In this photo provided by Egypt's state news agency MENA, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends Naval exercises in Alexandria, Egypt, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/MENA, Fady Fars)
There is one thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can take comfort in regarding his relations with the US administration — he is not the only Middle Eastern leader struggling to understand American President Barack Obama. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has also been at a loss in recent weeks amid the administration’s almost surreal conduct towards Cairo.
On Monday Sissi was asked what he and the other Arab allies thought of US leadership in the region. It is hard to put his response in words, mainly due to his prolonged silence.
“Difficult question,” he said after some moments, while his body language expressed contempt and disgust. “The suspending of US equipment and arms was an indicator for the public that the United States is not standing by the Egyptians.”
It turns out that although the American administration recently agreed to provide the Egyptian Air Force with Apache attack helicopters, it has been making it increasingly difficult for Cairo to make additional military purchases.
For example, the US is delaying the shipment of tanks, spare parts and other weapons that the army desperately needs in its war against Islamic State.
Egypt is currently facing the extremist group on two fronts: in the Sinai Peninsula, where Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis militants swore allegiance to IS, and to the west in Libya, where jihadists sworn to the group have established substantial military bases, gaining hold over territory in the country while simultaneously sending terrorists into Egypt.
The mass execution of 21 Coptic Egyptians, who were in Libya seeking employment, led Sissi to authorize an Egyptian air assault against Islamic State targets in Libya.
Yet precisely during these difficult days for the Egyptians, Washington is delaying military assistance deliveries to Cairo, even as the White House and State Department preach in praise of the war against the Islamic State group, and go so far as to hint at plans to cooperate with Iran against the organization.
Why? According to an Egyptian official, the formal explanation is that Cairo does not respect human rights. That is possible. But Egyptians cannot figure out how the Americans are prioritizing: Was the Muslim Brotherhood more respectful of human rights? Or the Iranian regime? Or the Islamic State and its friends?
Why is Egypt, which has become a vital player in the war against Islamic extremism and Islamic State expansionism, being punished by the Americans?
The Sinai situation
Wednesday morning, yet again, a terror attack was carried out against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula. Another Egyptian officer was killed in North Sinai border town of Rafah.
On Tuesday, two Egyptian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in el-Arish, and for a moment it seemed as if the terror groups active in Sinai were overwhelming Egyptian security efforts.
This is not the case, though. The vast majority of the attacks these days are being carried out in the northeastern tip of the peninsula, near the Gaza border. In the rest of the Sinai, there are rarely any security incidents.
Just last month, the Egyptian army killed dozens of terrorists in the Sinai, mostly in the el-Arish and Rafah areas. Elite army units, the air force and UAV forces, are among the 14 battalions currently active in the region.
The area of the attacks and the proximity to the border raise strong suspicion in Egypt that the Sinai terrorists are receiving significant assistance from the Gaza Strip. This, in essence, is the source of the blatant hostility between Hamas and the Egyptian administration.
An Egyptian soldier patrols outside al-Maza military airport where the bodies of the members of security forces, who were killed in northern Sinai province during an attack the day before, had been flown on January 30, 2015 in the capital Cairo. (photo credit: AFP/ Mohamed el-Shahed)
Egypt’s attitude towards Hamas these days is far worse than Israel’s stance towards the terror group. Cairo closely followed reports in The Times of Israel earlier this week regarding the various long-term ceasefire offers channeled through Western intermediaries, and Israel’s forgiving attitude toward Hamas was ill-accepted and even mocked.
Egyptians fail to understand why Israel, which has been targeted so many times by Hamas and continues to prepare for the next war, insists on maintaining Hamas’s rule over Gaza.
Egyptian outrage against Hamas stems from several factors.
First, it is no secret that terrorists in the Sinai receive weapons from Gaza and train there. The constant campaign to destroy tunnels linking the Gaza Strip and the Sinai continues, though Egyptian intelligence is aware Hamas fighters are overseeing efforts to rebuild the tunnels. The Islamists even use partially destroyed tunnels in order to dig out new ones. All the while, maritime smuggling continues.
The Times of Israel was made aware of a list of Egyptian demands presented to Hamas as a condition for thawing relations:
1. Extradition to Egypt of Sinai terror suspects currently in Gaza. A prominent figure on the list is Shadi el-Menei, an Egyptian who fled to Gaza after being involved in Sinai terror attacks.
2. The closure of the smuggling tunnels.
3. Termination of terrorist training and arming.
None of these requirements has been fulfilled by Hamas so far.
Hamas-Cairo communications have been significantly reduced recently. Egypt, which recently outlawed Hamas, is maintaining communication channels with moderate Hamas leaders Moussa Abu Marzouk and Ismail Haniyea, with whom it is still possible to talk. Communication with the organization’s military wing and other officials has been severed, though.
Former Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad is constantly mentioned negatively by Egyptian officials. They claim Hamad is acting under the radar of Hamas’s more moderate leaders, and has established a covert semi-military faction, operating independently of the political leadership.
The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai has been active recently, and hundreds of Palestinians crossed into Egypt and back.
This move could mistakenly be interpreted as an attempt by Egypt to draw closer to Hamas. But the crossing is not expected to remain permanently open, at least not for now.
The Egyptian conditions have not changed: The crossing will only open once Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas places security forces there, without a Hamas presence. Cairo is adamantly refusing Hamas’s demand to place its forces there.