What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech….
–William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”
By Barry Rubin
Or, in other words, do these writers, policymakers, and “experts” care what happens in the Middle East? War? Bloodshed? Repression? Christians fleeing; women being turned into chattel? Just a possible boost to their careers and a test for their theories. A good luncheon topic. But this is real, all too real.
First, a word on contingencies. Governments and political analysts are supposed to examine likely problems in order that they can be evaded or minimized. The time to be alarmed is not when problems become visible but when governments refuse to recognize their existence. Western regimes and analysts are generally taking a best-possible-case view on Egypt and other developing issues in the region. I’m tempted to say they are taking a fantasy view. They dismiss not just worst-case but highly likely case scenarios. Now that’s what’s alarming.
In the Sinai Peninsula, Hamas is building support bases and arms-manufacturing facilities including those for building rockets. Over time, these rockets will no doubt be upgraded. In other words, Egypt is becoming a safe haven for anti-Israel terrorism. We know that these attacks will come from the Gaza Strip. The only question is whether at some point they will come directly across the Egypt-Israel border.
Israel had a long experience with three comparable situations. In the 1950-56 era, Egypt was a safe haven for terror attacks into Israel; in the 1967-1970 period, Jordan played this role. During the 1970s and 1980s, even down to today, Lebanon did so, with the safe haven in Syria. The difference was that Israel did attack into Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and even occasionally into Syria in reponse to this situation.
Such an attack into Egypt in response to Egyptian involvement in attacks through the Gaza Strip is unthinkable given what an Egypt-Israel war would look like. And that doesn’t mean there won’t be sporadic attacks across the Egypt-Israel border also that would present similar problems.
There is a pattern here.
Israel, of course, is quickly building a border fence, paid for by a 2 percent cut in the budgets of government agencies, and thus the salaries of government employees.
Meanwhile, too, Libyan weapons, including Russian-made anti-plane rockets that can be fired by one man, are also making their way into the Gaza Strip. From there, or from Egyptian territory, one of them could be fired at an Israeli passenger plane on the Tel Aviv-Eilat route.
Israel has permitted more Egyptian military units to enter Sinai even though this was restricted by their peace treaty. But that doesn’t mean those forces will do anything, or at least do much, against these activities. After all, would Egypt’s army dare suppress Hamas though it is seen by most Egyptians — and soon by a majority in Egypt’s parliament — as heroic? What! Will they act as bodyguards for the evil Zionist entity that is allegedly committing genocide right next door? (That last sentence was a paraphrase of what a leading Egyptian “moderate” claimed in speaking to an American university audience.)
And let’s not forget that there are corrupt officers and also officers who sympathize with Hamas. What if they just don’t follow orders from Cairo?
So Israel’s first step is to go to the Egyptian army and ask that it do something. If it says “yes,” well and good. But what if it doesn’t do much or anything? Have you noticed that even now, the army keeps backing down to the Brotherhood? For example, the military junta claimed a share in writing the new Constitution and when the Brotherhood rejected this, the generals then pulled back. The parliament dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafists will write the Constitution without outside interference.
What does this tell us about the army’s future willingness or ability to stop the Islamists from running wild, attacking Israel, etc.?
There will also be the large Salafist contingent in parliament to keep happy. The Salafists will build networks to protect and help Hamas and small groups that might want to attack Israel from Egypt. Indeed, large parts of the Sinai are already developing toward anarchy and becoming a safe haven zone for international terrorists.
Next, what happens when there is an Islamist parliament, a president who is either Islamist or dependent on Brotherhood support, and an Islamist constitution? Who is going to order Egypt’s army to crack down on Hamas and to close its facilities? Nobody.
And finally, what happens when Israel goes to the United States and asks President Obama to put pressure on Egypt to close down Hamas operations? Just guess.
Here’s a wonderful example of how this system works in another country. In Lebanon, Hizballah is creating its own secure strategic communications network without any government sanction. In one place, local people attacked workers building Hizballah facilities in their village. The Lebanese communications minister refused to interfere, supporting Hizballah’s actions. He explained that the Lebanese government accepted the project since almost anything was justified since Hizballah was fighting Israel. The opposition publication, NowLebanon, responded that this is “a phone network that will be used by Iran and Syria (let’s not mince words) to carry out its regional ambitions.”
But Lebanon’s government has no interest in restricting any war-making activities on Israel. So what can we expect in Egypt?
What counter-forces are going to make the problems go away? The army does not have to close Hamas facilities to maintain its own interests. Nor does it have to do so to keep U.S. aid. There is nothing that is going to block this from happening unless Hamas makes the huge mistake of interfering in Egyptian politics and becoming involved with those staging armed struggle within Egypt. Hizballah made that mistake a few years ago.
Want to know how Middle East politics really work? A couple of years ago Israel noted that the Egypt-Gaza smuggling level had gone way down. Western media praised Egypt for acting. In fact, what had happened was that Egyptian officers on the border had demanded a higher price in bribes; the smugglers had refused, so the officers had cracked down until they got more money at which point they opened the gates again.
I repeat: to point out the likelihood of such contingencies is of vital importance. The Israeli government is aware of these things and working to deal with them. What kind of planning and thinking for such dangerous situations is going on in the West? Little or none, because they don’t take these things seriously.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com