The Cipher Brief spoke to Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the current state of Egypt-Israeli relations. According to Cammack, Egypt-Israeli security cooperation has “in many ways never been better” and that the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is “probably as good as it’s ever been between heads of state of the two countries.”
The Cipher Brief: How has the Egypt-Israel relationship evolved since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became Egypt’s President in 2013?
Perry Cammack: The Egyptian – Israeli relationship was built on a foundation of security cooperation, and in many ways that cooperation has never been better.
The Israelis were deeply uneasy with former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, both because of his policies toward Hamas and in the Sinai but, even more importantly, because he was a member of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. That sent warning signals not only through Israel, but also through the Egyptian security establishment.
But since the military coup which ousted Morsi and installed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power in 2013, there has been a sense that the relationship is back on track and it’s as close as it’s ever been. The Israeli and the Egyptian security establishments have similar worldviews; they share relatively similar threat assessments; and they see themselves facing some of the same list of enemies.
The scope of the bilateral relationship has always been narrowly defined, but within those contours, the level of cooperation is pretty high.
TCB: Have we seen any changes in security cooperation between the two countries, specifically as they seek to combat ISIS in the Sinai and Hamas?
PC: Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation happens behind closed doors through very sensitive channels. So much of our analysis of the operational aspects can only be inferred indirectly. The shape of this cooperation is governed by the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, which sets out limits on the scope of Egyptian military operations in the Sinai and creates demilitarized areas within it. The fact that Egypt has had as much latitude as it has in fighting the Islamic State and other groups in the Sinai without drawing Israeli’s ire, speaks volumes to the level of coordination that is presumably happening behind the scenes. We can assume based on those kinds of data points that it’s probably quite significant, given both countries’ shared animosity towards Hamas and ISIS, as well as other actors operating in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
TCB: As one of the few Arab countries that maintain official diplomatic relations with Israel, has Egypt played the role of a “middleman” between Israel and other Arab states?
PC: Yes, historically, Egypt has played a middleman role, both because it was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel and because of its outsized regional role more generally. Since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, Egypt has also played an important role, which has continued, in mediating between Israel and Hamas.
But, for a couple of reasons, Egypt’s regional role has evolved and arguably declined in recent years. First, because of the internal turmoil in Egypt and its economic weakness, Cairo’s regional influence has diminished since the 2011 revolution.
Second, because of that very same regional turmoil and the real or perceived rise of Iran in the region, Israel’s own relations with the Gulf States have improved significantly. Israel doesn’t really need Egypt to find ways to communicate with countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates today, if it ever did.
TCB: What is the level of economic ties between the two countries?
PC: As I mentioned, the Egypt-Israel relationship has always been rather one-dimensional, funneled through military, security, and intelligence channels. The level of trade and cultural ties between the two countries has been quite low as a result. The Egyptian Red Sea coast has been a popular Israeli tourist destination, but the tourist flows have suffered as a result of instability and terrorism in the Sinai.
There have been U.S. efforts, for example, through what are called “qualified industrial zones” (QIZs), over the years to increase bilateral trade as a way to solidify the relationship, but the results of those efforts have been fairly anemic, it must be admitted.
TCB: How are current relations between Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
PC: President Sisi’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu is probably as good as it’s ever been between heads of state of the two countries since relations were established in 1979. Some of that is because they share a similar worldview, and they seem to enjoy a certain degree of mutual respect.
Traditionally, there has been a high level of public antipathy in Egypt, both towards Israel and the peace treaty, but because Egypt’s domestic situation has been so unsettled, that antipathy seems to have abated over the last couple years to some extent. And Sisi’s animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, shared by Israel, and his public mobilization of that animosity has given him, at least for now, more space to solidify, in a public way, relations with Israel than was feasible or desirable under former President Hosni Mubarak and certainly under Morsi.
TCB: Where do you see the relationship headed in the short-term?
PC: Assuming that the political contours of both countries remain roughly where they are, I expect that this closer cooperation between Israel and Egypt is likely to continue. Of course, the unexpected election of Donald Trump adds a new variable into the mix.
We’ve already seen signs that the Trump Administration is keen to rejuvenate relations with both Cairo and Jerusalem. It’s no secret that President Barack Obama enjoyed pretty testy relations with both the Egyptian and the Israeli leaders. The longer-term structural tensions between the U.S. and its regional partners, given Washington’s increasing disinclination to get involved in various Middle East conflicts, will still be there, I think. But in the shorter-term, I expect that quite a few advisors to both Netanyahu and Sisi see real opportunities with a Trump Administration to improve relations. For President-elect Trump, improved relations with Cairo and Jerusalem are opportunities to get a few quick wins in a region which doesn’t present too many of them.
In my mind, the bigger long-term question is Egypt’s political stability. The level of repression under President Sisi is as high as it has been in decades, and Egypt’s structural economic challenges are quite serious, which have some potential to undermine the closeness of the ties that we’ve been talking about.
TCB: What is your assessment of the stability of Egypt’s government?
PC: It’s very difficult to predict. Politically, Sisi has effectively neutered his domestic political opposition and established himself as a dominant figure. But his biggest challenge is not political; it’s economic. Getting Egypt back on track economically and creating the kind of macroeconomic growth and job creation that is needed over the next three, four, five, or six years, is hard to square with the statist, command economy approach that he’s taken, particularly at a moment in which the Gulf States, because of the drop in oil prices, are both less willing and less able to provide the financial safety net that they have since Sisi took power. That’s the big worry, that economic stagnation in turn fuels more terrorism and more domestic instability. But it’s anyone’s guess as to where and when a tipping point might occur.
TCB: What are some of the wild cards and spoilers that could setback Egypt-Israel relations?
PC: There are two things that come to mind. First is the situation in Gaza and the potential for another Israel-Hamas conflict, and the domestic political pressures that might result in Egypt, given the high latent level of popular animosity towards Israel I mentioned earlier.
Second, and relatedly, is the Trump Administration’s potentially indulgent approach to Israel. President-elect Trump has promised to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, which the Egyptians would not be in favor of. The possibility of increased and expedited settlement expansion in the West Bank under a Trump Administration is a bigger problem for Jordan than for Egypt, but it could reanimate the Egyptian public on Palestinian issues in ways that constrain the Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation we’ve seen over the last couple of years.