Dispatch

As Egypt Roils, Israel Watches

As the streets of Cairo erupt in chaos, Jerusalem wonders if the military can set things right again.

TEL AVIV — A year ago, Egyptians elected their first Islamist president. Across the Red Sea, Israelis were on edge.

"Israeli officials most dread the prospect of an Islamist president," I wrote in these pages in the lead-up to Mohamed Morsy's victory, when the Muslim Brotherhood candidate appeared to be a frontrunner.

A year later, now that Egypt's military has deposed the Islamist head of state, one might expect Israel to breathe easy. But like so much in this region, the two neighbors' relationship is exceedingly, unendingly complex.

"It's at once more complicated and much simpler than it seems," says Mark Heller, an Egypt expert at Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies. "What's complicated is that there's no denying the deep hostility of every Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to Israel. But it's also true that the other political forces in Egypt, including those simplistically described as liberal or secular, are often no less hostile."

"What makes it simpler is that as long as the army has the dominant role in foreign and security policy, it doesn't matter so much who controls parliament or the president's office," he says.

Several months into Morsy's term, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officials told me ties with their Egyptian military counterparts had never been better. Egypt's Army is the beneficiary of Washington's annual $1.6 billion aid package to the country -- money dependent on it playing nice with the Jewish state. Not that there's any love lost between the two, but at least there are shared interest. Egypt's generals have no desire for another costly war with their neighbor, with which they shares an interest in keeping Hamas gunmen ensconced in Gaza rather than terrorizing either country's soldiers or civilians.

And yet shortly after Morsy's presidency began, Israel saw signals that its anxiety over Islamist rule may have been justified. Just a few months in, video footage emerged from 2010 showing him perorating: "We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." Egyptian children "must feed on hatred.... The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him."

In another video he called Israelis "bloodsuckers", "warmongers" and "descendants of apes and pigs" -- all well-established anti-Semitic tropes, the last of which derives from the Quran and hadith and is a favorite of Islamists. Morsy countered that his words had been "taken out of context," but it soon was revealed that he had told a group of U.S. senators that American media is "controlled by certain forces" keen to discredit him. Even when trying to clear his own name, Morsy was unable to steer clear of anti-Semitic slurs.

And yet Israelis could not deny that this deeply flawed leader had kept the two countries' three-decade cold peace at a chill roughly similar to that of his pro-Western predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Morsy, it seemed, might not be the monumentally destabilizing force Israeli leaders had feared. It's true that under him, government-to-government contact was lacking to nonexistent -- dealings with the Israelis were almost entirely handled by the military and intelligence. And yet when conflict predictably erupted between Israel and Hamas in last year's eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense, Morsy's government played a useful role mediating between the two sides, each of which refuses to talk to the other directly.

Indeed, a chief Israeli concern had long been that a Brotherhood-led government would be favorable to the Hamas statelet in the Gaza Strip. (Hamas is, after all, effectively the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.) And yet Morsy's government, however, did nothing to stop the Egyptian army from destroying smuggling tunnels to Gaza -- in fact, with him in office, more tunnels were destroyed than Mubarak's men had ever dreamed of. This, for Israel, was a godsend -- the tunnels were conduits for consumer goods difficult for Gazans to obtain due to Israeli and Egyptian trade restrictions. Terrorists and their weapons also passed through in abundance.

Equally important, Morsy's government clamped down hard on jihadist groups in Sinai. The vast, sparsely populated area -- just half a million people in an area three times Israel's size -- is inhabited mostly by nomadic Bedouin who have historically experienced de facto semi-autonomy (or arguably neglect) from Cairo.

Post-Mubarak, Sinai quickly became a terrorist springboard for sundry jihadists including but not limited to al Qaeda. In the summer of 2011, eight Israelis were killed in a terror attack launched from Sinai, and last summer gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and stole their vehicles before Israeli troops stopped them dead in their half-tracks as they threatened the border.

Now, just a few days after Morsy's fall, brazen acts of violence have already returned to Sinai. On Friday, July 5, six Egyptian soldiers were killed as Islamists launched a multipronged rocket and gunfire offensive on a number of army installations and an airport. Troops responded with a curfew on northern Sinai and by closing the country's one crossing into Gaza for good measure.

It's uncertain whether the perpetrators were Morsy supporters -- angry (or paid) to exact retribution for the military coup -- or garden-variety jihadists eager to hit Egyptian troops (and presumably Israelis) whenever possible. To Israel, the cause is less relevant than the effect: Sinai's oil sands are once again ablaze.

But even if the military manages to put out the fires in Sinai, the larger problems plaguing Egypt may be too hot to touch. The Institute for National Security Studies' Mark Heller says Egypt's problems, chiefly its failing economy and the rootedness of political Islam, are so deep as to be fundamentally untreatable. Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Egypt is today the world's largest wheat importer.

"No government has had the courage to charge market rates for wheat or bread -- it's political suicide to cancel those subsidies," says Heller. "The only way Egypt can keep that up is through foreign income. Unfortunately tourism is in the toilet, foreign investment has disappeared and Egyptians are pulling out their capital."

Of course, the violence isn't limited to Sinai -- 30 people were killed across Egypt on Friday alone in clashes between Morsy backers and opponents. Watching from Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his cabinet to keep mum. The Israeli premier surely knows that publicly backing either side will only hurt its cause, and that Egyptians in any case have a penchant for seeing a Zionist hand behind every domestic development. But Israel's lawmakers are not known for their discretion, and it wasn't long before one of them -- Tzachi Hanegbi, an ex-minister close to Netanyahu -- weighed in:

"Israel's clear interest is for Egypt to remain stable, favorable to the West and the U.S., and that it does not let itself get carried away by a wave of religious extremism," he told Army Radio. "The return to prominence of the army and a secular authority capable of ensuring the stability of the country is good news."

Zvi Mazel, Israel's former ambassador to Cairo, agrees. "What happened in Egypt is excellent, first of all for Egypt but also for the region and for Israel," says Mazel. "Imagine if the Brotherhood had stayed in power -- eventually it could have taken over the army, police, and intelligence and Egypt would have found itself like Iran, with little chance of ridding itself of radical Islam."

"In the long run, the Brotherhood would have cooperated with their ally Hamas, and I believe that in a few years it would have canceled the peace treaty and maybe even attacked Israel," he said. "I've been monitoring the Brotherhood for 20 to 25 years, looking for signs of pragmatism. Sorry to disappoint you, but I haven't found any."

After deposing Morsy, Egypt's military authorities named the relatively unknown judge Adly Mansour as interim president, and the more widely known Nobel Prize-winning moderate Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister. Heller, however, says the choice of a long-term replacement is virtually irrelevant, and that the country's essential conflict is between its only two organized forces: political Islam and the military. As long as the latter continues to run foreign and defense policy -- as he expects it to -- Israeli-Egyptian dynamics won't substantively change.

Indeed, from Jerusalem's perspective, Egypt's revolution redux bears many of the same markers as its first. This time, as after the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolution, Israel faced growing threats from insurgents in Sinai, smugglers in Gaza, and a general unease over the erosion of that elusive term "stability."

And yet this time there is at least one difference: the phenomenon of average Egyptians relaying eyewitness reports on Israeli TV news -- in fluent Hebrew.

Egypt's 12 universities all offer Hebrew courses, and thousands of Egyptians graduate yearly with a degree in the language. Until now, most Egyptians had maintained an unofficial boycott against visiting Israel or speaking to its media. It's unclear what caused the change, but over the past week each of Israel's three networks have run nightly interviews with a rotating cast of anti-Morsy demonstrators.

On Thursday, it was the turn of journalist and protester Heba Hamdi Abu Saif. Appearing on Channel 2 from Tahrir Square, she declared with near-perfect diction: "Every leader in the world draws legitimacy from the people. If the people withdraw that support, he mustn't stay any longer."

Then she added a personal note, hinting that she's not a fan of Israel's prime and finance ministers, and encouraging a little people power across the border: "If Bibi and Yair Lapid aren't doing their jobs, then get rid of them and bring in leaders whom you want. They made you promises they didn't keep, so don't just keep silent," she enjoined. "We too were made promises that went unfulfilled, but it's the people who must decide."

Citizens of democracies generally resent foreign nationals telling them whom to vote for, but for Israelis used to near-universal distaste from their Egyptian neighbors, it was refreshing to be treated as a normal country. Still, whoever becomes Egypt's president, bilateral relations will remain fraught. And yet Abu Saif's televised display of chutzpah came as a relief -- a silver lining perhaps for Tel Aviv in the clouds of tear gas at Tahrir.

Getty Images News

Dispatch

Cairo's Charm Offensive

Why Egypt's islamists are kissing up to the army that's gunning them down.

CAIRO — Beneath a baking summer sun in Cairo's prim Heliopolis neighborhood, outside the heavily guarded compound of the Republican Guards, supporters of Egypt's recently ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsy squinted upward into the cloudless sky and beating rotor blades of a hovering army helicopter as if looking for a sign.

Some laughed. "He's trying to scare us," said a man, smiling.

Many cheered and flashed victory signs. "He's filming! He's filming!" one shouted, perhaps hoping that they would receive the same treatment the military gave to the president's opponents four days earlier -- filming their massive turnout and delivering the footage to a popular television channel for broadcast.

Through the wash of swirling dirt and dust, the military helicopter churned, inscrutable. What did it signify?

"Only God knows," one man said.

Two days after a popular military coup put a stunning end to Morsy's presidency, supporters of the one-time engineering professor and Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik said they felt betrayed and disappointed that the "legitimate" leader of Egypt had been deposed by force. They proclaimed that they were resolved to a seemingly impossible task: restoring Morsy to the presidency.

To do so, their leaders -- those yet to be arrested in a spreading crackdown -- have once again entered into a dance with the very generals who brought them down. They're praising the military as brothers even as rank-and-file supporters call for the execution of the defense minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who delivered Morsy's coup de grace. For its part, the military is reaching right back out to the movement that it just threw out of power -- even as the generals move to neuter the Brotherhood's leadership.

There is little chance that the military, which has already initiated its "roadmap" for a transition, will make a bargain -- a referendum on Morsy's rule, for instance. But the Brotherhood's leaders -- who have drilled into their supporters that Morsy's legitimacy is worth dying for -- may see few options but to stand by their core principle: that Morsy was elected.

"Why am I here?" said Hassan Khaled, a 22-year-old commerce student at Cairo University. "Because Morsy is the elected president... We spent 30 years under the rule of President Hosni [Mubarak], who always took the elections by rigging. It's our right to choose a president."

All but a few of the Brotherhood's religious and political leaders, including Morsy, have been arrested or remain incommunicado, according to aides. Their television channel, Egypt 25, has been shut down, along with others sympathetic to more conservative Islamists. The movement's supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, remains free, though various earlier reports of his arrest made it unclear whether that was by the military's own design. Many fear that arresting the supreme guide, a blow the state has not inflicted on the Brotherhood for decades, would prompt widespread violence. Late on Friday night, the government continued to squeeze. Heavily armed police snatched Khairat al-Shater, Badie's deputy and arguably the Brotherhood's most powerful figure, along with his brother. They also arrested Hazem Abu Ismail, a wildly popular Salafi preacher who had come out in support of Morsy, to the cheers of watching neighbors.

The resulting flux has become combustible. Few believe that disciplined, lifelong Brotherhood cadres will go beyond Badie's call for peaceful resistance. But Salafis and unaffiliated supporters may see violence as the only response, and the Brothers have shown they are willing to use firearms when conflict erupts. In the Sinai Peninsula, unidentified armed men have already begun attacking military and other security installations. Residents of Cairo's Manial neighborhood said armed Morsy supporters attempting to reach Tahrir Square on Friday night killed at least half a dozen residents when they were resisted.

"The Brotherhood can only impose discipline on its own members," said Shadi Hamid, a scholar of the Brotherhood and Islamist politics based at the Brookings Doha Center.

On a day Morsy's supporters dubbed the Friday of Rejection, protesters' swelling presence on the streets already began to spark violence; first in Heliopolis, where Republican Guards opened fire on encroaching demonstrators, and later near Tahrir Square, where an ill-advised pro-Morsy march on its way to nearby state media headquarters passed close to anti-Morsy crowds still occupying the Square. An hours-long exchange of rocks, fireworks and gunfire ensued. The street battle, a taste of what could come if the crisis is not resolved, ended only with an organized retreat by Morsy's backers and the tardy intervention of the army.

After the shooting outside the Guards' sprawling club compound, hundreds of Morsy's supporters surrounded the front gate. The demonstration settled into an open sit-in, blocking traffic along the main road to Cairo's airport and extending a new artery of protest from the main encampment of Morsy's partisans outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque a few thousand feet down a road that runs past the Defense Ministry.

Morsy's street support on Friday did not come close to rivaling the millions that turned out across the nation on June 30 to demand his departure, but it revealed a base that was not yet pondering surrender. The military, which is likely keen to avoid provoking the Brothers any more than it already has, launched a jarring charm offensive in response.

Outside the Republican Guards compound, four small helicopters buzzed the protest trailing the flags of the branches of Egypt's armed forces, a repeat of the show they put on for the Islamists' opponents in Tahrir Square just days earlier. The crowd erupted with glee, screaming "God is great!". Half a dozen fighter jets streaked by, leaving trails of smoke in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Not long after, twice as many propeller planes performed maneuvers high above the crowd. On the asphalt near the barbed wire protecting the compound's front gate, the blood of a protester shot through the head evaporated in the heat.

Khaled, the student, stood across the road from the gate with a can of spraypaint. Behind him was a wall surrounding a club for military production officers -- those who run the vast network of military businesses that manufacture and sell arms and civilian goods and ensure that the armed forces remain the country's most powerful institution. On the wall, his opinion of the defense minister was scrawled in blue paint: "Sisi is a traitor. Sisi is an infiltrator."

Throughout the protest, Morsy's supporters spoke of injustice -- a belief that they had played the game by the rules only to be cheated out of power by corrupt and intransigent opponents. Elsewhere on the wall, someone had written in English: "Where is my vote?"

In June 2012, when Morsy defeated former Air Force general and one-time prime minister Ahmed Shafik in a runoff, he did so by the thinnest of margins, garnering just 51.7 percent of the vote. His victory came on the backs of an unlikely coalition of leftists, liberals and revolutionaries who held their noses and voted for the candidate of a secretive, deeply conservative religious movement rather than see the presidency go to Shafik, who to them personified the potential return of the Mubarak regime they had spilled blood to end. Morsy and his allies then rode roughshod over weak and floundering opposition parties, asserting their majority in nearly every conflict, waving off demands for compromise, and occasionally governing by fiat. One year later, most of those who had held their nose had abandoned Morsy.

Still, there were signs in Friday's protests that the coup, though it arrived on an unprecedented wave of popular support, had inspired anger beyond the insular Brotherhood and Islamist social networks. Some who came to the Republican Guards compound said that they were not Brotherhood members or committed Morsy partisans but simply angry that their votes had been usurped. They complained that Morsy had been hamstrung by uncooperative opposition parties and subversive ministries that laid traps to make governing impossible. Some pointed with suspicion to the rolling blackouts, petrol shortages and panic over the availability of basic foodstuffs that had wracked the nation in the weeks leading up to June 30. They noted with dark irony that the crises had suddenly stopped since Morsy's fall -- though many economic problems were likely to continue under any new government.

"We went down for five elections: [including] the People's Assembly, the Shoura Council, a referendum, presidential, and in the end, the military council...threw them in the trash," said Ahmed Hassan, the 35-year-old owner of an IT company.

Hassan claimed the June 30 protests had been fueled by an alliance of Christians, liberals and Mubarak regime sympathizers who could not abide the idea of an Islamist president. Others said they believed the demonstrators were mostly young people who had been brainwashed by an array of hostile television netwokrs. Some pointed out that almost none of the independent stations continued to cover protests in support of Morsy following the coup.

Hassan argued that one year had hardly been enough time for Morsy's administration to correct Egypt's path, after three decades under Mubarak. Whatever mistakes Morsy had made, his supporters argued, were the result of a conniving bureaucracy packed with Mubarak holdovers -- hardly justification for the undemocratic removal of Egypt's first elected president.

"Why do the liberals who talk about democracy not respond with democracy? They did it by force, why?" Hassan asked.

Yehia Mowiena, a 26-year-old software engineer who was serving in the military and unable to vote in the 2012 election, said he -- like the other reluctant Morsy supporters -- had urged his friends to vote in the Brotherhood to keep out Shafik.

Mowiena knew that a set of presidential decrees that Morsy issued in November to put himself and the constitutional assembly above judicial review was an enormous mistake. But he said it was necessary to protect against the predations of reactionary judges seeking to undo every step Morsy and the Brotherhood's political party made.

Besides, Mowiena added, overthrowing an elected leader set a dangerous precedent for Egypt.

"We have corruption everywhere in Egypt. What if another Egyptian president wanted to fight this corruption, and the army and the police and the media ganged up against him? They can bring him down just like Mohamed Morsy," said Mowiena.

It remains unclear whether the Brotherhood has a strategy to end the crisis, but their response has been consistent: refuse. Beginning with the climactic hours of the coup, when Morsy continued to decline suggestions to resign or call early elections, they have rejected the legitimacy of the overthrow. Rather than admit defeat, explain that they wish to avoid further bloodshed, make gestures toward the will of the mass protests, and retrench for further elections, they have demanded that Morsy be reinstated as president. The state's behavior has not helped convince them that it has any intention of playing fair.

On the ground, this has translated into a schizophrenic approach to the army by Morsy's supporters. Vulgar jeers when military helicopters circle overhead have transformed into cheers and victory signs. Some protesters chant, "the army and the people are one hand." Others spray paint "the price of treason is blood" on the walls of the Defense Ministry. Some link hands to prevent angry members from approaching military checkpoints, while at other rallies in Cairo the two sides have come to blows. On Friday, a woman in a black niqab walking from the Republican Guards protest to the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in stopped to berate soldiers perched in a Defense Ministry guard tower. "We're Muslims, not terrorists," she said bitterly, after bystanders encouraged her to move on.

The Brotherhood leadership may or may not privately believe that Egypt's majority opinion now lies with those who took to the streets on June 30 to unseat Morsy, but they likely remain confident in their time-tested ability to bring out a loyal core of supporters. Their 85-year history is characterized by repression and surviving under threat. They may also hope that Morsy's continued detention and the military's ham-fisted crackdown on the pretext of preventing violence backfires, stirring up more anger among supporters and, possibly, even citizens sitting on the fence.

Most importantly, they know that the military prizes stability and calm and is anxious that the popular coup be accepted internationally. The threat of ongoing unrest and violence when supporters whom the Brotherhood cannot or will not control come to grips with their opponents could undermine the generals' roadmap. Few will care who becomes prime minister if street battles rage in Cairo and the governorates for days or weeks.

"I think they're back in their natural state of opposition," said Brookings' Hamid. "They've always been more comfortable, in a sense, with their backs to the wall."

Mosaab Elshamy / FP