Egyptian president confirms security coordination with Israel in CBS interview

In tactical and strategic terms, close coordination between Egypt and Israel has become a national security necessity for both sides.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sits during an interview in Cairo. (Reuters)
Different audiences. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sits during an interview in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took a calculated risk by officially confirming close coordination with Israel in the fight against terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, analysts said.

In an interview with CBS News television’s “60 Minutes,” Sisi made the unprecedented acknowledgement after being asked whether Egypt was enjoying the “deepest and closest cooperation” ever with Israel. “That is correct,” Sisi affirmed.

“Egyptian fighter jets fighting [the Islamic State] ISIS sometimes have to cross to the Israeli side of the border,” Sisi said in the interview, which was conducted a few months ago and broadcast January 6. “This makes it important for us to coordinate with the Israeli side.”

The New York Times and other US media have published detailed accounts of Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation in the Sinai, based on Israeli sources. This marks, however, the first time such cooperation was confirmed at the highest level in Egypt.

The problem, political analysts in Cairo said, was that, despite official recognition of Israel almost 30 years ago, most Egyptians viewed their Jewish neighbours with deep distrust, if not enmity.

“This is why it is dangerous for the president to reveal the extent of coordination Egypt has with this country,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Sisi is probably the first Egyptian head of state to talk openly about this coordination.”

The Egyptian presidency requested that “60 Minutes” not air the interview, which the programme used to promote its coverage, but it was unclear whether that was because of Sisi’s comments on Cairo’s relationship with Tel Aviv.

Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel following a series of wars with the country, most recently the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite then-President Anwar Sadat signing a peace deal in 1979 and earlier visiting Israel’s Knesset to give a speech making the case for mutual recognition and peace, a significant majority of Egyptians view Israel with wariness, particularly over the issue of the Palestinians.

Sadat was assassinated in October 1981 by Islamist terrorists who condemned his recognition of Israel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was known to have enjoyed cordial relations with Israel, including meeting with senior Israeli officials on numerous occasions.

While relations appeared to cool under Islamist President Muhammad Morsi, Sisi followed Mubarak’s example and has officially met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at least twice.

In tactical and strategic terms, close coordination between Egypt and Israel has become a national security necessity for both sides, analysts said. The presence of ISIS militants in the Sinai Peninsula is as much a threat to Israel’s security as it is to Egypt.

The security appendix of the peace treaty between the two countries limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy to the Sinai Peninsula and the type of equipment they can use there. To fight ISIS, Egypt transferred thousands of troops from areas west of the Suez Canal into Sinai, which needed approval from Tel Aviv because it could have been considered a violation of the 1979 treaty.

“Egypt also needed to move a lot of heavy equipment into Sinai, including tanks, personnel carriers and fighter jets, which were banned by the treaty,” said retired army General Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “This was why coordination with Tel Aviv was indispensable.”

In January 2017, Sisi revealed that 41 battalions — approximately 25,000 personnel — were fighting ISIS in Sinai.

One month later, an Israeli Defence Ministry statement seemed to tacitly confirm cooperation between the two countries following an ISIS attack on al-Rawda mosque in Sina in which more than 300 worshippers were killed.

“[The] relationship between Israel and Egypt is ongoing. Israel has always been ready to lend a hand and provide assistance to any country in the war against terrorism, in this case and in the future as well,” the statement said.

There are fears in Cairo that openly talking about security coordination between Egypt and Israel could provide Islamic extremists with propaganda material. During the Mubarak era, Islamists routinely used complaints about alleged Israeli acts of aggression against the Palestinians as well as Mubarak’s ties with Israel as a rallying cry.

The Muslim Brotherhood raised funds for years under the pretext of helping the Palestinian resistance and sending aid to distressed Palestinians in the Palestinian territories. Hamas, which controls the neighbouring Gaza Strip, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Islamist opponents of Sisi have sought to use his confirmation of close ties with Israel as a rallying point against his government.

“Sisi has shown himself to be an honest Zionist agent,” tweeted Egyptian dissident Waleed Sharaby, secretary-general of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, following the airing of the interview. The Egyptian Revolutionary Council is reported to have close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Islamists could eventually use such revelations to recruit more Israel-haters against the Egyptian Army,” Nafaa cautioned.