Egypt’s Provocative and Dangerous Remilitarization of the Sinai

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Fellow

When Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was first elected, Israel worried that he might seek to revise the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. After all, senior members of his Muslim Brotherhood party had threatened repeatedly to “review” it during the parliamentary and the presidential campaigns. Yet this idea always had a serious drawback from Morsi’s perspective: It would require negotiating with Israel, a state the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t recognize and whose very name it refuses to utter.

But it now seems Morsi has found a way around this problem: Instead of renegotiating the treaty, he simply moved troops into Sinai in gross violation of its central provision, demilitarization. It’s exactly the tactic Hitler used to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936: Move in the troops, and dare the world to do anything about it. And so far, it seems to be working just as well.

The treaty strictly limits both the number of troops and the type of weaponry Egypt can deploy in Sinai. Any exception to these limits requires Israel’s consent. But Israel has repeatedly granted such consent to facilitate Egyptian counterterrorism efforts, including after jihadis killed 16 soldiers at an Egyptian army outpost in Sinai on August 5. Thus many commentators expected that attack to foster improved Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation in Sinai.

Morsi, however, saw the attack not as grounds for increased cooperation, but as a golden opportunity to eviscerate the treaty. Ten days later, he began pouring troops into Sinai far in excess of the addition Israel had approved. And when Israel stayed mum, he escalated, sending tanks into the border region near Israel in blatant violation of the treaty, which allows only lightly armed policemen in that area (tanks are allowed only on the other side of Sinai, near the Suez Canal). Consequently, Egypt now has more forces in Sinai than it has since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the last few days, a dozen Egyptian tanks were observed departing Sinai leaving some 40 still there and still in violation of the treaty.

Had Egypt asked, Israel might well have consented: As former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin noted, Israel also uses tanks against terrorists; it’s common sense to exploit superior firepower if you have it.

But Morsi didn’t ask. And the “international community” didn’t utter a peep.

Both Jerusalem and Washington reportedly lodged quiet protests, but publicly, Israeli officials said nothing, aside from denying reports that Egypt had also moved anti-aircraft batteries into Sinai. The Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, which is ostensibly there to monitor treaty violations, also kept silent. And the State Department’s only public comment when asked about the treaty violations was to laud Egypt for fighting terror – which doubtless contributed to Jerusalem’s unhappy conclusion that Washington wouldn’t “throw its entire weight behind” pressing Egypt to honor the treaty.

Trying to resolve the issue quietly first may make sense. But if quiet diplomacy doesn’t work swiftly – and so far, it hasn’t – Washington must ratchet up the pressure. For if Morsi sees he can violate the treaty with impunity, he has every incentive to keep doing so: Remilitarizing Sinai enjoys wall-to-wall support in Egypt. In Morsi’s own words, “Egypt is practicing its very normal role on its soil and does not threaten anyone and there should not be any kind of international or regional concerns at all from the presence of Egyptian security forces.” In other words, they’re not leaving; get used to it.

The onus falls on Washington, which witnessed the treaty, because Israel has no real leverage over Egypt. Granted, America’s $1.55 billion in annual aid to Egypt also offers limited leverage: Since most of it is military aid, it does little for Egypt’s shattered economy while strengthening Morsi’s main rival. Thus he may well be prepared to forgo it.

But the U.S. wields substantial influence in agencies like the International Monetary Fund, whose aid Morsi desperately needs to rescue his economy. Recently, Egypt requested a $4.8 billion IMF loan. Washington should insist that its approval be conditioned on full compliance with the treaty. Disturbingly, however, it instead seems poised to approve a sweeping aid package – including not only the IMF loan, but also a U.S. debt forgiveness deal – with no such strings attached.

Washington could also seek help from Riyadh, where Morsi paid his first official visit after being elected in a quest for Saudi aid. Since Saudi Arabia itself doesn’t recognize Israel, asking it to use its influence to preserve the treaty may seem odd. But Riyadh has made clear that its top foreign policy priority is halting Iran’s nuclear program (“Cut off the head of the snake,” King Abdullah urged). Thus the last thing it wants is a flare-up on the Israeli-Egyptian border that would distract international, and especially American, attention from Iran.

In fact, Riyadh may not want Israeli attention distracted from Iran: An Israeli strike currently looks much likelier than an American one, and while Abdullah hasn’t publicly said he prefers an Israeli attack to a nuclear Iran, some of his Gulf allies have. Indeed, Riyadh has reportedly even offered to cooperate.

That Egypt cares about avoiding American penalties is evident from its reaction after media reports of the violations proliferated. First, unnamed Egyptian officials insisted the tanks were deployed in coordination with Israel – an assertion no Israeli or American official would confirm. Then, perhaps realizing this was too incredible to be swallowed, they said they were discussing the issue with Israel and had made “significant progress.” Later, they even said Egypt’s defense minister had called his Israeli counterpart to discuss the deployment and reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to the treaty – a report Israel flatly denied. Finally, Morsi himself publicly reiterated his commitment to the treaty, even as he repeated the lie that the deployment complied with it.

In short, even while perpetrating the most serious violation of the treaty since its inception, Egypt is paying it lip service in an effort to soothe Washington. And so far, Washington seems willing to be satisfied with that.

An Egyptian remilitarization of the Sinai obviously isn’t in the same league as Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland – it will spark neither a world war nor another Holocaust- but it could spark another Israel-Egypt war, and that would be bad enough.

Clearly, that isn’t an outcome Washington wants. But unless it takes decisive action to stop Sinai from being remilitarized, it is by far the most likely one.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.