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Allies or enemies? Egypt's confused rhetoric on Israel

On the one hand Sisi fans the flames of grassroots hostility against Israel, but he needs improved relations to boost his international credibility

Egypt's intelligence general-turned-president, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, came to power portraying himself as a “strong statesman” on a mission to save the country from the havoc he said would descend from Muslim Brotherhood rule.

To bolster his grip on power, he launched a crackdown that reached far wider than the Muslim Brotherhood, also targeting liberal activists who helped spark the uprising five years ago. He has created a climate of fear by mentioning conspiracies - so-called “Fourth Generation Wars” against Egypt, seemingly in an effort to weaken and divide the country. So far, it has worked, helping him avert the fate of his predecessors, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. 

On several occasions, he has used the cliché “ahal al-Shar”, or “evil people”, but left it open to interpretation as to who these people are. Are they Israel or the US? Iran or Qatar, Turkey or Hamas, or perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood? Or maybe they are all in it together! Or are the conspiracy theories used to justify any decision Sisi might make to avoid accountability or transparency?

Sisi’s image as a military patriot faded away when he surprised Egyptians by “selling” two “Egyptian” islands to Saudi Arabia three months ago. His government is currently appealing a court verdict that ruled the transference of the islands as null and void. Is Sisi himself a focal point of this conspiracy he keeps mentioning? 

Sisi’s double-standards hit a new low last week after he dispatched his foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem for the first time in nearly a decade. Surprisingly enough, the high-level trip comes at a time when the Sisi government has insisted it will not tolerate any type of normalisation with the Israelis at other levels.

For instance, Tawfik Okasha, a lawmaker and a controversial TV talk show host, was expelled from the Egyptian parliament after pictures of him meeting with Haim Koren, Israeli ambassador to Egypt, went viral on social media five months ago.

Since then, he has disappeared from the political and media scene, despite his staunch support for both Mubarak and in turn Sisi government. Now, the same parliament that excommunicated Okasha is keeping a low-profile over Shoukry’s official visit to Israel, stirring doubts about parliament’s credibility and independence.

To kill two birds with one stone, on the one hand Sisi fans the flames of grassroots hostility against Israel. Reminiscent of his predecessors including Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the goal is to distract the people from the real-life challenges they face in terms of the continued deterioration of living standards along with the widespread frustration at the government’s narrow approach and bad governance. 

In the international arena, the visit conveys an implicit message to the US administration that the Sisi government is stable enough and capable of restoring Egypt’s pre-Arab Spring role as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In return, the Sisi government expects that the US administration would turn a blind eye to undemocratic governance and human rights violations at home.

Realising that his way to power came through a military coup d'état and unprecedented bloodshed, Sisi seeks to play a regional role and increase the military’s international status. In addition to the Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti assistance that came in form of unconditional aid after the July coup in 2013, he needs further Western assistance, especially after the European parliament issued a hard-hitting resolution in March, condemning Sisi’s worsening human-rights record in light of the torture and murder of the Italian academic Giulio Regeni on 25 January, 2016.

As a result, a crisis with Italy has worsened. Most recently, Italy halted military supplies, including spare parts for F-16 fighter jets, and it is likely that the European Union could also reconsider its relationship with Egypt, should investigations prove the involvement of figures linked to the state in the Regeni killing. This gives added importance to Sisi's ties with Israel, and could become a milestone in how the US and the West views him - aside from his human-rights abuses.

Egypt needs Israel to fight Islamic State's franchise in Sinai, because this war needs aerial monitoring and drones targeting IS operatives, as well as permission for the Egyptian military to deploy more troops in Sinai where IS strongholds are located – since Egypt has a limited military presence in the peninsula according to the Camp David peace deal in 1979.

In return, Soukry’s visit to Israel brings in an Egyptian call to activate the peace process, clearly in the Israelis' favour. This unbinding, much-ado-about-nothing initiative creates an opportunity for the Israeli government to outmaneouvre any potential commitments imposed by the French Initiative and Paris's Israel-Palestine peace conference on 3 June, which are similar to the 2002 Arab Initiative calling for a two-state solution.

Now the Israeli government is already in the process of expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and needs more time to change facts on the ground before entering any negotiations, thanks to the Egyptian initiative, which, compared to the French one, has no binding deadlines, agenda or parameters. 

The location of the meeting in Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, raises an important question over the extent of this new phase of the Egypt-Israel relationship - will it come at the expense of the rights of Palestinians?

In November 2015, the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution to place labels on products made in Israeli settlements, considering territories occupied in 1967 including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as non-Israeli in order to put a pressure on Israel over its continued settlement expansion. To that end, the EU rejects any official visits held in the occupied territories. All official visits, embassies and international delegations are held in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. So when Egypt’s foreign minister holds talks in Jerusalem, without speaking a word about Israeli settlements in the process, he seems to be legitimising the Israeli occupation. 

Although Mubarak was a “strategic ally”, he was careful to keep some red lines. For instance, there were longstanding protocols to avoid holding talks in Jerusalem - a major sticking point in negotiations - to avoid harming Palestinian feelings. Moreover, for the first time, Sisi has put the foreign ministry in charge of the file rather than the General Intelligence Services (GIS) which was represented by Omar Suleiman during Mubarak’s three-decade rule. Such a shift sends a message to Palestinians that the relationship is moving beyond intelligence and security cooperation to a diplomatic and political alliance, and this weakens the Egyptian position as a mediator.

Israel does not like democratic governments in the region, and would rather deal with dictators. That is why Israel welcomed Sisi when he came to power. However his predecessor, the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, was able in the early days of his one-year-rule to influence the Hamas movement in Gaza and was internationally hailed for convincing Hamas to stop firing at Israel, and in turn averted a larger war between the two sides.

Yet Israel does not want peace, especially with Palestinians, because peace means an end to settlement building, an end to occupation, and a gradual end to the status quo of Israel as a country under constant regional threat, and in turn an evaporation of international sympathy without which the Jewish state cannot justify its policies and behaviour.  

- Muhammad Mansour is a journalist from Egypt, who covered the Arab uprisings, and who writes about Egyptian affairs, Sinai insurgency and broader Middle Eastern issues. For more details, visit www.muhammadmansour.com.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry prior to their meeting at his Jerusalem office on 10 July, 2016 (AFP).