Since ousting the Muslim Brotherhood government just over a year ago, Egypt’s next president, retired Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, has quietly but dramatically increased military cooperation with Israel to combat Islamist terrorism in the Sinai and stabilize Egypt, according to Egyptian officials and Israeli military experts.
As Egyptians went to the polls this week in the first presidential election since President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster last July in a popular coup, few voters seemed aware of the improvement in Egyptian-Israeli military ties under Egypt’s military-backed transitional government. Given popular Egyptian hostility to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, neither Egyptian nor Israeli officials have publicized their growing counterterrorism partnership.
But in recent meetings in Cairo with a small group of American national security experts and journalists, senior Egyptian officials described Egyptian-Israeli cooperation as “excellent” and “never better,” and attributed the decline in terrorist attacks in the Sinai and Egypt’s mainland partly to the enhanced coordination. They also discussed recent Egyptian steps , some unilateral and others with Israeli assistance, to restore security in the Sinai, at the Libyan border and throughout the rest of Egypt..
El-Sissi told the Americans that security was crucial to achieving his top priority -- jump-starting stalled growth in Egypt, 45 percent of whose 94 million people live in poverty.
Egyptian officials and Israeli military experts predicted that the close military cooperation would likely continue now that el-Sissi appears to have won a decisive victory over his lone challenger. Unofficial polls show Sissi winning 92 percent of the vote, versus 2.9 percent for leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, in what Sissi supporters concede is a disappointing, low turnout.
Ehud Yaari, an Israeli fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview this week that the terrorist threat from Sinai and Egypt’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood had prompted “the closest and most intimate cooperation ever between Egypt and Israel, despite Egypt’s differences with Israel over the Palestinian issue.
Egyptian officials asserted last month that the army has now sealed, closed or destroyed up to 2,000 entrances and exits to tunnels from militant Gaza, some of which stretch up to a mile long. and link the strip’s 1.7 million besieged Palestinians with Egypt and Israel.
Palestinians consider the tunnels a lifeline. They are used to transport essential foodstuffs, petrol and gas, medicines, and even livestock into Gaza. Their closure, however temporary, is estimated to have cost Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked militant Palestinian group that rules Gaza, some $250 million in lost customs duties and revenue.
After el-Sissi ousted Morsi last July, Egypt began closing and even flooding parts of the tunnel network to prevent Hamas from using it to smuggle weapons and terrorists for attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police.
Egyptians estimate, and a tally kept by the Long War Journal agrees, that Sinai-based militants staged over 300 attacks in Sinai since Morsi’s ouster, and some 100 attacks on Egypt’s mainland, many of them causing few deaths or injuries. Israelis say there are roughly 4,000 extremists in the Sinai, many of them Bedouin with longstanding economic and political grievances against Cairo.
Israel, too, has been increasingly vocal about the tunnels and other Gaza-related threats. In March, Israeli defense officials took a reporter from Yediot Ahranot to the entrance of a tunnel stretching more than a mile into Israel and located near a kibbutz. The officials said that hundreds of militants could have moved through the tunnel secretly to stage a terrorist attack.
In February, the Egyptian army stepped up its destruction of homes in the Sinai to create a buffer zone along its border with Gaza. Sinai is now patrolled not only by Egyptian police and border guards, but by 10 Egyptian battalions – including two commando and a tank battalion.
Egyptian forces are operating in two zones close to Israel where they are barred without Israeli consent, according to a military appendix to the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords. In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon permitted Egypt to deploy 750 border patrol soldiers on the frontier with Gaza after Israel withdrew from the strip.
Yaari said that Morsi sent tanks to the forbidden zones without seeking Israeli permission, but withdrew them when Israel quietly protested. “ Sissi hasn’t played this game,” Yaari said. “He has requested and obtained Israel’s consent.”
Since then, Israel has granted so many “temporary” authorizations that Egypt’s presence in the zones has become “more or less permanent,”a de facto annexation of the peace treaty,” Yaari said.
During the presidential campaign, candidate el-Sissi said that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel required him to do whatever he could to prevent terrorists from shooting at Israelis in the Sinai.
Thanks to this enhanced cooperation, Sinai-based attacks have dropped significantly.
In April, Washington added the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, which is not part of Al Qaeda but shares its militant goals, to its list of foreign terrorist groups.
Last week, Egyptian officials claim to have killed Shadi al-Menei, a key commander, plus five other insurgents in a firefight.
This month, The Obama administration agreed to restore $650 million in military aid it suspended last year in response to Morsi’s ouster and to supply 10 Apache helicopters, after senior Egyptian officials warned that the aid was critical to Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts. Egyptian and Israeli officials confirm that Israelis officials lobbied the White House on Egypt’s behalf to release the aid.
But, unhappy with Egypt’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its repression of thousands of dissidents, Sen. Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.), the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, has blocked the assistance. While Congress has no authority to block the Apaches, an internal bureaucratic dispute has delayed their shipment, an official said.
In response, 20 conservative groups and former defense officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have written to Sen. Leahy urging urging him release the aid to “America’s strongest ally in the Arab world” and “key partner on the war on terrorism.”
Last spring, a frustrated el-Sissi traveled to Moscow to negotiate a $2 billion dollar arms deal with Russia that would include 24 advanced MiG-35 fighter jets, MiG-29s, Mi-35 helicopters and other equipment.
The sale would be financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have given Egypt over $12 billion since el-Sissi ousted Morsi. in the wake of mass protests of Muslim Brotherhood rule by more than 30 million Egyptians throughout the country.
Russia said a U.S. defense official, has shared with Egypt satellite photos of jihadist camps near its Libyan border, another key Egyptian security concern.
Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).