Israel’s latest campaign in Gaza against Hamas has left Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in a bind. His rivals, both on the left and more significantly those on the right, the Salafis, have taken to the streets to protest Operation Pillar of Defense. Morsi has recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, and now the Egyptian prime minister, Hisham Qandil, is reportedly traveling to Gaza tomorrow, protected by a special unit from the Egyptian army, to lend moral support. But it’s not clear how much further the Cairo government can push the issue without finding itself in hot water.
Morsi’s attention is now focused on securing loans and aid packages from Western states and institutions—$6.4 billion from the EU and another $4.8 from the IMF—that in effect are contingent on Egypt’s stability, which in large part means keeping the peace with Israel.
To be sure, many Egyptians are clamoring for Hamas to take the fight to Israel, even government officials like the minister for religious endowments who is calling on the Palestinian resistance to strike deep in the heart of the Zionist entity. But much of the country seems to agree with Morsi that it is time for an Egypt on the verge of bankruptcy to look inward and settle its own problems, rather than tempt war with its powerful neighbor to the north. However, the new Egyptian leader’s domestic rivals are backing him into corners from where he may not be able to extricate himself or the 80 million people he was elected to lead.
On Tuesday, the legal committee of Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) announced that it was working on a new draft law to amend parts of the 1979 peace treaty. The major issue regards the re-militarization of the Sinai, which would thereby allow the Egyptian army to deploy forces throughout the peninsula. The problem for Morsi is not just that the Israelis do not want the Egyptian army in the Sinai, but that the Egyptian army doesn’t want to be there either.
The Sinai is home to around half a million Bedouins, a population that includes Salafist jihadists that may have ties to al Qaeda. The peninsula is a dangerous place, especially it seems for Egyptian security forces. The most recent incident, two weeks ago, saw three Egyptian security officers killed, but the largest operation was the August attack that cost the lives of sixteen Egyptian border policemen. The army does not want its soldiers shot and loathed—Bedouins hate the security forces—and therefore it does not seek a permanent presence there that would antagonize the Bedouins and perhaps give rise to a war of tribal vendettas.
In the past, because Jerusalem is also concerned about the security situation in Sinai, the Israelis have proven agreeable in dealing with the Egyptians on a case-by-case basis whenever Cairo sought to send more forces into the peninsula. This mechanism survived the Mubarak years. Indeed, just this past August, Morsi sent the army into the Sinai to root out the militants that had attacked Egyptian security forces. The operation was blessed by the Israelis, who share with Morsi an interest in curtailing the activities of those who might be working in partnership with al Qaeda.
So why is Morsi pushing back against one of the key provisions of the peace treaty while at the same time also risking alienating his own army’s leaders (whom he hand-picked over the summer) by seeking to have the military permanently deployed in the Sinai?