August 19, 2013
U.S.-Egypt relations have soured since the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The anti-Morsi factions in Egypt have condemned the United States for expressing support for the Muslim Brotherhood as the democratically elected representatives of Egypt.
Throughout the summer, the U.S. tried to find a middle ground between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that would have allowed Morsi to return to the presidency. However, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the military were willing to share power. When it became clear that the army was about to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins in Cairo and other cities, U.S. envoys (Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham) warned the army’s chief, Gen. Sisi, to restrain his forces. In addition, Obama administration officials made telephone calls to their counterparts in Egypt, but to no avail.
The U.S. government was willing to refrain from calling the Egyptian military’s disposing of Morsi a “coup,” which according to U.S. law would have forced the cancellation of annual U.S. military aid to Egypt. After the Egyptian army’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood began, President Obama responded by cancelling a planned U.S.-Egypt joint military exercise, but stopped short of announcing a halt in U.S. military aid to Egypt.
Ever since the ousting of President Mubarak in 2011, there has been discussion that U.S. aid to Egypt could be halted. American lawmakers and media frequently pointed out that U.S. aid was a means to pressure Egypt to respect its peace treaty with Israel. While Morsi was president, this fact was repeatedly emphasized to him by the Americans and likely encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to tone down its rhetoric about freezing or revoking the peace treaty.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian army has been frustrated because it perceives that the United States does not understand the danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Obama administration withheld the delivery of four F-16s and canceled the joint military exercise, the Egyptian army felt that its frustrations were validated. Many in Egypt were also upset because they did not feel that the U.S. firmly condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for burning dozens of Coptic churches, torching police stations, and killing more than 50 members of Egyptian security forces. On top of all this, if some U.S. leaders were going to hint that U.S. aid to Egypt was in jeopardy, then Egyptian officials were equally comfortable in suggesting that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty is not sacrosanct.
There are other factors that threaten the peace treaty. Since the ousting of Mubarak, the Sinai Peninsula has become a haven for jihadists who are threatening Israel as well as the Egyptian regime. Many Egyptians claim that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty limits Egypt’s sovereignty to the point that the army is unable to fight back against the jihadists in Sinai. With this in mind, Israel has allowed an increase in Egypt’s military presence in Sinai, judging that it is better to acquiesce to the changes on the ground rather than renegotiate the entire treaty. In the past two years, with the Egyptian army increasingly losing control of Sinai, Israel allowed Egypt to introduce ten new battalions, armored units, and combat helicopters into Sinai.
One recent controversial event, when a group of jihadists was hit inside Egyptian territory by either an Israeli drone or an Egyptian helicopter gunship, was instrumental in developing the new rhetoric.
It did not help matters when the New York Times reported on August 17 that “the Israelis, whose military had close ties to General Sisi from his former post as head of military intelligence, were supporting the takeover….Western diplomats say that General Sisi and his circle appeared to be in heavy communication with Israeli colleagues, and the diplomats believed the Israelis were also undercutting the Western message by reassuring the Egyptians not to worry about American threats to cut off aid. Israeli officials deny having reassured Egypt about the aid, but acknowledge having lobbied Washington to protect it.”
Due to the jihadists’ increasing attacks on the Egyptian army in Sinai, some Egyptians have begun to mobilize and have urged the government to cancel the peace treaty. The Tamarod movement (Arabic for “rebellion”), which succeeded in mobilizing millions of Egyptians in the streets and backed the military’s overthrow of Morsi, is now leading a petition campaign asking for the peace treaty to be renegotiated. Such a move, they say, would allow Egypt to exercise its full sovereignty in Sinai and increase the size of its forces there, without needing Israel’s permission. Tamarod and its supporters have justified their stance by saying that renegotiating the treaty would remove the threat of blackmail from the United States about annual military aid. Tamarod notes that substantial financial assistance could be received from other Arab sources (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) with no strings attached.
Tamarod’s initiative has momentum. Because of the strained relationship between the United States and the interim government in Egypt, Tamarod could exercise meaningful pressure on the government to call for some sort of changes to the treaty, simply by claiming that it is time to update the 34-year-old document to reflect changing realities. With U.S. influence in Egypt waning, Tamarod’s petition, if successful, would weaken U.S. and Israeli deterrence toward Egypt.
Ultimately, the issue will depend on the stance of the Egyptian military and how the generals understand what an abrogation of the peace treaty would mean for Egypt-Israel relations and Egypt’s strategic interests during a period of high domestic political instability.