The Egyptian Military – Last Obstacle to Cairo-Hamas Alliance

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The Egyptian military’s weakening grip on power is the last obstacle standing in the way of an alliance between a Cairo under Islamist rule and the Hamas regime in Gaza.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The Egyptian military’s weakening grip on power is the last obstacle standing in the way of an alliance between a Cairo under Islamist rule and the Hamas regime in Gaza.

Two out of three phases in Egypt’s parliamentary elections are now complete, and the results are unequivocal. A clear majority of Egyptians have so far voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the puritanical Salafist Al-Nour party.

The liberal secular parties are trailing far behind the Islamists, and look destined to play a marginal role in shaping the future foreign policy.

Much has already been said on what life inside Egypt could look like under an Islamist government. The passing of Sharia-inspired laws seems inevitable. The change will likely strike a major blow to Western tourism, which is already stunted due to instability. The prospect of an Egyptian economic recovery looks dim.

Yet, from an Israeli perspective, the future course of Egyptian foreign policy is naturally of most concern.

Before the elections, senior Muslim Brotherhood official Essam El-Erian told Radio Free Europe that “Hamas is a resistance group fighting for freedom and liberation of their lands from occupation. And the West must revise their knowledge about Hamas.”

The Muslim Brotherhood views Hamas as a sister organization, and for good reason; Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the same organization. As the Hamas charter states: “Hamas is one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.”

Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyah senses the new winds blowing in the region. He recently announced a visit to Tunisia, where Islamists have already risen to power, as well as to Turkey and Qatar. But Haniyah is most focused on his powerful southern neighbor, watching with optimism as his fellow Muslim Brothers in Egypt sweep to pole position.

Hamas is looking forward to the day it will no longer have to rely exclusively on Iran as a sponsor, or be dependent on the al-Assad regime in Syria, whose days seem numbered.

It would rather depend on Egypt, a closer power that controls the all-important Sinai Peninsula, through which tens of thousands of rockets, mortars, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades are smuggled into Gaza. Many of these weapons are used to target civilians in southern Israel.

An Islamist Egypt is unlikely to initiate any immediate confrontation with Israel because of its dire economic situation and the unwillingness of the U.S.-dependent Egyptian military to take part in an ill-fated adventure.

It is likely, however, that an Islamist Cairo would forge ahead with an alliance with Hamas in Gaza. This will allow Hamas to undermine Israel’s security blockade.

Cairo will also bestow diplomatic legitimacy to Hamas (as Turkey has begun to do), formally ending the Gaza regime’s isolation.

Such a development would significantly weaken Fatah, which in the past saw Egypt as a prime secular nationalist ally and an insurance policy against Hamas during the Mubarak era.

The only force that can prevent such a wholly negative development is the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the current de facto ruling body.

SCAF, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, is pulling out all the stops in a desperate bid to reserve a significant role for itself in any future Egyptian government. This includes an insistence on controlling a civilian council that will set the criteria for drafting a future constitution, and maintaining an ability to have a major say on foreign policy issues.

The military’s measures are partly guided by an unbridled fear that the Islamists will steer Egypt towards disaster.

Islamists and liberals alike paint the military’s efforts as undemocratic power maneuvers by an army accustomed to ruling over the masses. The army’s measures are costing it dearly in popularity, and are sparking days of bloody riots in Cairo.

The ongoing chaos brings into focus a second threat emerging from Egypt, alongside the formation of an ideological Islamist parliament: The gradual loosening of Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai. That development is destabilizing the desert peninsula, allowing armed jihadi groups to mushroom in the sand dunes.

Israel is quietly making preparations on its southern borders to ensure that the rapidly changing geopolitical reality does not catch it off guard.

A new electronic sensor fence being built on the Egyptian border, designed to keep hundreds of thousands of illegal African migrants from flooding Israel, will also serve as a well-timed security barrier.

The IDF created a new brigade and stationed it in the area of Eilat to beef up its counter-terrorism capabilities against Sinai-based threats, as part of lessons learned from the deadly cross-border terror raid from Egypt last August which killed eight Israelis.

While Hamas and other factions arm themselves in Gaza and await developments in Egypt, Israel must also weigh offensive measures to safeguard its national security.

The options include a future Gaza offensive to remove Hamas from power, before it and Islamic Jihad increase their terrorism capabilities even further. Another possibility is the seizure of the Gaza-Egypt border, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, to put a stop to weapons smuggling.

Offensive options for dealing with Gaza may become more urgent if Israel identifies an Egyptian-Hamas bond on the horizon.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.