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How Israel's relationship with Egypt's Sisi might come back to haunt it

Bonds with Israel cannot guarantee long-term stability of a regime that is not based on popular support and relies on oppression to maintain its rule.

By Itay Mack (translated by Tal Haran)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. (photo: Shutterstock.com)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (photo: Shutterstock.com)

Egypt’s foreign minister’s first visit to Israel in nine years, and his meeting to discuss an Egypt-backed peace initiative with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not have come as such a surprise. Even the recent appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, the same person who called for the bombing of the Aswan Dam, as minister of defense, could not prevent this visit.

Both sides urgently need a fictitious initiative. Netanyahu wants to try and halt the French Peace Initiative which has gained momentum in the international community in a way that far exceeded the Israeli government’s expectations. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, on the other hand, wants to strengthen his own regime in a moment of weakness. Indeed both leaders show signs of paranoid personalities, and both have been weakened in the global arena. However, unlike Netanyahu, who enjoys tremendous support inside Israel, el-Sisi’s regime suffers from an extreme case of internal weakness.

Against foreign-funded NGOs

Ever since el-Sisi was elected president in June 2014, his military regime has been busy destroying layer upon layer of real — as well as imaginary — opposition inside the country. He began with the Muslim Brotherhood and continued with human rights activists, political activists, journalists, students, bloggers, poets, and even youth. In fact, anyone suspected of being even slightly critical of el-Sisi’s military regime is liable to be arrested, tortured, murdered, or simply disappeared (approximately 1,840 disappeared in 2015 alone). Tens of thousands have been arrested, many without any due process, while numerous detainees are held in clandestine detention facilities.

Some of this oppression is grounded in a law passed in November 2013, which totally restricts demonstrations in Egypt, as well as a law waging a “war on terrorism,” which passed in August 2015. The anti-terrorism law sets fines and severe punishments for anyone who publishes information contradicting official army publications. In Egypt some even claim that persecution by the el-Sisi regime is much greater than that which characterized Mubarak’s 30 year rule.

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem, July 10, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem, July 10, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A new line was crossed when el-Sisi decided to persecute and shut down human and civil rights organizations, operating with the help of European and American money, which document crimes committed by the security forces, under the pretext that the organizations are part of an international conspiracy meant to damage Egypt’s stability. Security forces have begun to persecutes and deport foreign journalists.

Alongside its struggle against many Egyptian citizens, el-Sisi’s regime has waged war in the Sinai Peninsula against terrorist organizations, including Islamic State affiliates. This war is carried out in almost total secrecy, yet the information that manages to leak reveals that el-Sisi’s forces have been implementing a “scorched earth” policy, making no distinction between terrorists and innocent civilians. According to estimates, el-Sisi’s Sinai campaign has not succeeded, since this type of warfare – which contravenes international law – only encourages support and growth of those very terrorist organizations.

The State of Israel has maintained security collaboration with the Egyptian regime, the details of which are not revealed. It is unclear whether this touches only upon the war on terrorism or also helps el-Sisi in his struggle to fortify his rule — and if so, whether it includes only intelligence coordination or arms export as well.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on July 22, 2014, to discuss a possible cease-fire between Israeli and Hamas forces fighting in the Gaza Strip. (photo: U.S. Department of State)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on July 22, 2014, to discuss a possible cease-fire between Israeli and Hamas forces fighting in the Gaza Strip. (photo: U.S. Department of State)

Along with el-Sisi’s paranoid worldview, his treatment of the enemy within has aimed to distract the Egyptian public from the state’s economic collapse. The security situation has frightened off foreign investors and tourists, inflation and unemployment have increased, and basic commodities have become unaffordable for vast parts of the population. Alongside grandiose and mostly failing projects at astronomical costs, such as the new Suez Canal, Egypt has been taking countless loans, especially from the Gulf states.

The severe economic crisis has constituted a significant part of the background for Egypt’s announcement last April that it would hand over control of the islands of Snapir and Tiran, strategically located in the Red Sea, to Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudis have a well-grounded legal claim to these islands, the timing the move resembles the Egyptian foreign minister’s recent visit to Israel. According to the reports, the announcement of the handover was part of Riyadh’s commitment to Cairo to greater economic aid, emphasizing Egypt’s dependence on foreign money.

Egypt’s public took this opportunity to air its complaints about the el-Sisi regime without being seen as anti-nationalist. This allowed for a brief moment in which el-Sisi’s critics from within and outside the regime could unite. Soon enough, however, the elites of the regime and the military came to, realizing that the public discussion over the handover might get out of hand. Demonstrations protesting the move — the largest held in Egypt since el-Sisi’s rise to power — were harshly suppressed. Heavy prison sentences were handed out to hundreds of demonstrators.

U.S. support for human rights violations

El-Sisi knows that the stability of his rule depends on his international standing and continued foreign military aid, especially from the United States. The Obama administration has already disappointed Egypt by partially freezing American military aid in October 2013, following severe human rights violations by the state following the military coup that took down President Mohammad Morsi.

In March 2015 the Obama administration decided to fully renew American military aid, which amounts to 1.3 billion dollars a year in order to assist Egypt in its war on terrorism. While aid money continues to roll in, the Obama administration has not remained silent on Egypt’s policies. The administration publicly criticizes ongoing political suppression and human rights violations committed by the regime. Congress, the and the State Department have maintained an ongoing discussion on the actual legitimacy of American military aid to Egypt, specifically over whether its benefits outweigh the damage that el-Sisi’s regime has inflicted on stability both in Egypt and the region, whether Egypt is a reliable ally, and whether American military aid to Egypt is done according to the law, which limits military aid to forces that commit severe human rights violations.

Thus, for example, a report issued by the U.S. administration in May states that Egypt has made it difficult for American authorities to verify whether aid can be transferred, and that problems have come up in various joint military programs with Egypt.

The fact is that U.S. military export to Egypt is nearly continuous, and American weapons are used to commit severe human rights violations there. Public criticism in the U.S., however, only reinforces el-Sisi’s paranoia and undermines his standing in Egypt – where harsh criticism of dependence on American military and economic aid has been known to exist historically, as such dependence contradicts Egypt’s own narrative as a regional power.

Not unlike Netanyahu, who in times of crisis with the Obama administration tries in vain to flex his muscles and court other allies such as Russia, so too has el-Sisi tried to change Egypt’s exclusive dependence upon the U.S. and instead purchase arms from Europe, China and Russia – with no significant success.

A-Sisi’s partner

Here is where Israel enters the picture. Egypt has always known it can rely on Israel to exert pressure on the U.S. not to change its support for Cairo, so that the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt stays intact. However since el-Sisi’s rise to power, Egypt’s influence and standing in the Arab world has declined, and has become nearly irrelevant in the main combat zones of the Middle East: Iran, Yemen, and Syria. El-Sisi believes that in order to convince the common Egyptian – who has neither sufficient food nor basic human rights – to go on supporting an oppressive regime, he must at least show sufficient national pride.

By means of the new peace initiative el-Sisi hopes to regain Egypt’s previous international and regional standing, and determine the American administration’s discussion of continuing aid to Egypt. Improving Egypt’s international standing might make it easier to obtain foreign investment and receive loans from international bodies. El-Sisi particularly hopes that improving his own international standing will fortify his status inside Egypt — as well as among the military elites — as the person who brought Egypt back to its days of glory, assuring the stability of both military and civil aid.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mrs Sara Netanyahu depart for Uganda from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mrs Sara Netanyahu depart for Uganda from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, July 4, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

El-Sisi’s problem is that he has no partner. No one believes that the government of Netanyahu, Bennett and Liberman will make peace with the Palestinians and let them have a state of their own within the 1967 borders. Netanyahu himself does not even consider it. Therefore, immediately following his “historical” meetings with the Egyptian foreign minister, Netanyahu hurried back to commemorate the national events marking 40 years since Operation Entebbe. Meanwhile el-Sisi’s peace initiative vanished amidst other daily headlines in Israel.

During his visit in Africa two weeks ago, Netanyahu completely ignored Africa’s citizens, speaking only with their rulers, whose oppressive practices depend among other things on Israeli arms exports. Similarly, the peace treaty signed on the White House lawn in March 1979 was not between the Israeli public and the Egyptian public – but between the respective heads of state. Nearly 40 years have passed and nothing has not changed. With the backing that Netanyahu now offers el-Sisi’s oppressive regime only makes things worse. There is no assurance that this regime will last very long, and Israel might find itself, sooner rather than later, facing 88 million Egyptian citizens and their negative opinion of said support.

El-Sisi should also learn from the recent experience of Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan. Two days after his meeting with Netanyahu, fighting resumed in the capital, Juba. Dead bodies lay sprawled out on the presidential palace lawn, 300 people lost their lives, and the representatives of the World Bank fled the country. Bonds with Israel or any other state, militarily strong as they may be, cannot guarantee long-term stability of a regime that is not based on popular support but relies on oppression to maintain its rule.

Itay Mack is a Jerusalem-based human rights lawyer and activist, who specializes in public monitoring of Israel’s arms trade. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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