Just days into 2019 it was reported that Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had been subject to an interview by the CBS television show 60 Minutes, an interview Egypt’s envoy to the US requested not to be broadcast shortly after it was conducted. The background for the request is quite simple; Firstly, al-Sisi answered sensitive questions about his regime’s methods in countering opposition; Secondly, al-Sisi confirmed an unprecedented level of cooperation between Egypt and Israel – cooperation which can both make or break Egypt’s security, and al-Sisi’s regime.
The Beginning of a Partnership
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 spawned Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a jihadist extremist group. They exploited the power vacuum and initiated an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The group launched attacks on Israeli targets launched from the Egyptian side of the border, as well as sabotaging the Arab Gas Pipeline which crosses half the peninsula before entering Jordan. In 2013 the army, led by al-Sisi, removed Mohammed Morsi from power in a coup d’etat, a move that led the Sinai insurgency to increasingly target Egyptian security forces. Following, Egyptian security forces increased efforts against the insurgency, with very limited results. Immediately after the coup, Israel urged the US and its allies to recognise al-Sisi as the legitimate leader of Egypt, largely because of Morsi’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel’s recognition of al-Sisi was the beginning of the cooperation between the two, and it took only weeks before the first report of unidentified explosions came in August 2013, which killed five insurgents near the Israeli border. It was claimed that the explosions were caused by Israeli drone strikes with Egyptian approval, in which Egypt responded that such a claim was ‘totally lacking truth and go against sense and logic.’ In 2014, the group pledged allegiance to IS and formed the Sinai Province branch of the group. After the merger, the insurgent’s ambitions grew and in July 2015, they captured the city of Sheikh Zuweid.Just months after, the Russian commercial airliner leaving Sharm el-Sheikh was shot down in Northern Sinai on its way to St Petersburg, killing 224 people, most of which were tourists. These events led to a shared understanding – stabilization required increased efforts.
Its reported that in the following two years, up until the beginning of 2018, Israel conducted more than 100 air strikes in Sinai. In comparison, the Israeli Air Force only reached that number of strikes inside Syria in five years. The delivery vehicles, drones, helicopters, and jets, were all unmarked when conducting the strikes, sometimes flying circuits to deceive possible observers to believe they originated from within Egypt, while the area itself has been declared a closed military zone to reduce the risk of discovery. Israel was reportedly unsatisfied with Egypt’s ability to secure territory with ground troops following their air strikes in the time period 2015-2017, which led to the formation of another alliance. In 2017, Egypt mobilized four Bedouin tribes – the Tarabin, Sawarka, Tiyaha, and Rumaylat – to take arms against terrorists in the Peninsula. The alliance announced their objective was to eliminate terrorism in the area in coordination with the Egyptian army. A move that has helped the security situation in the Peninsula as the alliance has contributed with intelligence, closing local smuggling routes, and fighting. Government forces increasingly gained a foothold in the area and saw attacks starting to diminish after the addition of the Bedouin to the already existing Egyptian-Israeli alliance.
Counter-terrorism efforts continued in 2018 and the prospect of a stable and secure Sinai has become more viable. Following the increased level of security, in late 2018 Israel announced a $15 billion deal allowing gas export from Israel to Egypt. Israel discovered the Leviathan gas field in 2010 and will begin production in 2019. The export to Egypt will go through a part of the Arab Gas Pipeline connecting Ashkelon in Israel to el Arish in North Sinai. The Leviathan field is an incentive for further cooperation as Egypt invested in natural gas infrastructure in the 1990s, while Israel lacks such infrastructure. Egypt has two liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals that could start exporting LNG once the natural gas supply is in place. With increased cooperation, Israel could increase its production and use Egypt’s existing infrastructure to tap into other large markets, while with increased regional stability Egypt could start production in the Zohr field and export its own natural gas as well.
High Risk, High Reward?
Currently, Egypt and Israel have common enemies in the Sinai Peninsula and Syria, common interests in securing and stabilizing Sinai, which is a necessary condition for Egyptian-Israeli natural gas cooperation. Such a future could decrease unemployment and increase investment in Egypt which would reinforce its security and stability. On the flipside, following al-Sisi’s comments on 60 Minutes, the people could start turning on his regime. Despite the cooperation, state-owned media has continued to denounce Israel publicly, while the cooperation has been going on covertly which many would perceive as hypocritical.
In society, Israel is still largely understood as being the enemy so the increased normalisation of relations and approval of Israeli military action within Egypt could cause a rise of opposition domestically. If such opposition was to rise, accusing the regime of being hypocritical and sneakily normalising Israeli relations, then the security situation in Sinai could once again become unstable with four Bedouin tribes armed and trained to fight, and Egyptian forces placed in demilitarized zones in Sinai based on Israeli approval given under an understanding of cooperation. The success of the cooperation has so far been dependent on the covert nature of it, bringing its extent to light might be huge risk.
Image: Israel Defence Force (link)