my business to follow the Sinai, what I said to the American Special Operations Command and Canadian intelligence – those people who have so far mounted attacks and fired missiles at Israel, at some point they are going to interfere with the shipping in the Suez Canal, in the Gulf of Aqaba, in the Gulf of Suez. It doesn’t stop at our border – where we have completed a 240 kilometre long fence, 5 to 7 metres high, 2 metres deep into the ground.
So the Sinai, that neglected peninsula can become the point where you will have an explosion. The Americans, unfortunately – the Obama Administration, I’m speaking only about this point in time – the American administration is not conditioning the help it is extending to Mr. Morsi, President of Egypt on any measures that should be taken, for example in the Sinai.
And it’s relatively easy, because once you monitor the Suez Canal, 100 kilometres long, nobody can go into the Sinai. Ninety percent of the weapons will be intercepted. But there is nothing on the Suez Canal; nothing in the tunnels, not on the bridges, not on the ferries. All the US have to do is tell the Egyptians – I’m putting it simplistically but basically it is [simple] – tell the Egyptians unless you take the appropriate measures on the Suez Canal, we will have to re-think [weapons and aid deliveries]. They are not doing it so far.
An expert on the Middle East for almost 40 years, Ehud Yaari is an award wining political commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 news. He is also a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The above is an edited excerpt from a talk he gave to AIJAC in Melbourne on Jan. 14. The full talk – dealing with such issues as Israel’s challenges for 2013, the Israeli election, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the deal between Australia’s Woodside Petroleum and Israel to develop Israel’s major new offshore gas fields – is available on AIJAC’s website at www.aijac.org.au/news/article/video-ehud-yaari-on-israel-and-the-middle-east. The Q&A is available at www.aijac.org.au/news/article/video-ehud-yaari-q-a