A regional governor in Egypt recently blamed Israel for being behind shark attacks against tourists. Despite an environment that makes such absurd comments possible, Israel continues to describe its relationship with Egypt as a strategic partnership.
This conundrum exemplifies Egypt’s current relationship with Israel. Although security ties have been tightened over mutual interests in Sinai and the Gaza Strip, Egyptian popular attitudes toward Israel remain as hostile as ever and the two nation’s overt diplomatic ties have deteriorated. This has demonstrated Egypt’s increasingly antithetical relationship with Israel.
Following the military coup against President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013, Egypt’s security ties with Israel were upgraded. A military strongman, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, was back in power in Cairo. A sign of the times, Israel carried out a rare drone strike in the Sinai Peninsula killing five Islamic militants in August 2013. Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, described Israeli-Egyptian security coordination as “better than it’s ever been,” explaining that their shared threat in the Sinai from jihadists had been a principle cause of this.
Egypt and Israel also have shared interests in Gaza. The smuggling of weapons and goods into Gaza thrived during previous regimes. Prior to Morsi’s downfall, taxes from the tunnel trade accounted for nearly one-third of Hamas’ budget, but this number dropped considerably in the Sisi period, with Hamas seen as being affiliated ideologically and politically with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian military has tried to prevent instability in Gaza since advanced weaponry transferred in and out of Gaza can quickly turn into a national security threat.
From an Israeli perspective, Hamas has been a long-time nemesis and the recent unearthing of a tunnel crossing into Israel, designed to abduct Israeli soldiers, highlighted the growing concern of violence emanating from Gaza. Because of the importance that Israel ascribes to its security ties with Egypt, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, is lobbying Congress to maintain American military aid to Egypt.
Despite the robust military coordination, Egyptian popular attitudes toward Israel have remained hostile. In a television interview in January, former Egyptian Minister Hasaballah al-Kafrawy claimed, after reading “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” that the Jews ruled the world and were aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. A popular television show, “Khaybar,” depicts the Prophet Muhammad’s conquest of the Jews in 629. Ahmed Maher, a famous actor, has said that “Khaybar” aims to show Jews “as the ugliest slice of humans.” When asked to speak about the atmosphere toward Israel in Egypt, several Egyptian journalists declined interviews because of the tense climate.
Egypt is hardly the only Middle Eastern country whose media are harshly critical of Israel. In 2010, Israel’s Foreign Ministry provoked a diplomatic crisis with Turkey after a Turkish television series showed Israeli officials snatching babies.
Such attitudes contrast with Israel’s reaction toward Egyptian press attacks. Israel has remained eerily silent in the face of the Egyptian media onslaught, as the Israelis desperately try to preserve their close security coordination with Cairo. Avi Issacharoff, an Arab affairs analyst for the Times of Israel, has said: “With Egypt, they [the Israelis] are treading very carefully. They understand that the ship is still rocking and the situation is not very stable.” Israel’s silence is designed to prevent any Egyptian public backlash, which could inhibit security ties.
The hostile attitude reflected in Egyptian media, which often have close ties to the ruling regime, can be dangerous for the country’s government. “This exacerbates the traditional gap between regimes and public sentiments,” explained Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations. When there is a crisis between Israelis and Arabs, the combative press tends to only heighten public anger, limiting the government’s margin of maneuver.
Egypt’s public diplomatic ties with Israel have nearly ceased. While many described relations with Israel during the Mubarak era as a “cold peace,” Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently visited Egypt. Even more dramatically, in 1996, after a spike of suicide bombings in Israel, Mubarak hosted 29 world leaders in the Sinai to boost the peace process and condemn terrorism against Israel.
After the fall of Mubarak in 2011, even in the period of military rule since last July, no Israeli minister has been formally invited to Cairo. Nor has Egypt’s Foreign Minister met publicly with his Israeli counterpart in Israel.
Furthermore, Egypt is no longer playing a prominent role in the peace process, seeking to bridge gaps between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel has long been complex. Its paradoxical nature has been illustrated since last July by unprecedented security cooperation, even as diplomatic and popular ties have deteriorated to a new low.
Mass demonstrations during the 2011 Egyptian revolution captured the attention of Egypt’s leaders regarding the importance of responding to citizens. The rulers learned the importance of popular support to maintain their rule. Pursuing Egypt’s close security cooperation with Israel, despite the fact that Israel is reviled among many Egyptians, is risky for Sisi, even as it is quietly comfortable for both countries.
Aaron Magid is an American graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern studies. He is on Twitter @AaronMagid. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.