August 7, 2012

Attack a test for Egypt's new government

Armored vehicle used in Sunday's attack

Details of the incident are confusing, so here is the executive summary. Thirty five Islamists, part of a group resident in the Sinai and Gaza, and known to the Egyptian security services for some time, mounted a surprise attack on an Egyptian border post near the borders with the Gaza Strip and Israel.

After the group killed the 16 Egyptian border police officers stationed at the post, they stole an armored personnel carrier and other vehicles, then headed for the Israeli border. As they crossed into Israel, they were engaged by the Israeli air force. The photograph indicates the level of damage to the vehicles, and news reports that the Israelis were returning "body parts" underscore the carnage.

Intelligence played a major role in stopping what could have been a much worse tragedy. The Israelis uncharacteristically announced that they had information that the attack was imminent and were able to position assets - in this case, aircraft - to counter the threat. The Israelis rarely comment on their intelligence successes - perhaps the White House could take notice.

On the other hand, intelligence also played a major role in the killing of the 16 Egyptian border policemen. The director of Egyptian intelligence admitted that his organization had reliable information on the attack before it happened, but dismissed it based on the assumption that Muslims would not attack other Muslims during the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

To an intelligence professional like myself, this screams "great collection followed by abysmal and faulty analysis." Nothing angers an intelligence operations officer - the ones who recruit the sources and collect the raw intelligence - more than to have valid information dismissed or disregarded by unqualified analysts or invalid analytic assumptions.

I digress. It happened - now what?

This event will force the newly formed Egyptian government of Muslim Brotherhood member (now President) Muhammad Mursi to face some realities of his country's relationships with Israel, and the Gaza Strip and its Hamas rulers, and the now lawless Sinai peninsula. It's no longer fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric - welcome to the real world, siyadat al-ra'is (Mr. President).

The Hamas leaders eyed the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent Egyptian presidential elections with the hope that the resultant Islamist government in Cairo would open the border with the Gaza Strip and be more accommodating of a fellow Islamist group in Gaza. They were probably a bit surprised and unhappy when President Mursi's initial reaction to the recent incident was to close the Egypt-Gaza border. How the relationship between the two fundamentalist Muslim groups develops remains to be seen, but it would appear that Mursi, correctly in my view, is opting for Egypt's national interests than some sort of pan-Islamist position.

The venue of this attack was the border between Egypt and Israel, between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula. The Sinai peninsula has been the long-time home of smugglers, outlaws, Islamist groups, Palestinians not welcome in Gaza (how bad do you have to be to be unwelcome in Gaza?) and resident Bedouin tribes. As part of the peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and subsequent complete Israeli withdrawal from peninsula, the area has been demilitarized - there is a multinational observer force, but like its United Nations cousins, has no real power. It observes and reports.

All that said, the most important relationship which Egypt, and specifically President Mursi, has to address is that with neighboring Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which Mursi is a member, has publicly stated that it favors the abrogation of the treaty with the Jewish state. Mursi, however, has spoken from both sides of his mouth. When speaking to a domestic or Arabic-speaking audience, he tends to adopt the Muslim Brotherhood line, but when speaking to an international audience, appears to be much more realistic in his country's relationship with Israel.

This incident has brought the issue to the forefront. President Mursi can't have it both ways - what is it going to be? Will Egypt honor its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, or does the country's new Islamist government really want to return to a war footing with the Israelis?

Time will tell, but I suspect cooler heads - mostly those in the senior ranks of the Egyptian armed forces - will prevail. The Egyptian military does not want to present a no-win challenge to the superior Israel Defense Forces. It has everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Will ideology or reality win out? As with many Middle East issues, I know the questions, but not the answers.